|A happy cyclist in La Rochelle|
We had a plan at the beginning of the week, but sometimes plans don’t always go to plan. We were going to drop Ed at lycée in Melle at 7.30am on Monday and continue the drive west to Coulon in the Marais Poitevin. There we would swap the car for the bikes, pick up the Vélo Francette and follow it out of the Deux Sèvres into the Vendée, where we would stop for morning coffee at Damvix and then lunch in Marans, before arriving in La Rochelle in the Charente Maritime in the early afternoon. We cycled some of this route last September and our photos show blue skies, sunshine and a beer stop in Marans where we had to sit in the shade. We know the path is easy going, well marked and with riverside or canal views all the way. Last time we had to turn around at Marans and retrace our steps, hurrying back to sit in a parents meeting at Ed’s school, despite our hot and sweaty state, so we were looking forward to completing the route, cycling the 67kms into La Rochelle, enjoying an evening stroll and a meal by the harbour before staying the night at the Best Western Masqhotel.
Monday morning dawned and it was so wet on the school run that most of the landscape had disappeared into the low-lying cloud and the edges of the roads were flooded. We could have rowed to La Rochelle, but as driving was unpleasant we decided cycling (even with wet weather gear) would be impossible. Adrian also had reservations about turning up in the foyer of a nicely decorated 4* hotel dripping wet and leaving puddles on their floor, but I reasoned if a hotel wants to welcome cycle tourists they need to welcome soggy ones as well as sweaty ones. However a quick phone call to the hotel reception confirmed that sunny La Rochelle was also wet, but they were happy to change our reservation to the Tuesday night. The forecast showed some improvement to the weather on Tuesday and Wednesday, so we spent a lazy day on Monday, watching the rain and drinking coffee to keep our spirits up.
You have no idea how disappointed I was to open the bedroom shutters on Tuesday morning to see heavy rain falling again. We took our time getting ready and miraculously we actually began to see the sun and some shadows falling across the road on our drive to Coulon. However, the wind turbines we passed were turning with such force and vigour we knew we would be battling a head wind all the way to the coast. The weather so far this year seems to have been wild, wet and windy, calm and cloudy or on those rare days where the sun has appeared, it has been warm but windy too.
|Vélo Francette, direction The Ocean|
Cycling the Vélo Francette and following signs to The Ocean is exciting, even if we aren’t too far from home or doing the route for the first time. It was a shame we forgot that the marked route as you leave Damvix is pot holed, puddled and not nice to cycle along, while the opposite bank (which you join at the first weir) is flat and smooth-surfaced, but it is then a mostly straight route with the river to the right and holiday houses to the left all the way to Marans. There are some traditional stone houses with wisteria or climbing roses adding bright colour against the cream stone, others are small cottages with flowery gardens, but many are tiny wooden cabins, with names like Le Nid (the nest) and shady gardens with big barbeques ready to host large family get-togethers. Most were still tightly shuttered up, their season not yet started, although there were a few fishermen in residence, quietly watching the rather choppy waters of the wind-battered river. It may have been downhill all the way, but cycling into the wind gave a pretty good impression of cycling uphill. Just before Marans we cycled past market gardens with polytunnels of tomatoes and Vendéen strawberry fields full of ripe fruits. In Marans we had a picnic on the steps of the church where the wind made light work of moving the tin of paté from one side of the step to the other and we realised how chilly it was once we stopped peddling.
|Vélo Francette La Rochelle|
After Marans the Vélo Francette follows the canal south to Dompierre-sur-Mer and I was worried that the cross winds would topple me into the canal, but thankfully a protective hedge kept the path sheltered and the wild elderflower ensured a pleasant and fragrant ride. We have a bit of a holiday tradition, even on short breaks, to buy an afternoon patisserie and Dompierre provided a small square, set back from the road with a bar and a boulangerie. We were able to have a refreshing beer/Orangina with a slice of flan/fruit tarte before the final ten kilometres into La Rochelle.
|Safe and secure bike storage at the Masqhotel La Rochelle|
|Our bedroom at the Masqhotel La Rochelle|
Finding the Masqhotel was easy as it is situated on the Vélo Francette route just as you arrive in La Rochelle. We were given access to the underground car park, where we found the bike storage that was safe, secure and dry and we were happy to leave our trusted steeds for the night. Our room was clean, bright and colourful with original artwork and finding a bath for our achy legs was a real luxury. See here for my full hotel review for Freewheeling France.
|A sunny, but windy spot for an evening beer|
We quickly made ourselves at home and once freshened up set off to wander around the old port. Staying for the night was a real treat as La Rochelle is only an hour and a half away by car, so is normally a day trip location, or somewhere where I’m treated to a coffee after picking Adrian up from the airport. This time there was no need to rush, no need to think about the drive home, just plenty of time to browse the boutique shops, peruse the restaurant menus and enjoy a beer in the sun watching the assortment of bikes and cyclists go by. We even got treated to a lovely sunset over the harbour on our way back to the hotel after dinner; a three course meal on the quayside with a kir aperitif and wine that cost less than 50€.
The comfy bed ensured I slept really well, despite Adrian’s fiddling with the ipod dock/alarm clock, which resulted in a timer going off at 1.55am. Honestly, give him gadget and he has to have a fiddle. The breakfast was generous with hot and cold food and was the first place I’ve ever stayed to offer Champagne as standard at the breakfast buffet. They originally offered it as part of a St Valentine’s Day special, then decided it would be a great idea to keep it on the menu, I love places that have ideas like that!
|Café de la Paix La Rochelle|
It was difficult to pack our panniers and leave such a lovely place behind and if you ever want somewhere special to stay in La Rochelle (and everyone should visit La Rochelle at least once) then I can recommend the Masqhotel, whether you arrive with your bikes or not. To cheer me up, Adrian promised me a morning coffee in my favourite café, Café de la Paix, with it’s painted ceilings, gilt mirrors and wood panelling. I never refuse an offer of coffee here and it was the perfect farewell to a lovely night in La Rochelle.
Our journey back to Coulon was a 60km ride on back roads, mainly through the villages of the Marais Poitevin but included a stop at the Resistance memorial in Saint Sauveur d’Aunis. We have driven past this memorial many times over the years as it is visible from the main dual carriageway between Niort and La Rochelle and it has been something we have wanted to learn more about. We now know it commemorates the ‘Poche de La Rochelle’ and the intense fighting that took place prior to the liberation of La Rochelle in 8th May 1945, almost nine months after the liberation of Paris.
We might be home, but we are already looking forward to our next visit to La Rochelle as well as our next big cycling adventure.