Side trip to Saint-Émilion and La Rochelle

Les Minimes (Port de Plaisance des Minimes) in La Rochelle is the largest pleasure boat marina in France (5000+ boats!)

We left Hondarribia, Spain, in the Basque Country, on October 13 heading for Saint-Émilion, 35 km northeast of Bordeaux, and a three hour drive away.  Saint-Émilion’s history goes back to prehistoric times and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with churches, ancient structure,  and ruins stretching all along steep and narrow streets.  It is one of the principal wine growing areas of Bordeaux.  We arrived on a sunny and warm Saturday afternoon and the streets were crowded with tourists.  It rained almost continuously the next day and the streets were empty save for the puddles.  We still squeezed some walks through the picturesque streets in between showers, and did a quick wine tasting at a vineyard outside of town on the drive north the next day.

View of Saint-Émilion
View of Saint-Émilion
Vineyards near Saint-Émilion

From Saint-Émilion we drove two hours north to the beautiful city of La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay in the Charente-Maritime department.   La Rochelle has special meaning to us.  It is the place where Sabbatical III was built by the Amel shipyard, and this was our third trip to this lovely town.  Our fond recollections of La Rochelle arise not only from the thrill of taking possession of the boat that has been the center of our lives these past 15 years, but also from the charming and authentic nature of this town of 75,000 and, perhaps strangely, from the unforgettable Soupe de Poisson at Bar André  on the waterfront.  The Amel staff took us to Bar André during both of our visits in 2003 and introduced us to the Soupe de Poisson.  It was our “go to” meal during the chilly weeks of late October and early November 2003 when we were living on-board the brand new Sabbatical III in the nearby Marina Les Minimes.

So on the 15th birthday (to the day) of Sabbatical III, we had another wonderful stay in La Rochelle.  The Soupe de Poisson was as good as we remembered and the town was even better in unusually warm and sunny weather.  We stayed in a quiet hotel located within the long narrow park in town and found that we could walk almost everywhere from there.

We arranged a test sail of the new Amel 50  on a beautiful but almost windless day.  A hostess aboard cooked us a multi-course meal as we slowly sailed from La Rochelle to the nearby island of Île de Ré.  The boat was fantastic with the easy sailing pedigree of previous Amel boats like our Super Maramu but also new features and interiors creating more light and space.

Mark about to enter the electric ferry that crosses the old harbor of La Rochelle to the  Marina Les Minimes
Small boats from a sailing school for children return to port, La Rochelle
Lunch aboard a new Amel 50 while anchored off Île de Ré
Laura relaxes on our test sail of an Amel 50
Entrance to the old harbor, La Rochelle
Entrance to the walled city of La Rochelle

We also visited the Amel factory and viewed the process of building an Amel 50.  Plus, I finally got to meet Maud Touillet, the “service after sales” representative that I have been dealing with for the past few years via email.  Who is this caring and efficient person who answers my emails with the information that I need and sends me parts to where ever I might be?  Now I know.

Mark poses with Maud Touillet, service clientèle person at Chantiers Amel, La Rochelle
Building a new Amel 50 at Chantiers Amel, La Rochelle
View from the beach promenade, La Rochelle
Marche du Centre Ville, La Rochelle

On our last day in La Rochelle, we drove over the bridge to Île de Ré, described as the “Martha’s Vineyard of France.”  The island has a network of cycle tracks, and many residents rarely use cars for transportation. They are famous for their oysters, mussels, and fish.  We walked for miles on the northern shore promenade, had a wonderful lunch, then walked along the long, wide beaches of the southern shore before returning across the 3 km bridge to La Rochelle.

Oysters and Soupe de Poisson starters in Île de Ré
Beach in Île de Ré
Mussels (Moules-frites) at Bar André, La Rochelle, Vieux Port

We left La Rochelle on October 20 and drove all the way back to the Basque country in one day.  We flew back to Lanzarote Island the next day and returned to Sabbatical III at the Marina Rubicon, where we still remain.


Side Trip to the Basque Country

Street in San Sebastián (Donostia)

The Canary Islands are a popular destination for European tourists and many discount airlines fly there from a number of mainland European cities.  Last month we looked for cheap nonstop flights from Lanzarote and found one to Bilbao in Basque Country, so we bought tickets.  On October 7, we flew into the Bilbao airport and took a 75 minute bus ride directly from there to San Sebastián, the cultural capital of the Spanish Basque region.  We spent four days in San Sebastián followed by two days in Hondarribia, a beautiful town that is the home town of our dear friend Irene.

Laura in the harbor of San Sebastián
Statue in the harbor of San Sebastián

San Sebastian is considered by many to be the world’s top food spot.  It has  more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world.  But what makes San Sebastián (or Donostia as it is known in the Basque language) especially appealing is the quality of the everyday food, in particular the hundreds of pintxo bars.  These are simple wine bars selling everything from traditional snacks to high-end gourmet dishes in small portions – and with small prices.  Going for pintxos means bar-hopping your way through the city, eating a few plates at each place before continuing.  Everything is laid out on the bar for you to see before choosing,  We almost always ordered Spanish cider (or sidra) as our accompanying drink.  Sidra is fermented naturally and has an alcohol content similar to beer.  Spain has a custom known as “throwing the cider.” A server pours the cider from a height of approximately one meter to aerate and enhance the aroma and flavor of the cider.

The weather was almost ideal the whole time we were in San Sebastián and the city was perfect for walking.  We walked along the river, under a cliff face with breaking waves below, and along a long sandy beach. Plus, of course, through the beautiful old parts of the city.

Pintxos, San Sebastián

Fresh produce, San Sebastián
Cathedral, San Sebastián
Beach Promenade, San Sebastián
Urumea River, San Sebastián
Mark “throws the cider”, San Sebastián

On October 11, we picked up a rental car in San Sebastián and drove west along a beautiful high road that roughly followed the coast heading for the small coastal towns of Getaria and Zumaia.  The greenery of the countryside was almost overwhelming for us after two months on the barren volcanic island of Lanzarote. Before dark, we turned and headed east to our next destination, the Basque town of Hondarribia, on the French border.  Hondarribia has an ancient old quarter set on a hill with walls and a castle, and a newer section nearby with excellent pintxo bars.

After two nights in Hondarribia we drove to Saint Emilion in Bordeaux and La Rochelle in Charente-Maritime.  That trip is the subject of our next blog post.  However, on the way back to catch our return flight from Bilbao, we stopped for the night at a cute hotel next to the Petritegi Cider House in Astigarraga (outside of San Sebastián), where we had booked a meal.  At the cider house, everyone sat on long benches next to “picnic” tables.  We were served many courses of delicious local food plus all of the sidra we wanted.  To get sidra, you left the dining hall and went to the large fermenting room where there were many numbered barrels of sidra, each slightly different. We pointed to the barrel we wished to sample, and a young man would pull a cork to let the sidra stream out into your glass held at least one meter away.  A lot of sidra ended up on the floor but as we became more proficient at judging the stream, most wound up in our glass.  Good thing the the hotel was just a 1/2 mile walk away.

Green vistas on the high coastal road from San Sebastián to Getaria
Old Town, Hondarribia
Old Town, Hondarribia
The Petritegi Cider House in Astigarraga (outside of San Sebastián)
Throwing the cider from a barrel, Petritegi Cider House
Laura in front of the entrance to the walled old city of Hondarribia
Hatxeroa’ Sapper Statue, Hondarribia
Patatas Bravas, Hondarribia