Sep 15, 2017 - National Geographic Orion
The last full day on board could not have been better. We woke to blue skies and warm weather in the deep water Atlantic port of La Rochelle in the province of Charente-Maritime. The World War II submarine pens beside our ship were a stark reminder that things were not always this wonderful. In June 1940, German forces occupied the city, attracted by the deep waters that made for an ideal naval base and the shelter provided by the offshore islands of Île de Rey and Île d’Oleron. (The strategic location was recognized as far back as the 12th Century, when the dukes of Aquitane fortified the city.) German occupation continued until May 8, 1945, the day France was liberated.
Our morning excursions took us over the long span bridge across the bay to the charming Île de Rey. The island is a wonderfully peaceful location, with rustic architecture and narrow cobbled streets bathed in the scents of a million flowers of many varieties. We passed the ruined 13th-century Cistercian abbey of Chatelier on our coach tour of the island. Previously an intensive wine-growing area, the island suffered a devastating vine disease in the latter part of the 19th Century, resulting in a 90% loss of crops. Nowadays, it is primarily cereal-growing although numerous small vineyards were still visible. The island hosts a prison (made famous by the movie “Papillon”) and the local donkeys stood guard on the perimeter! All the villages here were recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and it’s easy to understand why.
Being on the 45th Parallel, traders from this region easily navigated due west to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, principally trading beaver hides from the New World and shipping settlers, slaves and salt from the Old World.
Of course, no visit to the area is complete without tasting the local Cognac, a protected name from the region. The afternoon was spent in the stunning house of master distiller Edouard Normandin. We took a paced tour of the Cognac house, and learned some secrets of the trade, before finishing with a tasting of some of the best products. Edouard himself joined us and we can all highly recommend the Normandin-Mercier as a wonderful and masterly crafted Cognac!
Sailing in the late afternoon, with the sun shining and spirits high, we were feted at the Captain’s Farewell Dinner, and there was nothing but smiles to be found onboard!
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