We’d had a day at sea aboard Sapphire Princess after leaving Guernsey before we hit land halfway down France on its Atlantic coast. Now, when we’d originally booked this cruise the planned stop was at the port of Le Verdon-sur-Mer and our plans for the planned stop were to engage in an excursion to a cognac distillery (we are fond of doing excursions in ports and not just wasting our time there) but – not for the first time – on boarding the ship we’d found a sheet of paper in our room explaining that there was a strike due on at the port and that alternative arrangements were being made, these being to put us ashore at La Rochelle instead with discussions ongoing regarding the booked excursions.
Tip: Never actually expect you’re going to get into a French port
The bad element of this particular stop on the cruise was that Princess Cruises were not very good at explaining what was happening here, which was a shame. Their remarks both on the paper and over the ship’s speakers implied to us that our excursion was possibly still viable (especially as it was inland and roughly equidistant from the original and new French ports), only needing a different pick-up point for the coaches. This was not the case as we eventually discovered after wandering into the shore excursions centre on the night before landfall to enquire as to its status: it had been well-and-truly cancelled but look, here are some other trips we can book you on! We declined a booked excursion.
The great element of this particular stop on the cruise was that La Rochelle was utterly gorgeous and everyone who’d been to it and Le Verdon-sur-Mer before agreed it was a much better destination. Indeed, a cynical person might wonder why a cruise line would choose the latter port (nowhere near anything of much interest) over the former (plenty of things for people to do on their own) in the first place. But who’s cynical?
The view from our balcony on Sapphire Princess on the morning of our only French stop of the cruise was towards the small island Île de Ré, connected to the mainland by the Pont de Ré.
Having declined a booked excursion we took advantage of the free shuttle bus service provided by Princess and/or the La Rochelle port authority and ventured into the coastal city (about 15-20 minutes away, I think) for an explore on our own for a change. We were dropped off along the Avenue du Général de Gaulle not far off being opposite the tourist information centre where we were reminded about the last bus back to the ship and left to our own devices. One of the first things you’ll see in this area of La Rochelle is one of those big wheels that seem to have popped up across the world in every major city with something worth looking at from the air.
West of us as we’d got off the coach was an area of parkland and an open square near the city’s aquarium. Our plan was to visit that later (and we would; that’s in a future post) but our attention was drawn to the medieval towers along the walls protecting the Old Harbour (Vieux Port) so we headed roughly north as that’s where everyone else was heading. This took us past an area where a small set of amusement rides were set up, a statue to heroes of the city, and one of two lighthouses in the port area, this one being coloured green for navigation purposes.
We hugged the harbour and its marina area and made our way down the Quai du Carénage towards the nearest of the three tours, the Tour Saint-Nicolas de la Rochelle. The view from this part of La Rochelle was gorgeous, taking in the fairly quiet port area and the medieval fortifications as well as the numerous establishments set up to take advantage of the scenery. Summer evenings in La Rochelle must be fantastic.
As we approached the tower we discovered that a pedestrian swing bridge was currently open to allow a couple of yachts to exit and enter a small quay. Not the most amazing of things to witness but it was the first time I’d seen one in operation so I had to take some video.
Across the swing bridge we found the second of the two lighthouses, this being the red counterpart to the one we’d seen before, as well as a little bit of street art. We didn’t know it at the time but that street art marked the northern boundary of a small area of La Rochelle called Belle du Gabut. We would be spending quite a bit of time in there later in the day (and, again, in a later post).
There were a number of people around the Tour Saint-Nicolas de la Rochelle as we approached but they quite clearly were not venturing inside the tower. We even saw one group approach the door, look at a sign, shrug, then leave. This made us suspect that we couldn’t get in which would have been a shame except this wasn’t true; it’s been a while since I studied any French but my skills were just enough to understand that the tower would open at 10:00 (it was a few minutes before that at this time) and that there were prices for entry to one, two, or three towers, but one of them (not this one) was closed for repairs and prices were reduced a fraction accordingly. I was quite pleased with what I’d read and so we spent the time before the door to the tower opening taking a few more shots of the scenery of the city, remarking to ourselves that a large bank of cloud seemed to be descending rather quickly. Luckily, this would burn off in due course and our views from the towers (next post) were not unduly hampered.