The ghost harbour

Stephen Bayley explores the hauntingly beautiful port of La Rochelle

It's the French Atlantic coast on a winter's night. I have been walking along the Esplanade St-Jean d'Acre in La Rochelle, the fortified capital of the ancient province of Aunis, and nowadays
chef-lieu of Charente-Maritime. It's the country of cognac and
coquillages... and it was black, cold, silent and utterly deserted.

It's the French Atlantic coast on a winter's night. I have been walking along the Esplanade St-Jean d'Acre in La Rochelle, the fortified capital of the ancient province of Aunis, and nowadays chef-lieu of Charente-Maritime. It's the country of cognac and coquillages... and it was black, cold, silent and utterly deserted.

There was only chilly Protestant masonry for company. The steel heels of my Tim Little loafers created an astonishingly sonorous echo, almost like grapeshot. La Rochelle is certainly a city of memories. By the time I reached the landmark Tour St-Nicolas and the Tour de la Chaîne (so called because the harbour whose entrance they mark was once protected by a huge chain strung between the two), I wanted to think that I could hear the calculating murmur of Cardinal Richelieu and the buffoonish squawk of the Duke of Buckingham.

Like most maritime people, the Rochelais were traditionally independent. Richelieu, tiring of their uppity, heretical Calvinism, laid siege to the town in 1628. King Charles I sent troops to help, with Buckingham in charge. The first expedition failed because of Buckingham's incompetence, the second because he was murdered. Not a lot has happened there since.

La Rochelle has always looked west. It was the starting point for French exploration of the Americas, but the ceding of Canada to England in 1763 took it out of the limelight. The Germans occupied in 1945, but were tricked into surrendering without any of the artistically damaging explosions that usually accompanied their advance or retreat. The resulting port has a remarkably consistent - and very beautiful - architecture: arcaded streets, handsome hôtels particuliers and large squares; serious fortifications by Vauban, genius of military architecture, that are much more intimidating than a silly chain; and a superbly austere (unfinished) cathedral by Ange-Jacques Gabriel. If you want to see what cold charity looks like, go to the Place Verdun and gaze at Gabriel's bare façade.

La Rochelle has been compared to Bruges and Dubrovnik, but I think it is more like Liverpool. It, too, has astonishing architecture, and is both physically and metaphorically the end of a road to nowhere. Accordingly, neither Liverpool nor La Rochelle has through traffic. There is no rush-hour, and each has a melancholic sense of displacement, of being stranded in the present with memories of past glories the most significant vital signs.

One of La Rochelle's most famous sons, the painter and critic Eugène Fromentin, noticed this. As an artist, Fromentin was influenced both by the quiet landscapes of Corot, but also the more turbulent compositions of Delacroix. And in this there is something of the character of La Rochelle: its setting is undramatic, but the tranquillity of life in a cul-de-sac can excite violent passions. Fromentin also wrote a slight novel called Dominique. Its subject is unconsummated adulterous lust, but more interesting still is his description of Ormesson, a fictional city modelled on La Rochelle: "[A] very small town, pious, gloomy, antiquated, buried in a provincial dead end, leading nowhere, serving no purpose... by day no bustle in the streets, at night no lights in the avenues; unfriendly silence, broken only by church chimes."

I came first to La Rochelle a quarter of a lifetime ago, by car. But this time I wanted to use the train. My purpose in 1983 was to take a tentative look at a French property, a task unresolved because of violent fluctuations in taste and finances, plus operational vectors imposed by children, each moderated by a fixed and unhelpful form of indecision. But, after a patch of relative clarity, we decided that La Rochelle had most of what we wanted, namely good weather, sea, food, character and reasonable accessibility from London. Driving is no longer a cheerful adventure, and since I dislike low-cost airlines (Ryanair flies to La Rochelle from Stansted), this two-day journey was to test the feasibility of long-distance commuting by rail.

The test did not have an auspicious start, for all the journey's elegant Proustian dynamic of memory and recollection. The Eurostar worked well enough, nowadays getting you to Lille-Europe from Waterloo as quickly as you travel from Euston to Birmingham. There was to be a theoretical short wait for a train to Poitiers, allowing enough time to watch a schoolmaster-type order two glasses of red wine while reading his L'Equipe (at 11.30am). Meanwhile, the passing blast of a speeding TGV blew my cup of acrid, mephitic espresso on to the station floor. They announced the platform for the Poitiers train. At this stage, even the experienced traveller suffers a bout of folie de gare, that strange anxiety with roots in a primal fear of being lost. I used to have this when I was a student, and was amazed to still have it. The dominant symptom is a continuous need for confirmation. It recedes only when the bibulous schoolmaster-type boards and gets his La Rochelle brochures out.

