It was hot in La Rochelle – more noticeably so on account of us just emerging from a pleasant visit to the aquarium into the shadeless city streets – and we’d explored enough, we thought (a visit to the medieval towers and a wander through the park before the aquarium), to reward ourselves with a beer, preferably something local, before possibly making our way back to the Sapphire Princess and its heavenly air-conditioned interior.
Our plan, therefore, was to head due north from the aquarium back towards La Rochelle harbour. It was the place we’d seen the vast majority of bars and restaurants with outdoor seating and we figured that if we could find a spare table then the views looking back to the water and the towers beyond would mark a lovely end to a great day in a surprisingly excellent French city. As we started to walk, however, I glanced to my left and spotted the distant sight of some street art. It didn’t look like the most amazing examples of artwork but they were clearly bright and colourful and as this would only detour us a couple of minutes to take a look at off we went to take a nose and some photos.
Following the artwork around a corner we suddenly found ourselves in a square area surrounded by clearly temporary set-ups; walls of buildings were decorated in large art pieces too; there was a stage area (unoccupied but clearly ready for something to happen); tables of varying sorts with chairs of even more varying sorts were spread out around the place. We could see they sold beer and we were after beer and we could also see plenty of spaces to sit at so we shrugged (well, when in France…) and decided we’d try the place out, figuring we could always make our way to the harbour afterwards.
We ordered a couple of beers. A quick read from the selection on offer led us to choosing a locally-brewed ambrée.
“Deux ambrées, s’il vous plaît,” I said, my GCSE in French finally getting a workout after decades of inactivity.
“You would like small or large?” asked the woman behind the bar, instantly ascertaining we were not natives despite my best local accent.
“Large, please,” I responded.
“Oh, of course!” she said. “You are English!”
We laughed at this arguably justifiable stereotypical view of the nation’s drinking habits and I made a mental note to throw in a reference to shrugging when I eventually got around to writing this experience up as vengeance.
The beer was just what we needed. Cold, lovely taste, maybe a little more expensive than a pint back home but not scarily so. Served in plastic glasses so not perfect but you could understand why they were doing that. We took the weight off our feet and sat in the French sunshine, enjoying our drinks and soaking up the ambience of the area. Generally, when we’re travelling we prefer to do and see things rather than sit around and just eat or drink so when we do treat ourselves to some rest time like this it makes it more relaxing, more special, and that’s possibly why within minutes of simply sitting there and savouring the beer and surroundings we both agreed we loved the place and we might just stay for another.
I brought our empty glasses back to the bar and asked for another round.
“Oh, you want another!?” asked the woman at the bar, obviously expecting us to one-and-run from the place.
“We’re English!” I said, explaining everything and justifying her earlier remark.
I then mentioned how lovely this little area was and how much we loved the look and feel of the place (which seemed to surprise her) and asked more details about it. She explained that it was called Belle Du Gabut and was a temporary event, completely free, running from May until September, this being its second year in operation but hopefully not its last. Along with the beers to take back to our seats I was handed a flyer with some more information of the programme for May and some links (Facebook and Instagram) which do a good job of showing just how varied and interesting this part of La Rochelle is.
Our second drinks became third drinks and Belle du Gabut started to fill with more people (we didn’t hear anyone speaking anything other than French so it all felt very local and very much the sort of experience we like when we travel; there’s nothing worse than getting away from it all in the company of people just like you). On our third drinks someone from the bar area helpfully came across and put up a parasol over our seats giving us nearly the only shade in the space. There was possibly some concern that us foreigners might die in the relentless sun and put a downer on the day for everyone else or it might just have been luck where we were sitting; in any event, it was very welcome and we could look around the place with somewhat less squinting than we’d been doing.
We loved the laid-back bohemian or hippy vibe to Belle Du Gabut and the variety of things on offer (the majority of which weren’t open for business at the time we arrived, though). In addition to areas providing food, drinks, theatre performances, music, yoga, and massage we noticed an area for kids to play in and there were quite a few family groups present at this time too so Belle du Gabut certainly seemed to cater for everyone. Something that typified the whole feel of the place were the toilets: unisex cubicles decorated in different styles by different artists. We made sure to pick a different cubicle each time we went (three (or was it four by now?) beers in the sun made sure we had plenty of opportunities) so that we could take photos in all of them.
Finally, though, it came time for us to make our way from Belle Du Gabut back to Avenue du Général de Gaulle where we’d been dropped on arrival in La Rochelle in order to catch the last coach back to the cruise ship. I grabbed a few parting shots of some of the street art we’d passed on the way in and some occasional photos on the fairly short walk to the pick-up point.
Of course, one of the things about afternoon drinking and having a camera is that sometimes you take pictures of odd things and you don’t know why. Worse, sometimes you don’t even remember taking the photo. Finding this portrait on my memory card came as a bit of a surprise to me. I have no recollection of taking this man’s photo and couldn’t tell you who he was, where he was from, or why I took the picture.
He seems happy, though, and in a weird and surprising way he almost sums up this weird and surprising visit to a fabulous little part of La Rochelle, a city we would not hesitate to return to or recommend. And if you’re visiting there in the summer months and looking for something a little different when it comes to relaxation and entertainment then popping into Belle du Gabut is well worth some of your time too.