IT could be the bread, the brioche, the croissants or even the coffee … but there's a magical 'something' smell that makes breakfast compulsory almost anywhere in France. You won't last more than a few minutes if you walk along any street in a bustling port like La Rochelle before you're seduced into a tempting artisan bakery or patisserie. Once inside, you're seduced even further by tray upon tray of delights as you try to keep the calorie count below the four-figure mark when you've hardly even started the day.
We were staying with a friend with the wonderful address of Residence de Vieux Port on the Quai Duperré, so it didn't take long at all to stroll along past the (expensive) quayside cafés and find a popular petit dejeurner spot for locals just through the old city gate, the Porte de la Grosse Horloge.
The mouth-watering display in the window at O'dèlices de Vero was soon minus a meltingly-delicious croissant and a kind of beguiling apricot pastry, which went down very well with a strong belt of characteristically-fragrant French coffee served up by Veronique, while a spot of early morning work was polished off with the help of the free Wi-Fi.
Duly fortified, and fortified with the knowledge that you're bound to be seduced again by lunchtime, it's time to explore this gem of an ancient city and discover why it's an enduring favourite both for holidays and second homes with the French as well as discerning Brits.
First impressions of a picturesque, historic and bustling port are only reinforced as you wander around, relishing an amazing spectrum of choice on the food front alone, from humble cafés and bars to (very) high-end restaurants and everything in between.
There's no shortage of top-notch fashion outlets, either, and although there is the occasional, somewhat discreet sell-all supermarket, the real joy is the myriad of smaller, independent shops selling not just food, but anything else you can imagine.
After gazing, mesmerised, in the arcade window of a shop selling nothing but knives and cutlery – from handy vegetable-peelers and specialist cooks' knives to hunting and sailing gear and mega-expensive, hand-crafted works of art – I had the most precise new edges put on my Swiss army knife by a the cheerful owner for just €4.
A real joy – as expected – is the market, with its nearby cafés where you can sit in the sun with a glass of crisp white wine and enjoy some fresh oysters or a few langoustines brought fresh from the stall. The market is very large and is very, very French, with a vast array of produce fresh from land, lake and sea across the Charente-Maritime region.
Fantastic to look at, but while you marvel at the range of vegetables, meats, breads, cheeses, wines and fish on offer, it's worth noting that 'market' does not translate as 'cheap', or mean even real value in some cases. A dozen or more laden seafood stalls stretched the length of the market hall, with huge, tempting mounds of both live and cooked shellfish I could hardly wait to get my hands on. But then I asked the price – and kept my euros to myself, with the cost of long-time favourite crab claws almost double what I pay back home to my local fish man, who brings them fresh from the UK coast every day.
Some wet fish was duly bought – as a treat – along with judicious quantities of veg, bread and cheese, but that was about the limit of our self-catering, with so many foodie places to explore … although we are saving Christopher Coutanceau's two-Michelin-starred ocean-side rotunda for another time.
Afternoon tea/coffee/wine/beer in the sunshine? That has to be at Au bout du Rouleau, a popular 'local' café/bar by the yacht basin, which is a prime spot for people and boat-watching, with a telling mix of yellow wellies and diamonds on show among the fair-weather sailors.
The regular stopping-off points come in handy because there is so much to see in and around the old town, including its three iconic stone towers, dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries, which dominate the seaward approach. The oldest is the Tour de la Chaîne, so-called because a huge chain was slung from it across to the Tour St-Nicolas to protect the inner harbour.
Biggest of the trio is the Tour de la Lanterne, the only surviving medieval lighthouse on the Atlantic coast, which later became a prison for pirates, enemy seamen – including English, of course – then Huguenots, then clergy during the Revolution. There are still hundreds of bits of graffiti from captured English, Dutch and Spanish sailors, and later military prisoners, and the view from the 70m-high battlements is worth the climb.
For a trip out one day, try the picturesque village of St Martin on the flat-as-a-pancake Île de Ré, a picture-postcard mini-port carrying echoes of Cornwall and popular with well-heeled Parisians and Brits, with more artisan shops and restaurants … and the more workmanlike Au Lever du Soleil quayside café serving two sarnies, two beers and a Perrier for a very reasonable €18.20. Just a short drive away is the Phare des Baleines lighthouse, where local traders display all manner of treats, including aromatic sea salt straight from the evaporation pans nearby, sold by the families who harvest it. A bargain buy, well worth making room for in your luggage, especially if you're travelling overland by car … and that's a narrative for La Rock Part II.
As a taster to this, we arrived in La Belle France in some style thanks to the quite superb Brittany Ferries and sailed home the same way … relaxed and very well fed and watered.