LaRochelle, France (April 27, 2022)

Today taught us five ways to avoid looking like a rookie:

  1. Refer to an establishment that distills cognac as a house of cognac (maison de …).
  2. Refer to an establishment that specializes in Bordeaux as a castle of Bordeaux (chateau de ….).
  3. Refer to the Atlantic as the sea (beautiful sea view) when on the west coast of France.
  4. Refer to a catholic house of worship as a church and a protestant house of worship as a temple.
  5. Study the in-room dining menu a little closer, so you do not order four breakfasts instead of two.

After eating the best of four breakfasts, we joined our tour. First stop was a house of cognac being run by the fifth generation of the same family. The House of Normandin-Mercier in Dompierre is currently in the hands of a brother and a sister. He is the nose, as they say, and no doubt she is in charge of everything else. Or not. Grin. The approach to what used to be the family’s spectacular 18th century summer home was like entering a destination in a romance novel. Fields on both sides of a tree lined pebble driveway. Iron gate. Metal water pump emptying into a stone trough full of flowers. The whole scene oozed charm.

The distillation process was explained to us (by the sister…wearing a red beret and waist-length cape…for real) as well as where the grapes must come from in order to be considered cognac. We saw casks and barrels and an antique distillery, tasted samples, and had the opportunity to shop.

From there it was off to La Rochelle, a port city laid out 1,000 years ago. Think limestone, limestone, and then add some more limestone. The buildings, walkways, and roads are all basically the same color creating a monochromatic landscape. There is little automobile traffic, by design; lots of bicycles, again by design. We slowly strolled the old town while our guide shared fun information and pointed out the old fortified port flanked by two towers, hidden streets lined with arcades, ancient wooden houses, and the stately mansions of families who owned plantations in French colonies during the days of slavery.

We visited a lovely church with a special corner dedicated to those who braved the high seas in the 17th and 18th centuries to immigrate to Canada and later to what would become New Rochelle, New York. There was also a machine that looked very much like an ATM except it took your money in the form of electronic donations. City Hall was unique with its sundial, turret, and small courtyard. A nice touch was seeing the Ukrainian flag being flown alongside the French and EU flags.

An historical sidebar I found fascinating: in the 12th century La Rochelle became what was known as a free city meaning it could govern itself, make unique agreements and create student and business exchanges with other countries, and basically not do the king’s bidding. Free cities were very rare and the fact that La Rochelle was one speaks to its influence in France and the trust the king had in its governance.

A more current sidebar about La Rochelle: About 40 years ago a mayor with an eye to the future introduced the idea of moving his city in the direction of becoming green. Electric buses were introduced; flat pavers for strollers, walkers, and wheelchairs were incorporated into the cobbled walkways; bike paths were added; and the use of free bicycles was introduced. Those things and more are fully integrated into life here.

As we approached the harbor, two surprising things were pointed out. Even though rugby rules, we passed a baseball field. Seems the sport was introduced to the city during both world wars and is still played today. Germans had bases all along the French coast during WWII. La Rochelle was a submarine base, so we passed huge concrete structures that were used to house, maintain, and repair the German subs.

Dinner: As usual we chowed down like champs. For dessert a small cake was delivered to celebrate Dan’s impending retirement.

Table talk: In celebration of the Army’s 246th anniversary I brought a little quiz I stole from the June 2021 issue of Military Officer magazine.

Weather: breezy, sunny, and 70

A complete aside: Murphy is in Paris on business, a mere five hour drive from here.


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