Relief. But then an announcement that the train is late. First 15 minutes, then half an hour. Now " un retard indéterminé". Cue much collective groaning. Folie de gare returns. This is the after-party of the French public-service unions strike. A lardy SNCF employee tells me, with theatrical solemnity, that my train " manque un contrôleur". I have now missed my connection in Poitiers, and also risk missing the Rochelais dinner that is my reward for Proustian experimentation. So I get off the train muttering "sod it", have lunch in Lille at L'Ecume des Mers, cadet of the famous A L'Huitrière, and catch the Eurostar home.

Several weeks later, I am in the same place. This time, the folie de gare symptoms have complicated into an anxiety about spontaneous, unanticipated strike action by truculent Frenchies, leaving me stranded in a field south of bleak Calais-Fréthun. But this time the system works fine. I comfortably make the Poitiers connection and sit down to watch the bande dessinée of France fly past my window.

Douai station, first stop. Surely the most depressing place in the world: a concrete bunker with a faded painted legend: " L'Avenir rural". Goodness, we are going at a clip. Nothing quite like a glass of Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais at 300km/h. Pretend briefly to be Paul Theroux or William Boyd, making these notes in an all-too-fresh Moleskine. Scenery? Not much of it really. So much TGV track is cut through bleak, flat farmland. And when the landscape gets interesting, the dirigiste engineers cut through it anyway. The view is of an embankment. Still, a nice numbness settles in on journeys like these. Just another hour to go. Won't bother opening a new magazine. On time in Poitiers, change trains in three minutes to a stopping TGV, and in La Rochelle an hour and 40 minutes later.

It is raining. I have booked into what the Michelin Rouge reckons is the best hotel in La Rochelle. There are key words such as " ancien", " bel jardin" and " superbement meublée". But how misleading they are. The Hotel Champlain is certainly a fine 18th-century hôtel particulier, with striking architectural details inside and out, but it has fallen into the hands of Best Western - hospitality's equivalent of a full-frontal lobotomy. All character has been corporately leeched from a building that is, by the way, on the wrong side of town. The lighting is village hall. And my room? Unfeasibly enormous, with several chiffonniers, sure, but these cannot compensate for caramel-coloured fluted tiles in the bathroom and an ill-tempered source of lukewarm water provided with a sound like an asthmatic hedge-strimmer. I rush out.

Next it's into the Café de la Paix, one of the ornaments of Rochelais life. It is a gorgeous room, but unlike Les Deux Garçons in Aix-en-Provence, which it resembles, it is lifeless. It's very likely that the fatal newness of the high-gloss brown furniture has this effect. Over a beer, I wonder whether Fromentin perhaps wrote his lines here.

You think: La Rochelle has no living culture but an impressive past one. The pompous academic painter William Bouguereau was born here. Just south, Rochefort was home to the exotic literary curiosity Pierre Loti. He is more-or-less unread today, but his local status is suggested by the prominence that the antiquaires still give to his books.

Jean-Paul Sartre was a short-sighted Rochelais écolier, but soon moved on, leaving a measure of existential funk behind. In Le Voyageur de la Toussaint, Georges Simenon describes the city. But today perhaps the liveliest concession to cultural curiosity is the quaint Musée du Flacon à Parfum in an old pharmacie at 33 rue du Temple.

And then there is the food. The Coutanceau family dominates La Rochelle's restaurants. The father, Richard Coutanceau, runs (the restaurant) Richard Coutanceau, whose two rosettes from Michelin tell us that it merits the detour that I now take through the dark and lonely streets. Set in a glassy pavilion on the beach, it is very "Michelin", with all the design signifiers of gastronomic ambition that its accolade demands. Which is to say, screaming kitsch. The walls are hung with middlebrow junk art, the sort you find in ambitious offices or show apartments. There is a very tricky ashtray, chandeliers made of rope, and a striped carpet whose accurate description is beyond the purchase of design vocabulary. These effects, together with an anticipation of pleasures and expenses to come, contribute to that pleasant subdued mumble that marks all restaurants that include first courses costing more than €50 (£36).

