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A short break in
La Rochelle



by Gillian Thornton
 · personal page ·

 


The picturesque harbour at La Rochelle is one of the most photographed in France, but this beautiful town has plenty of other attractions to fill a long weekend.

When you’ve had early breakfast in Britain, there’s something ever-so-slightly decadent about sitting down to a pre-lunch glass of pineau de Charentes on the bustling quayside at La Rochelle.

Sleek white yachts glide in and out of the harbour, picking their way carefully between the tour boats that cruise to the islands of Ré, Aix and Oléron. Tiny ferries provide a shuttle service across the harbour mouth. And nautical folk do what nautical folk do best – just mess about in boats.

. . . . .

Open any book on the coastline of Charente-Maritime – most westerly department of the Poitou-Charentes region – and you’re guaranteed to find a photograph of the iconic twin towers that have guarded the entrance to the harbour since the 14th century.

The larger of the two, the Tour St Nicholas, is a maze of steps and corridors leading to a high-level viewpoint, whilst the Tour de la Chaîne opposite takes its name from the chain which could be drawn taut across the harbour mouth to repel unwanted visitors.

A short walk away along the ramparts, a third tower - the 15th century Lantern Tower - served as both lighthouse and prison, and today its walls still carry more than 600 examples of graffiti left by its unfortunate inmates. All three towers are open to the public but 21st century visitors are fortunately allowed to leave.

The Vieux Port never fails to captivate, whatever the angle and time of day, but La Rochelle amply repays visitors who can tear themselves away from the quayside cafés and explore its historic streets and varied visitor attractions.

First pick up a town guide and map from the spacious new Tourist Office in the Gabut district on the east side of the harbour. Once a collection of old fishermen’s huts, this atmospheric quarter is now a cluster of modern clapboard buildings painted in upbeat shades of royal blue and plum red, vivid turquoise, aquamarine and yellow.

. . . . .

La Rochelle – ‘the little rock’ – takes its name from its prominent position above the marshland tucked in behind the Atlantic Coast. By the Middle Ages, salt and wine had turned this sleepy fishing village into an important commercial harbour with strong trade links to England, Flanders and the Baltic countries.

But La Rochelle soon earned a reputation as a rebel city. From 1540, it was fiercely Protestant whilst the rest of the country was Catholic, and in 1627 the town was besieged by Royal troops for threatening the policy of unification. After 13 months, the starving people were forced to surrender and La Rochelle lost its privileges, slowly regaining prominence as trade developed with Canada and the West Indies.

Today fishing is still important to the local economy so before you leave the Gabut district, pay a visit to the floating Musée Maritime for an interactive introduction to the local fishing industry. On the opposite quayside, the city Aquarium takes visitors on a journey through the earth’s ocean environments.

Bilingual information panels dotted around the harbour and through the streets of the Old Town provide an easy-to-swallow overview of local monuments, buildings and traditions, all pinpointed on large scale street maps.

If hunger beckons, the Vieux Port is lined with restaurants, the quayside road closed off to traffic on summer evenings and busy with street entertainers. Or head for Rue St Jean du Pérot in the Quartier de la Chaîne, one of La Rochelle’s main areas for eating out, tucked in behind the Chain Tower. Local specialities include maigre, a succulent white fish; oysters from Marennes-Oléron; and mouclade, a dish of mussels in light curry sauce.

. . . . .

When it’s time for a dose of retail therapy, pass beneath the Tour de la Grosse-Horloge that dominates the houses fringing Quai Duperré. A statue of 18th century local hero Admiral Duperré stands opposite.

The clock tower marks the entrance to the Old Town where tempting boutiques nestle beneath vaulted stone arcades and between historic buildings such as the old Stock Exchange and Renaissance Town Hall, both with beautiful courtyards. Look out too for the houses of wealthy merchants striped in a ‘half timbered’ pattern of local slate.

For a snack on the run, indulge in a scoop or three of the best ice cream in town at Ernest le Glacier in Rue du Port. Choose from a huge number of delicious – and often surprising - flavours, including local specialities such as Lavender, Violet, and Charentais Melon. Foodies should also drop in to the market hall at the end of Rue Mercier to see stalls laden with fresh local produce – every morning till l pm.

. . . . .

La Rochelle boasts an eclectic selection of museums from fine arts to miniature models, national history to perfume bottles, and if you don’t want to walk between them, you can register for one of the city’s 350 Vélos Jaunes. These municipal bicycles are free for the first two hours and cost just €1 an hour after that. Collect from Place Verdun all year round or, from May to September, at Quai Valin by the Vieux Port and simply leave your passport or drivers’ licence as deposit.

The only restriction is that you can’t cross the bridge to the Ile de Ré, but with 160 kilometres of cycle ways and 2,800 parking places around this enchanting city, it’s amazingly hard to tear yourself away. Trust me.

. . . . .

WHERE TO STAY

Au 33 rue Thiers, 33 rue Thiers, 17000 La Rochelle.
Five stylish chambre d’hôte rooms in 18th century town house.
www.33-ruethiers.com

Hotel St Jean d’Ancre, 4 Place de la Chaîne, 17000 La Rochelle.
Rooms with a view at harbourside hotel.
www.hotel-la-rochelle.com

WHERE TO EAT

La Feuille, 26 rue Thiers, 17000 La Rochelle.
Big gourmet salads perfect for lunch.
www.la-feuille.fr

Les Flots, 1 rue de la Chaîne, 17000 La Rochelle.
Quayside restaurant run by local celebrity chef.
www.coutanceau.com

Café de la Paix, Place Verdun, 17000 La Rochelle.
Belle Epoque cafe with huge mirrors, chandeliers and carved ceiling.

Restaurant André, 5 rue Saint-Jean du Pérot, 17000 La Rochelle.
Speciality seafood brasserie and a city institution.

WHAT TO DO

Musée Maritime. Open April-September.
www.museemaritimelarochelle.fr

Aquarium. Open daily.
www.aquarium-larochelle.com

Vélos Jaunes
www.rtcr.fr and click on Vélos.

TOURIST INFORMATION
La Rochelle Tourist Office, Le Gabut, 17025 La Rochelle.
www.larochelle-tourisme.com

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(c) Gillian Thornton - worldwide rights reserved
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This article was first published in
Destination France

La Rochelle harbour, France (c) Gillian Thornton
La Rochelle harbour, France.
© Gillian Thornton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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