La Rochelle is one of France’s loveliest coastal towns. Its historic port is beautifully preserved with a quayside that bustles with boats small and large, a seafront that is packed full of lively cafes, bars and restaurants where you can stop and watch the world go by. In the old town wander through its arcades streets, flanked by seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings that are now home to boutique shops selling everything from fashion and homeware to delicious pastries and fresh bread, books and antiques.
The town was first founded as a fishing village in the 10th century but grew rapidly, especially after it was given a charter by Eleanor of Aquitaine, allowing it to be a free port and runs its own affairs. Under Plantangenate rule, it traded with England Netherlands and Spain. Despite the One Hundred Years War and the French Wars of Religion, the city continued to thrive and from the 14th to the 16th century it was one of France’s great maritime cities, its wealth based on trade with the New World.
However, at the beginning of the 17th century, the city was a stronghold for the protestant Huguenots and there antipathy to the French king resulted in the famous Siege of La Rochelle – Cardinal Richelieu authorising a 14-month blockade to bring the city into submission; this siege in 1627 is the backdrop to much of Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel, ‘The Three Musketeers’.
At the end of the siege it lost is city status and privileges, however in the following centuries it again built up its trade, this time with the New World, and the city once again became prosperous.
It has long been a French favourite with luminaries including Voltaire and Rabelais and Jean-Paul Sartre, who went to school here, associated with the town. Today, the French come to La Rochelle for its tourist attractions, great atmosphere and its proximity to the golden sands of the Atlantic beaches and beautiful off-shore islands.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO:
Le Vieux Port: the old port area of La Rochelle is dominated by three 14th and 15th century towers that stand tall at the entrance and is one of the town’s major tourist attractions. The oldest is la Tour de la Chaine, so called because a huge chain was slung from it across to Tour St-Nicolas on the other side. Just over 400 years ago the first settlers to Quebec left from La Rochelle and Tour de la Chaine now houses a permanent exhibition celebrating this. It’s open daily. Perhaps most interesting is Tour de la Lanterne that was originally built as a beacon for shops but subsequently became a prison for pirates, enemy seamen including the British, then Huguenots and finally clergy during the revolution. The only surviving medieval lighthouse on the Atlantic coast, you can still see graffiti inscribed on the walls by captured English seamen. The view from the top is worth the climb. It’s open daily except Tuesdays. Tel: 05 46 34 11 81.
Take in the views: in La Rochelle you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to beautiful views. As mentioned above, the vista from the top of the Tour de la Lanterne is wonderful. Then there’s the walk from the old port to the modern new harbour of Port des Minimes which gives a great view of the town. If you don’t feel like walking, take the ‘bus de mer’, a small boat that runs between the Vieux Port at Tour de la Chaine and quay number 10 at the Port des Minimes. It costs about €2 each. Tel: 05 46 34 02 22.
Watch the sun go down from La Plage des Minimes. Another great spot is on the clifftops by the Port de Plomb – here the sun sets over the Ile de Ré bridge.
For a sense of the town, sit yourself down at one of the port cafés and watch the hustle and bustle around you.
Parking… & mooring
La Rochelle is a myriad of one-way streets which makes driving into the town somewhat stressful. If you don’t have satnav – and even if you do! – make sure you get your hands on a map that details the one-way system.
* A stress-free way into town is to park near the railway station and Aquarium (you will need to pay) and walk the 10 – 15 minutes to the main part of town.
* You can also park at the Jean Moulin car park next to the Parc des Expositions (again you will need to pay) and take the free shuttle bus that runs every ten minutes and takes you to the town centre.
* Free of charge, is the parking at Les Minimes; take the sea bus (runs about every hour) to town.
Mooring your boat:the place to head to is Port de Plaisance des Mimies which has space for 3600 boats and is the largest pleasure boat port on the Atlantic coast in Europe. Avenue de la Capitainerie; tel + (0)5 46 44 41 20; www.portlarochelle.com.
Take a tour: because of its two periods of prosperity, La Rochelle is an interesting mix of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Sadly, the Hôtel de Ville, which dates back to around 1600 during the reign of Henri IV, and considered one of the most beautiful town halls in France, suffered a catastrophic fire in 2013 and is currently hidden behind scaffolding awaiting funds for its restoration. But there’s still plenty to see – read more on how to see the town…
Plage des Minimes: La Rochelle is not known for its beaches – there are excellent ones just a short distance away along the coast on the nearby islands. However, this beach is where the beau monde like to come to see and be seen. If you’re looking for somewhere to watch the sunset, then it’s the perfect choice. La Plage de la Concurrence in town has a great view of the town.
Foodie fancies: The town’s daily market takes over the streets around Place du Marché. For an eye-boggling array of fresh seafood, head to the seafood market at Rue Marche. For the best ice-cream, head straight for Ernest le Glacier, a family business renowned for their fantastic ice-creams in fabulous flavours. There are two shops: 15-16 rue du Port and opposite at 18 rue Port.
La Rochelle Aquarium: one of the best aquariums in Europe, with 12,000 marine animals including sharks contained in 75 different aquaria. Many of the large tanks start at floor level so small children can get face to face with many of the creatures. Read more…
Museums: there are many museums to discover with themes including La Rochelle’s seafaring history (of course) to perfume bottles (yes, truly!). Find out more about La Rochelle’s museums…
Boat rides: there are a number of boat rides that you can take from La Rochelle, taking you up to Fort Boyard and the islands near the town – Ile de Re, Ile d’Oleron and Ile’d’Aix. Sail out for two hours, half-a-day or a full day. Departure points are the Vieux Port, Cours des Dames or the Esplanade Saint-Jean-d’Acre. The main companies to look out for are:
Croisieres Inter-Iles: www.inter-iles.com
Croisieres SMR: www.promenade-en-mer-larochelle.fr; it also offers sunset cruises, departing La Rochelle for Fort Boyard at 8pm during July and August.
La Rochelle Croisiers: www.larochelle-croisiers.com
For a trip by catamaran: www.kapalouest.com
Guided kayakking: www.antioche-kayak.com
Line-fishing with a guide: www.ydfishing.fr
The islands: just off the coast of La Rochelle are the three islands of Ile de Ré, Ile d’Oléron and Ile d’Aix.
Ile de Ré: nicknamed the French Hamptons, the island is famous for its pretty villages of white-washed houses and gardens of hollyhocks, beaches of fine sand and expanses of wild rosemary. Read more about Île de Ré
Ile d’Oléron: the celebrated French century writer Pierre Loti dubbed the island of Oléron ‘La Lumineuse’ for its light. Read more about Ile d’Oléron.
Ile d’Aix: the little island of Aix can only be reached by boat. It has heavy Napoleonic fortifications, some of the best beaches in the area and it only takes an hour or so to walk around the island. In the village is a pretty church with an interesting crypt, a hotel and a couple of cafés.
LA ROCHELLE DETAILS:
Tourist office: 2 Quai Georges Simenon, Le Gabut; tel 05 46 41 14 68. It’s English-language guide, La Rochelle Tourism, is worth picking up, and includes a detailed, three-hour walk through the town.