Another magnificent unblemished blue sky greeted us when we woke and after breakfast at the hotel with gratefully a never ending supply of hot tea we set out to walk along the coastline and find the old German u-boat pens at the main port of La Rochelle at La Pallice.
During the Second World War, Germany established one of its main submarine bases here to support their operations in the Atlantic Ocean and it was such an important stronghold that they were very reluctant to leave and La Rochelle was the last French city to be liberated at the end of the War. There was a siege that lasted between September 12th, 1944, and May 7th, 1945, in which the stronghold was held by twenty thousand defiant German troops. The French troops only finally broke the siege and entered the city on May 8th.
The construction of the submarine pens was so strong* that after the war it proved uneconomic to demolish them and totally impractical to remove them so the French navy continues to operate from here even now. This is interesting enough in itself but what stimulated me to see them most of all was the fact that the base was used as the principal setting for the German film ‘Das Boot’ (The Boat) and the U-Boat scenes in the Indiana Jones film ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’were also shot in La Rochelle.
We walked out of the harbour and along the coast, through elegant well maintained public parks with vibrant green lawns and trees with fresh spring leaves and emerging blossom. La Rochelle is a beautiful French resort with none of the unacceptable accompaniments of a typical British seaside town with a sense of cleanliness and pride in the city and the environment. We passed a boat yard with a range of impressive sailing boats and catamarans and out of the built up areas and onto a headland and a solitary cliff top walk.
Unfortunately as we walked through fields of swaying rape and watched the Jays flying through the treetops we didn’t seem to making any substantial progress towards our intended destination and there were no tourist sign posts to offer any assistance either.
I could sense that Kim, who incidentally did not completely share my enthusiasm for the project, was beginning to run out of patience, and I had to resort to ‘I’m sure it will be just around this corner’ sort of encouragement that is more generally used for bored children. I was beginning to wonder myself if we would find them and then it occurred to me that even if we did perhaps they might not be open to the public, it is a French naval base after all. I didn’t mention this growing concern however and continued to press on.
Finally Kim had had enough and issued an ultimatum. ‘Find them in thirty minutes or turn back!’ Actually I thought that this was rather generous so I quickened the pace with renewed optimism. It was hopeless however and after twenty minutes or so I was ready to admit defeat when mercifully we came across a beach bar where we stopped for refreshment and a rest.
There were some families on the beach and I was struck by the fact that if the French take their children to cultured and sophisticated places to enjoy simple natural pleasures such as this lovely unspoilt place this tradition is passed on down through families and will forever be this way, continued down through the generations. Contrast this with an English family that take their children to Skegness for ‘Games Zone’, fish and chips, candyfloss and football shirts, which will simply perpetuate the disagreeable things about the English seaside and these things will never improve our national culture. How sad that is.
We set off again but Kim whinged constantly now about our little walk and eventually I had to agree to give in and turn back to return to the city. I will never know how close we were or if indeed we would ever have been able to see them if we got there. Never mind I can always watch ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’again I suppose.
On the way back we walked through the fields and then dropped down to the seashore to examine the rock pools with the glee of exploration that we used to experience when we were children. The tide was out and the pools were full of interesting creatures and we shared the beach with some cormorants that were visiting them for their lunchtime treats.
* The U-Boat pens had a clever structure where the concrete was set in layers forming a strong herringbone pattern and a nine metre thick corrugated roof which was designed to withstand the largest of the Allied bombs. In the town of St. Nazaire further down the coast the Allies demolished the entire town but were still unable to destroy the pens. in the end the Allies by-passed the town and the fortifications and it remained occupied until the last day of the war.