Part II of a 3-part series that begins with night.
The following morning is sunny and cool. I have breakfast in a café facing the port. I visit the Saturday morning market in and around Les Halles, the covered food market on Place du Marché.
I meet with the president of the La Rochelle Tourist Office. He tells me much I didn’t know about local history, local politics, local characters and town planning, while we drink bad coffee.
I return to the Old Town. A haze of clouds is moving in.
I enter the massive, graceless cathedral looking for a chapel of ship-theme ex-votos. Every port town has one. A sign tells me that 2008 is the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec.
There’s a little crafts market on the vast square in front of the cathedral. One man sells fruit-scented fruit-shaped candles. He invites me to smell them, which I do, but the granny smith candle doesn’t smell like a granny smith apple, the tangerine candle doesn’t smell like a tangerine, and so on. I tell him so. He answers that the problem is my nose not his candles, but that they do smell stronger when they’re lit, only 2 euros. I tell him they’re pretty anyway.
I admire the proud 19th-century décor of Café de la Paix. I love those historical grand cafés even when they no longer exude much in the way of class. A waiter asks if I want lunch. I say no, just looking, and leave.
I walk down a street paved with stones brought from the banks of the Saint Lawrence River that were used to weigh down ships carrying beaver furs from Canada. The full story of that trade is told in the Musée du Nouveau Monde (Museum of the New World), where tapestries, painting, and sculptures show how Europeans perceived the New World as an innocent and exotic child, like the Indian at City Hall, and maps in the museum show the Americas as unformed continents, the definition of their eastern seaboards giving way to vague interiors, which is pretty much as I imagine them even today. I consider going into the museum now that I know that 2008 is the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec, but I visited the museum 10 years ago and don’t feel like going back.
So I go to the Natural History Museum, expecting the worst.
The man at the front desk clearly is not the usual ticket seller; he’s much too happy to assist me to actually have the job. I ask if I’m the museum’s only visitor and he says cheerfully, “No, a family of four came in just two minutes ago and others are sure to follow after lunch, it’s barely 2.” After he gives me my ticket he comes around the counter to show me the map of the museum and then spontaneously summarizes the floor plan as follows: “Right behind you in that first room you’ll see exhibits about the coast and the marshes, then you go downstairs to see fossils and, you know, other fossils. Then you go upstairs where you’ll see stuffed animals, bears and everything, and birds. Then on the last two floors you’ll see a lot of things brought back by, you know, people who go places and, you know, bring things back.”
It’s the best introduction to a museum I’ve ever heard.
I can’t resist asking him if he actually works here. He says no, he’s just filling in for “one of the girls” for a few minutes.
The Natural History Museum does indeed have a wonderful collection of things and stuff. In the section of primed, stuffed, and mounted animals, insects, and fish from the high times of naturalism of the late 18th to early 20th centuries, I feel thankful that there are people in this world curious enough to go places and bring back things that don’t bear trademarks.
In the sections on anthropology and shamanism I understand that the progress of civilization is food, shelter, and freedom from man-to-man violence and from religious terror and that whatever steps back from that can still be called civilization but not progress.
The highlight of the museum for me is the giraffe. It’s found on the landing between two floors. This is the stuffed remnant of what had been the first live giraffe brought to France, a gift from the viceroy of Egypt Mehemet Ali to France’s King Charles X in 1825. The giraffe debarked at Marseille then walked in a grand parade all the way to Paris, where it then lived for 17 ½ years in the Jardin des Plantes (Botanical Garden).
I’d previously thought that Mehemet’s greatest gift to Charles was the Obelisk, originally from the Temple of Luxor, that he gave in 1829 and that now stands gold-tipped at the center of Paris’s Place de la Concorde. Yet the giraffe and the affection it spawned seem far more meaningful. In themelves, the sight of the giraffe and the way those bare facts play on the imagination make standing in this stairwell worth the trip to La Rochelle.
Travel snobs believe that knowledge is primary when visiting museums but it is at best fourth after marvel, the restrooms, and other visitors’ expressions, all at which are found at La Rochelle’s biggest draw of a museum, the Aquarium, one of Europe’s largest.
Using the audio-guide I explore the underwater world for nearly two hours and hear a host of fascinating tidbits about creatures living in all kinds and depths of sea. I quite enjoy discovering the diversity of those worlds you’d got to be crazy to want to put tanks on your back to see in situ. But the best part about this museum experience is listening to English children asking their parents “why” questions about bizarre fish and hearing the parents answer “That’s just the way they are.”
Between “things brought back by people who go places and bring things back” and “that’s just the way they are” the Natural History Museum and the Aquarium at La Rochelle sum up all that I ever hope to encounter in a museum.
The church bells are ringing when Didier meets me by the port at 6, exactly 24 hours after my arrival. I tell him I’ve missed him. He says he doesn’t believe me because if it were true I wouldn’t have waited so long to come back.
© 2008 by Gary Lee Kraut