This year, as is normal, we headed down to La Rochelle for the start of the national celebrations of Sheila’s birthday. Like the Queen these celebrations normally go on for several weeks but the first event is always our annual pilgrimage to La Rochelle where at midnight we order two glasses of bubbles and raise a toast under the clock tower in the Old Harbour.
What is also understood is that we really need this wine because getting there involves an immense amount of stress. Every year is different but a lot of stress nevertheless. The reason for this is that Sheila foolishly chose to be born in the same week that La Rochelle hosts the “Francofolies” a huge rock and pop extravaganza which attracts more than 400,000 people in the week and this year French icon Johny Halliday (the French Elvis) is appearing. The resulting traffic chaos is helped by the city closing the largest car park and turning it into a tented city. In addition the road system has been partly pedestrianised and becomes incomprehensible not helped by the installation of hydraulic ramps which stop you going anywhere where you would remotely want to go. I’ll just relate our experiences over the past three years:-
First year: I spent the compulsory hour trying to fathom the temporary road system. I suddenly swapped lanes on account of there being a bloody great lump of concrete lying in it. As a result someone hammered on their car horn and gave me a load of abuse. I of course retaliated with the statutory finger as tradition demands. He then screeched back in reverse, wound his window down and called me a bastard. I told him to go **** himself. He then opened the car door. I opened mine. He then had a change of mind and charged off down the road leaving a smell of burning rubber. By this time everyone behind was banging their car horns and shouting abuse. Rather than fight the whole of La Rochelle I wearily conceded defeat and drove on. Welcome to La Rochelle.
Second Year: Couldn’t get anywhere near the hotel and so, having dropped Sheila in the vicinity, (“Can’t walk very far because of ma back”), I finally parked the car in the Place Verdun, a Himalayan hike from the hotel. It is so far away from the hotel that seasons can change by the time you finally reach your destination. And the season did change. As I trudged up the streets with my bag over my shoulder and hauling Sheila’s container behind me, the heavens opened and torrential rain was bouncing from the pavement. Despite using several bars as temporary shelter I was totally drenched by the time I reached the hotel. I stood in front of the reception in an ever increasing pool of rainwater with my hair plastered to my head. “Is it raining”?, asked the receptionist.
No, I just had an idea that it would be fun to jump in the sodding harbour I thought, through gritted teeth.
“Oh you should have said”, the receptionist said helpfully, “we would have lowered the ramps for you”.
“Might have been a good idea to tell me that before I walked from the Place Verdun in a monsoon”, I growled.
“It’s on our website” she smiled.
“No it isn’t”.
She then cleverly avoided a diplomatic incident by offering us an upgrade to a room with harbour views which would have cost about a zillion Euros to rent normally. So, as usual, greed overcame my principles.
Third Year: Having been driving around in circles for even longer than normal I finally lost it and drove up a one way street – only to meet someone coming the other way. We exchanged the customary robust greetings, complete with gestures but this time we both clearly felt that honour had been upheld so continued serenely on our way.
La Rochelle?! overall, it would be less hassle to spend a weekend in Baghdad.
This year: praise god, there wasn’t any great problems apart from waiting on a car park for half an hour hoping someone would soon leave their car parking space for us to jump into and Sheila being in a foul mood because the weather had turned gloomy and windy or some other reason any or all of which was undoubtedly my fault. But she cheered up when we found THE most amazing restaurant for her birthday evening about which I’ll do a separate post shortly.