Our 10th summer house exchange, to La Rochelle, France, was unlike any exchange we have ever done., but probably one of our best.
We knew from the pictures that our exchange family sent to us, and from the Google Earth and Street views that we looked up, that this was going to be special. When we arrived, our expectations were, to say the least, exceeded.
The house was built at the turn of the last century. During World War II, when La Rochelle was a base for German U-boats, the house was used to billet Nazi officers (thankfully, no bad karma remained). La Rochelle was the last city in France to be liberated.
When we do an exchange we love to use the exchange house as a base for further exploration, often doing at least two overnight trips. On this exchange, we barely moved. In fact, we only used the car three times: twice for groceries and once to visit the beach and some lighthouses on Île de Ré. Karen and I were both exhausted from our work when we arrived, and that may have been a contributing factor, but the main reasons were the incredible house and city that we got to stay in. With our own chateau and private pool, we had no desire to leave. And the historic city centre was just steps away.
We quickly developed a beautiful routine: lattes in bed; a morning run through the park, ending at the local bakery to pick up treats for breakfast and a baguette for our lunch; a walk into the city to shop or just explore; back home for lunch by the pool; the afternoon in and around the pool; happy hour by the pool; and finally a walk into town for dinner at one of the many restaurants on the Old Harbour, and a walk back home under the stars.
The oldest part of La Rochelle is centered around the Old Harbour. This part of the city was surrounded by a defensive wall, parts of which still stand today, and the narrow entrance to the Old Harbour is guarded on each side by a massive tower. A thick chain was extended between the towers at night to secure the harbour from invading ships. Most of the settlers of New France (Quebec) sailed from this harbour, and the museum in one of the towers is dedicated to this history (and even flies the flag of Quebec, the fleur-de-lys).
West of the old city wall is the city’s largest park, Parc Charruyer. Our house was three blocks west of the park, so every walk into the city took us through the beautiful park.
La Rochelle is known for its many streets lined with arcades (covered sidewalk supported by arches), which give the historic city centre so much character. I read somewhere that the buildings were built this way to avoid taxes, while another source says they were a source of taxes, paid by the merchants who traded under them. In any case, it was always a highlight of our day to walk along these ancient corridors.
Our one big excursion while in La Rochelle was a trip to nearby Île de Ré (Re Island). Île de Ré is connected to La Rochelle by a 3km-long bridge. We biked from our house to the charming and historic seaside village of Saint Martin. On the way back we passed through the picturesque fishing village of La Flotte, and stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient abbey, once an important pilgrimage site but long since abandoned. We clicked about 50km round trip and were a bit saddle sore the next day.
Our only excursion by car was an afternoon that Oliver and I spent on Île de Ré, swimming at a beautiful beach and exploring the amazing lighthouses at the far end of the island.
A trip to France would not be complete without a visit to Paris, so we booked a day there before our flight home. It was a sad morning when we said goodbye to La Rochelle. We returned to Paris by train (about a 3 hour trip), checked into our hotel near the Montparnasse station, and, on Oliver’s orders, took the metro directly to the Eiffel Tower. He was thrilled to see it. The lineup to get to the top was ridiculously long, and technically he had already been to the top (as a 4-month old during our first house exchange), so we just enjoyed it from below.
On our final morning I convinced Oliver to join me on a quick visit to see Notre Dame and the Latin Quarter before leaving for the airport. It was incredible to stand in front of Notre Dame in Paris in the morning, and to be watch the sun set from our deck at home on Vancouver Island that evening.