La Rochelle is a breath of fresh air, in more ways than one. Its old port, dominated by massive towers, is overlooked by trendy cafés and flanked by streets lined with Renaissance arcades.
La Rochelle is a city on the western coast of France on the Bay of Biscay. It’s a large city of nearly 80,000 inhbitants is one of the largest in the Aquitaine region. It is within easy travelling distance of Bordeaux, Nantes and Paris with excellent motorway and train links.
The town is also served by the nearby airport of La Rochelle – Ile de Re a which has grown in size in recent years and is now classed as an international airport.
What is La Rochelle famous for?
Originally a Gallo-Roman fishing village perched on an outcrop of limestone in a marshy bay, La Rochelle owes its pre-eminence to salt, Poitou wines and a queen.
The queen was Eleanor of Aquitaine, at whose bidding the old harbour was constructed, and from whose tax privileges granted to medieval ‘Rochella’ that the town became for centuries one of the leading Atlantic ports of France.
Today, the harbour is filled with yachts. With its fishing fleet greatly diminished and its commercial enterprises moved 5km west to La Pallice, the harbour is as elegant as it was in its heyday, during the 18th century.
Many of the houses in the centre of town are a refined and stylish legacy of trade – including the slave trade – with the New World, and the splendid arcades that front many of the buildings once sheltered street traders and bankers.
The great towers that are an unmissable feature of the port are a reminder that La Rochelle has not always been as peaceful as it is today.
But, wiling away a few hours outside one of the cafés, it is easy to overlook these darker periods in the town’s history.
The town has been heavily fortified since the Middle Ages when it became a bastion of French Protestantism, at a time when the rest of France was Catholic, thanks mainly to its extensive trade links with northern Europe.
In 1573, it successfully repelled its first Catholic siege. But in the early 17th century its people sided with the Duke of Buckingham’s forces on the Île de Ré.
This led to Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu (the ‘Grey Eminence’) to personally supervise a second blockade of the town, one which literally starved the Rochellois into submission after 414 days.
A quarter of the town’s population perished during the siege, and, with the exception of the three towers that guard the old port, the town was razed, along with its Protestant churches.
Things to see in La Rochelle
All three towers, which stand at the gateway of the old port, date from the 14th and 15th centuries.
The oldest is the Tour St-Nicolas, built on oak pilings which have steadily slipped, giving the tower something of a tipsy appearance.
Across the entrance to the port is the Tour de la Chaine, constructed between 1382 and 1390, to which there used to be attached a smaller building housing a capstan from which a chain was extended to the Tour St-Nicolas, barring the port to unwanted visitors.
Not so far away, but set back a little from the port is the 15th-century Tour de la Lanterne from which, before the advent of electricity, a huge candle would burn brightly during the night to guide incoming mariners.
La Rochelle had democracy almost before it was invented, appointing its first mayor in 1199.
It was a later mayor, Jean Guiton (1585-1654), who was to oppose the forces of Richelieu, an act commemorated by his statue outside the Hotel de Ville. It’s a rather Gothic structure decorated with the figures of Henry IV and effigies of the four cardinal virtues – Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance.
The lively shopping heart of La Rochelle is based around the town hall, along the axes Rue du Palais and Grand Rue des Merciers, a place of narrow streets paved with stone slabs and flanked by secret passages, arcades and porches.
Many of the houses, some of them beautifully half-timbered structures, are designed to a plan unique to La Rochelle, with many houses having two entrances, one on the main street and the other on a street parallel with it.
What is Ile de Re famous for?
Just beyond La Rochelle, the Ile de Ré points a long finger towards the Atlantic. It is a unspoilt island and a summertime retreat for French and foreign visitors alike.
A toll bridge now links the island to La Rochelle and mainland France, but it still maintains its insular charm.
Today, Ré is one island, but at the end of the last Ice Age there were four here – Ré, Loix, Les Portes and Ars.
Only in the Middle Ages did they finally unite. The island has seen a great deal of warfare, initially as part of the dynastic quarrels between France and England, and it changed hands many times, and was repeatedly pillaged and burnt.
In the 17th century, when the Duke of Buckingham landed here with 8,000 men in support of the Huguenot defence of La Rochelle against the army of Cardinal Richelieu.
The island is also known as Ré la Blanche, the White Island, so named for its salt marshes. The export of salt and wine to all parts of Europe has long been the mainstay of the island’s economy.
These days, the vineyards occupy only a fifth of the area they once did, but still produce their traditional cognac, table wines and Pineau des Charentes; the farmers here have even produced a type of early potato which has gained its own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée.
Traders rather than fishermen, the people of Ré nevertheless do fish the surrounding waters, taking their catches to the market in La Rochelle. Oyster farming appeared around 150 years ago.
Until then, people had simply gathered the oysters for their own consumption, but then they learned to cultivate them, and, as at Marennes-Oléron, used the salt marshes, the marais, to mature and refine the oysters.
For a while it looked like salt production would cease, but in recent times this industry has been revived at the hands of a new generation of Rétais, as the people of Ré are known.
Things to do on Ile de Re
The capital of the island is St Martin-de-Ré on the north coast, formerly an active port and military stronghold, but today a charming tourist centre of narrow, cobbled streets that still cling to the shadows of the Grand Siècle, the 17th century.
From earlier times, the ruins of the Abbaye des Châteliers, a Cistercian abbey founded in the 12th century, and destroyed in 1623, stand beside the road as you drive onto the island.
Further west, the small port of Ars-en-Ré is remarkable for its narrow streets and alleyways, so narrow in fact that the corners of many of the houses had to be shaped so that carriages could manoeuvre safely.
This tiny port was frequented by Dutch and Scandinavian vessels used in the salt trade.