Since it was raining when I got up in my multi-coloured room, I was relieved that my plans for this morning didn’t require me to cycle off to yet another soaking. I’d booked my train ticket from Les Sables-D’Olonne to Rochefort. The principal reason for this decision had nothing to do with the weather but rather concerned the difficulties of cycling around the Baie d’Aiguillon. I’d been able to see from the tourist information on the region that although there were cycle-routes around the area, there was no easy route to La Rochelle that didn’t involve a long detour. This detour not only struck me as pointless in such an unattractive region, but I also lacked the time in the two weeks I had given myself to complete the project. It was partly for the same reason that I abandoned my plans to cycle down the coast of the Landes as far as Lacanau before striking inland to Bordeaux; though time-constraints played a role as well.
I had a solitary breakfast in the incongruously ornate dining-room of the Hôtel Arc-en-Ciel and
trundled down to the station. When the train arrived, I got into the wrong carriage and found myself unable to rectify the error because it was impossible to push the bike along the corridor to the right one. So I sat down in the first available seat and fielded the inevitable uncomprehending questions from the ticket-inspector as to why I wasn’t occupying my reserved place.
On arrival in La Rochelle, I conducted myself on a tour of the town, the port,
the arcaded streets,
the odd notable building, such as the town hall that earned its place in history through its role in the resistance to the Nazi oppressor.
Then I was ready to continue my ride.
Finding the cycle-track out of the town in the direction of Rochefort proved quite difficult. It seems that those responsible for the sign-posting of cycle-routes take no account of the needs of the long-distance bicycle-traveller and assume that cycle-track users are going to be local and in possession of local knowledge. I was forced to ask local cyclists how to find the piste and one helpful chap, rather than providing verbal directions, simply conducted me – at an astonishingly high speed for a bloke of his age – to the point at which there was no longer any chance of my getting lost. “You just follow the sign-posts from here to Rochefort” he told me, “you can’t go wrong. It’s over there.” I don’t know when it was that he last did the trip himself, but I was to find that his instructions were a bit over-optimistic. He was right about the sign-posting; but he was wrong about the cycle-track itself. The signs were perfectly clear, but February’s storm Xynthia had simply washed away large portions of the piste that ran along the coast. This area of marshland between La Rochelle and Rochefort appeared to have suffered particularly badly from the tidal surge. The red line on the map; beneath indicates what I believe to have been my route from La Rochelle to Rochefort, though I will never know whether this is in fact the route I took, since there were too many dead ends, wrong turnings, hopeful detours and simple use of a compass for me to be sure.
It was during my ride between the two towns I saw the most obvious signs of the fury of Xynthia. The bit between La Rochelle, Aytré,
Angoulins and Châtelaillon-Plage was easy enough, but beyond that, where the land turned again to marsh and there was nothing to stop the sea rushing in, the wreckage became more obvious.
I saw what had once been caravan-parks reduced to tracts of wasteland littered with shattered piles of caravans, personal effects and general rubbish. Many of the little housing estates, too, had been wrecked and were still littered with debris. There were even still a few battered wrecks of cars. People were still living in their recently flooded homes, however, and had daubed them with all manner of anti-government slogans to the effect that they would resist any effort to eject them from their properties. The government had designated certain of the flooded areas as zones noires which meant that the houses built upon them were to be demolished, as the risk of flood damage was simply too great. The local inhabitants were incensed at this administrative insensitivity and reacted with Gallic fury to Sarkozy’s high-handed measures, barricading themselves in their homes, demonstrating noisily on the streets of the towns and painting defiant and insulting notices on walls and fences.
The result of all of this devastation for my particular project was that though the sign-posts indicating the cycle-route to Rochefort were still pathetically in place or at least visible on the ground, the cycle-track itself, if it hadn’t been swept away, had in many places simply disappeared under a thick layer of rubble and detritus. Most of it was unusable and I spent the best part of my day retracing my route and scouting around for alternatives.
I had originally booked a hotel room in Fouras, since according to the tourist office there was a good cycle-track linking the coastal village to the centre of Rochefort. Once I discovered that this cycle-track had in large part ceased to exist, I had to cancel my booking and, having arrived in Rochefort at around five (a good two hours later than I expected) I went to the Tourist Office to look for a hotel in the centre of town. Once installed in the Hôtel La Fayette [see:http://www.hotel-lafayette-rochefort.fr/], I freshened up and went to take a look around town.
My first aim was to see the famous Pont Transbordeur over the river Charente. Since Rochefort appears to have little in the way of public transport – at least in the old central part, I set off on foot. I could see the bridge in the distance,
but it was a lot further away than I judged and the return was on foot, too, since buses appeared not to be running. The bridge itself, though generally open for use by pedestrians and cyclists, was not actually functioning, having been temporarily closed pending repairs. So I didn’t get my ride. Its general rather rickety appearance, however, reminded me of my own childhood trips on the similar Transporter Bridge across the Mersey that we used to take when setting off for family holidays. I vividly remember driving onto the swaying platform wracked by delicious shuddering at the possibility of falling off the other side (something that periodically happened to clumsy drivers who over-estimated the ability of the platform’s flimsy barrier to check their incompetent manoeuvring).
The creaking, groaning, juddering progress of the platform across the river, dangling on long cables, was one of the highlights of our yearly trips to South Devon and I wanted to see if Rochefort’s equivalent of our transporter bridge was a similar Heath Robinson affair. Unfortunately, it turned out to be impossible to get close enough to judge this with any accuracy. But from the permitted distance, it certainly looked as hair-raising as I expected.
Rochefort is a rather boring little town.
The central area is laid out in a grid pattern, though the surrounding districts are the usual ugly jumble characteristic of provincial French suburbs. I had a modest dinner in a café on the central square, the Place Colbert, drank a few beers and retired to my hotel room. There’s little to do for a long distance cyclist in a provincial French town other than drinking, eating and sleeping. There are places to visit in the town, but the day’s exertions make tourism a bit of a chore. The hotel room was vibrating with the noise of some large electrical device nearby and I expected to have to complain to the management. As it happened, I fell asleep as I was contemplating this action and didn’t wake up until my alarm sounded at 6.30.