Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Off to La Rochelle, France!

The Calm One needing to attend a seminar held in La Rochelle, a historic port situated on the Atlantic, prompted the latest donning of my photojournalist's cap. On our arrival we were met with an overcast sky and bouts of drizzle. He set off for his training session* in one direction while I went in the opposite to see the Old Port. Invigorating, brine-scented gusts were having their way with flexible parts of moored yachts causing them to creak and flap.

The port which once did a global trade of salt and cognac is just a three-hour train ride from our Angouleme.

After snugly zipping up my fleece jacket, cosseting my hands in a pair of chenille gloves, and taming my wind-blown hair with a stocking cap, I set off to explore. Striding across the planked pedestrian section of an unassuming, small bridge, I happened to look down and noticed through wide cracks the roiling sea not far below. Spooked, I jumped into the traffic and then just as quickly jumped back. As it was just me who reacted in this way, I realised my startle reflex would put surprised kitten to shame.

The bridge is on the middle right

It spans a tidal basin with moored boats

Leaving the port behind, I could see a cement structure looming ahead of me. At first I thought it was a ramp for skateboarders but as I came close, I discovered it was a memorial (titled La Vague/The Wave) dedicated to not only to people lost at sea but also to oceanic riches available to humanity.

Christian Renonciat is the sculptor

This rock sampire (Crithmum maritimum) is flourishing far away from the relative calm of the port.

Shortly after, I saw way off in the distance what I later found out to be a large marina. Fancying momentarily these hazy, upright sticks were the birthday candles adorning a floating seaweed cake made for an ancient denizen of the Deep was as relaxing as bopping about while filling my lungs with fresh air.

The marina is beyond the seawall & black jetty

Perhaps it was this same watery inhabitant who in a fit of pique punched a hole in a nearby sign describing 'improvements' being done in its home.

That's a patch of grey sky visible through the hole

The harbour development meant I could go no further. Sitting down at a picnic area, I enjoyed my packed lunch of Beef/Onion Peirogi, Italian salami, and mustard.

The old town and port are off in the distance

Soon it was time to visit the Aquarium. The atmosphere was a calming and cozy one with mostly darkened rooms which somewhat resemble sea caves with the advantage of visitors not being in the same condition as the fish, that is, wet! Its comprehensive focus is on how differences in global oceanic habitats such as the kind of sea floor, frequency of tides, and nutritive content underscore the connection with the species found.

The seahorse has fascinated humanity since ancient times. Being in commercial demand because of its use in traditional Asiatic medicine, fifty tons of dried seahorses are sold each year. As there is little regulation regarding their capture, numerous species of seahorse could be in danger of extinction. The Aquarium biologists raise zooplankton from desiccated eggs as these amazing fish eat only live prey.

This stingray was a delight to watch as it swam about, often close to the plexiglass.  How could someone not love that face?

Disclosure:  Since the camera flash can irritate marine life, that feature needs to be turned off. Unfortunately I was unaware of this restriction

The tub gurnard is an intriguing fish with its complementary colours of blue and orange. When changing direction, its pectoral fins seemingly would unfold in waves of fluttering, transparent, blue silk.

While enjoying a brief rest on a bench, I listened to the lazy sloshing of water contained in the open Lagoon tank. Its gorgeous tropical species were showcased beautifully.

Though I learned many interesting aspects about aquatic nature such as fish swimming in schools have a lateral sensory organ orienting them to the position of nearby companions--and sadly also about our detrimental impact on said nature--I found it equally interesting to discover how such a challenging endeavour as running the Aquarium is accomplished. Each of the fifteen experts working there to maintain the sixty-five tanks must be able to dive.

In order to keep the three million liters of water in a good state, it is mechanically and biologically filtered each hour and then topped up weekly with two hundred cubic meters of filtered seawater transported via tanker trucks from a source close to the town. To make way for the new water, an equivalent amount is removed which is treated and returned to the port. If you visit La Rochelle, make sure you allow adequate time to take in the wonders of this excellent Aquarium.

Some think that to get a true sense of a town you need to visit its marketplace or its churches or its bars or even its cemeteries. I would suggest its railroad station, especially if seeking respite from a wind that would not quit. Have I mentioned the station is a very pretty one?

Choosing a seat under a lovely, nautical wall mosaic, I noted a strong whiff of cedar. The bracing fragrance belonged to a large wooden cabinet directly to my left which turned out to be a dry toilet.

