I’ve just checked into a mundane hotel in La Rochelle, a port town for all seasons situated along the Atlantic between Bordeaux and the Loire, three hours from Paris by train. I set down my bags, verify that my room overlooking the trashcans is quiet, suitable, and heated, and then go out.
I am not a seafaring man. My ancestors took several billions of years to evolve from the deep; I see no reason to go back. But give me a safe old port town on a misty evening, even on a cold winter’s night like this, and I’ll wander about for hours as if looking for chance.
It’s Friday evening, late December. Church bells have just rung 6 o’clock. The streets are full of townies, visitors from the countryside, and Brits on holiday.
This is my fourth or fifth visit to La Rochelle in the past 15 years. I’ve visited in different seasons; I’ve stayed in several of its better hotels and now one of its lesser; I’ve come on a romantic getaway, on a weekend writing retreat with a friend, and on a press trip. The love lapsed, the writer friendship cooled, and the book long out of print, the only trace I have of those visits is my fondness for wandering this town.
This time I’ve come for a 24-hour portside pause before my good friend Didier comes to pick me up to spend a few days with him, his wife, and their three little girls in the flat, soggy landscape of Vendée to the north of La Rochelle.
Despite the cold, or perhaps because of it, I’m looking forward to those countless steps that are necessary to find the perfect place to come in from the cold—steps of indecision that no lover, or friend, or press attaché would endure. Having company requires making decisions, otherwise someone is sure to get edgy. Solitary wandering thrives on indecision, edgy comfort being one of the rewards of such travels.
The shops are busy and brightly lit, the weekenders have arrived, young folk are text messaging where and when to meet, little kids are getting cranky, lines form in the bakeries, and no one stops at a stand of local writers selling their wares at the little square in the pedestrian zone.
I speak with one of the writers long enough to feel guilty that I’m not going to buy his murder mystery that takes place on Ile de Ré, an island two off the coast, and so promise him that, not wanting to carry a book around with me all evening, I’ll be back tomorrow. “I’ll be here,” he says, well aware that I won’t.
I enter the courtyard of City Hall, the centerpiece of the Old Town. A dozen others mill about examining the details between the showy crenellation of the outer wall and the decorative stonework of the arcades. I find the details that I remember from previous visits: there’s Prudence, there’s Justice, there’s Force, there’s Temperance adding water to her wine; there, decorating a keystone in the corner, is the sculpted head, circa 1600, of an American Indian child with headdress. There’s the ceramic statue of Henri IV, France’s Protestant-cum-Catholic king, overlooking the courtyard.
I walk on through the Clock Tower to the Old Port and leave the crowds for a nighttime view from the other side of the port, where I see La Rochelle’s three main medieval towers and the lights strung along the waterfront. There’s the Chain Tower and the Saint Nicolas Tower at the entrance of the port. There, further back, is the Lantern Tower, one of France’s oldest surviving lighthouses.
I’m cold. I should go inside somewhere. I head back to the active side the port then walk up rue Saint-Jean-du-Pérot, La Rochelle’s main restaurant row, where tables are beginning to fill. The end of the street is like a barrier beyond which no pedestrians venture on this cold night. I continue on though, past Richard Coutenance, the town’s premier restaurant, past the small zoo I know to be back in the dark in the park, and over to Le Mail (The Mall), the long stretch of lawn bordered one side by a row of elegant homes and apartments and on the other by a hedge of bushes and trees. Behind the bushes there’s a beach. I stand there for a minute in the bone-chilling damp looking out to the estuary at night. No, I am not a seafaring man. I return to Le Mail.
I look into the restaurant also called Le Mail. The restaurant is stunningly Hopperesque at night, full of light and grief and solitude and warmth. A wonderful sight, as well as a nice place for ice cream, I remember, on a sunny day.