But the food does not disappoint. I much prefer simplicity to complexity, but Coutanceau's artifice achieves such precision in taste that the dishes demand and deserve concentration. So much so that I even put my newspaper down. I ate frogs' legs and snails with truffle-flecked potato purée, and a thrilling sorbet of roquette. Everything tasted exactly of what it was. Second course was fillets of red mullet with artichoke, an unusual combination that would have been equally brilliant except that the olives in the pepper-and-tomato coulis gave it a dirty taste. I drank a local Fiefs Vendéens (Mareuil 2003), a humble but decent companion on my dark, lonely evening.

The next morning was my opportunity to get forensic about La Rochelle as a place to spend time. The greyness was epic and Fromentin's words were still echoing as I negotiated a grand crème in the Café de la Paix. The shops? There's a Muji, but no fishmonger (although the superb 19th-century market is full of them at weekends). You learn to attenuate your pleasures: take coffee slowly, don't rush the paper. Do not have a beer before midday. But walk. Lots.

I walked to the beach and, it being midday, had a beer in the brasserie opposite Richard Coutanceau. The pleasant effect of flat, grey sea was more or less cancelled out by 1970s funk. My companions were pensioners also staring at the sea. Maybe they like The Pointer Sisters. Confident that I had saved enough Herald Tribune to get me through lunch, I went to the area around rue St-Jean Pérot, the town's restaurant quarter. Here, the big folklorique number is André, a shrine to marine vulgarity. Portholes, jolly sailors in puls marins, educational prints of the life aquatic... The jolly shuckers in wellies and berets outside were, a nice point this, given their oyster credits as if in a movie: M Brin: Fines de claires; M Gillardeau: Marennes.

Richard Coutanceau's son Grégory is La Rochelle's restaurant entrepreneur. He runs the world-food establishment Le Comptoir des Voyages, and Les Flots, a survivor of the old days. But I chose the new "Foodandbar" because its uncompromising modernity seemed a good test of whether La Rochelle had any present vitality. Empty when I arrived, it filled up rapidly. There was lots of kissy-kissy on the next table. The man wearing black, the woman leather trousers. He drank Coca-Cola Light and champagne. She smoked. Foodandbar divides its menu between " tradition" (provincial classics) and " évolution" (incongruous combinations, often including curry).

I ordered prawn cocktail and rognons de veau (veal kidneys). The first arrived in a glass cube, the second in an iron pot. The wine, I was relieved to note, arrived in a bottle. Sire du Donjon, La Maison de Maines was a local 2002 chardonnay. Happily no oak, less happily not much else. It was a good lunch, but I could have done better in London.

We say that we love France. I certainly do. Often. But it is not France that we love, rather what we have done there... in the past. Certainly, the French have many " équivalents de la richesse" in their food and their books and their institutions. But am I just being grumpy when I say that things are getting worse? When the TGV started, the food service was under the imprimatur of Joël Robuchon. A fiction, of course, but now they don't even pretend. Wagons-Lits is run by the Accord group and they will serve you an industrial sandwich. I tried to find La Rochelle's other Michelin-feted establishment, but was told " ça n'existe plus". You could, alas, say the same for my idea of France.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Rail Europe (08705 848 848; www.raileurope.co.uk) has returns to La Rochelle from £99 via Lille or Paris. The average journey takes 7 1/2 hours. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to La Rochelle in 90 minutes.

STAYING AND EATING THERE

Hotel France Champlain 20 rue Rambaud (00 33 5 46 41 23 99;

www.france-champlain.com). Doubles from €80 (£57), without breakfast.

Richard Coutanceau Plage de la Concurrence (00 33 5 46 41 48 19; www.coutanceauonline.com)

Le Bar André 7 rue Saint-Jean du Pérot - 8 place de la Chaîne (00 33 5 46 41 28 24; www.bar-andre.com)

Foodandbar 35 rue Saint-Jean du Pérot (00 33 5 46 52 26 69; www.coutanceauonline.com)

Musée du Flacon à Parfum, 33 rue du Temple (00 33 5 46 41 32 40). Open from 2.30pm-7pm on Monday; 10am-12noon and 2pm-7pm Tuesday to Saturday; closed in Sundays. Admission €4.50 (£3.20)

MORE INFORMATION

French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1J 9AL (09068 244123; www.franceguide.com)

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