This accessible-to-the-handicapped, sweet-smelling, self-contained, spacious, unisex unit can be placed anywhere. Instead of flushing, you scoop out some cedar flakes which are placed in the toilet after use. A wall dispenser contained a quickly drying, liquid soap for hand washing. Just before departing La Rochelle, I whipped out my Amazing Shrink Gun and reduced the best toilet in the world to pocket size so I could take it home. Well of course I did not do that as it would be theft!

The next several days were sunny and bright with clear skies. The old port once again beckoned.

Looking past one of the two tidal basins towards the two, portal-gate towers (on the middle right)

The islands of AixOléron,  along with Fort Boyard (where the eponymous TV show is filmed) can be viewed from these old fortifications. The Île de Ré has an almost Mediterranean climate and is a second home to many celebrities. Gourmet salt harvested from its coast is internationally known.

Tour Saint-Nicolas & Tour de la Chaîne: the open sea is beyond these two fortress tours

Ferries and charter boats travel between La Rochelle and the islands though their scheduling is reduced substantially outside summer months as is the bus service to the islands having bridges. The oldest lighthouse on the Atlantic coast, La Tour de la Lanterne is on the left in the below photo. At one time it also was a prison--there are over six-hundred graffiti etched into its walls by imprisoned pirates during a span of three-hundred years.

The old quartier is just off the port.

Once entering the old town through a stone portal, I headed towards Parc Charruyer, a pastoral stretch of green flanking one side of the historic sector.

Within a small area, I recognised many plants and bushes often found in North America like Amelanchia, Ceanothus, and Sumac. A placard explained that this Coin des Cousins (Corner of the Cousins) delineates the historical and cultural connection between Canada and France. Samuel de Champlain who was a local boy had a lot to do with this liaison.

A bakery close to our residential hotel was the source for continental breakfasts.

Unsalted butter, pain à l’ancienne, croissant aux amandes/crème pâtissière, coffee & tourist pamphlets

Pain aux raisins & pain au chocolat

On our last day, I returned to the Aquarium to see an excellent lobby exhibit opened to the non-paying public about sea mammals.

The glass-walled segment consists of the Tropical Rain Forest exhibit, Aquarium shop, and a restaurant with a  great  harbour view

The back of the Aquarium resembles a large boat assembled from driftwood and replete with portholes.

The landscape gardeners appropriately chose grasses and wild flowers

Sea mammals like whales, dolphins, and sea lions evolved from land mammal ancestors.

Bones of a sea mammal fin and bones of a human arm

Beached animals which usually are dead are the basis of investigation regarding their habits. Among the possible contents of their stomachs, otolithes from the ears of eaten fish contribute evidence of their dietary intake.

Sea mammals--as is every other living creature including ourselves--are consistently endangered by human activity. An example is that our plastic detritus can be eaten by some mammals.

The contents of this jar was removed from one sea mammal

To take advantage more easily of all the wonderful parks and trails, there is a network of bicycles available throughout the town for convenient pickup and return. The registration machines are powered by the sun.

Yelo=velo (bicycle) + yellow so a French/English coinage

A splendid autumn display of mums

Anybody who knows me well is probably wondering, How come you did not get lost? Lost beyond redemption? So lost that even a desperate mobile phone call interrupting The Calm One could not result in you being found? As a New Yorker used to a straightforward grid of streets, the winding alleys, ginnels, and snickets of European towns obliterate whatever meagre sense of direction I have. As soon as we left the train station upon our arrival, The Calm One designated it as a highly visible landmark that would keep me from disappearing forever into a labyrinth of cobblestones. The tower functioned as a pre-homing device: once there I knew how to get to our digs. It worked!

The present station whose construction was interrupted by World War I is the town's second

À la prochaine!

*The organization sponsoring The Calm One's teacher training seminar is Les Petites Débrouillards,  a non-profit group whose emphasis is to 'defog' science for schoolchildren, especially disadvantaged kids. It origins are Canadian dating back to the 1970s when acceptance/appreciation of science was fading. While I was out and about, he was learning how to build and launch water rockets among other things. It's hard to decide which one of us had the best time: the computer scientist/historian or the nature geek.


How to make pain à l’ancienne, a slack dough bread very easy to do
Chardin's painting, The Ray
The official site for the La Rochelle Aquarium
The official site for La Rochelle, France


A short visit to Cognac
Off to Hyères