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, the seafront is packed full of lively cafes, bars and restaurants where you can stop and watch the world go by.
Tourist attractions are everywhere. Walk through the striking Gothic gateway, Porte de la Grosse Horloge and you enter a maze of pedestrianised 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. 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, it suffered during the French Wars of Religion – Cardinal Richelieu authorised a 14-month blockade in a fight against the protestant Huguenot; this siege in 1627 is the backdrop to much of Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel, ‘The Three Musketeers’. In the following centuries it again built up its trade, this time with the New World, and the city 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 flock here for its tourist attractions, great atmosphere and its proximity to the golden sands of the Atlantic beaches and beautiful off-shore islands.
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, then 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.
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 best 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 spoilt 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 under €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.
Town architecture: because of its two periods of prosperity, La Rochelle is an interesting mix of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Make sure you see the Gothic gateway Porte de la Grosse Horloge. Within the streets stretching back from the seafront, Réaumur, Admyrault and Saint-Jean streets are known for their beautiful mansions. See also the Hôtel de Ville, started around 1600 during the reign of Henri IV (guided tours available), and considered one of the most beautiful yown halls in France. Also of note is the 18th century Hôtel de la Bourse (now the Chamber of Commerce) and on rue Augustines, the Maison Henri II.
For a selection of guided tours, see the tourist office. One that's definiitely worth doing is the two-hour night time tour called Les Rondes de Nuit - led by guides in costume and holding lanterns, it's a very differnt and atmospheric way to see the town. The tour is every Thursday, from July to mid-September and is by reservation only.
You can also cycle around La Rochelle, using the yellow bikes that are free – you will need to collect your bike at place Verdun which is open daily between 9am-6pm. You will need identification. The first two hours are free; then it's €1 per hour. Once you're on your way you can pick up and leave the bike at spots all over the town. As well, there are about 180km of cycle routes in the city and around the surrounding area.
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.
Musée Maritime: the newly overhauled maritime museum opens in a brand new space, adding to the two ships – a former metrological survey frigate and fishing trawler – that already are part of the exhibition about La Rochelle’s seafaring history. Place Bernard Moitessier; tel 05 46 28 03 00; www.museemaritimelarochelle.fr
Museum d’Histoire Naturelle: La Rochelle's impressive Natural History Museum is an eclectic collection of more than 10,000 objects from Africa, America and Oceania that includes fossils, stuffed birds and animals including giraffes and leopards, tribal masks and furniture. 28 rue Albert 1er; tel 05 46 41 18 25; www.museum-larochelle.fr
Musée du Nouveau Monde: exhibitions devoted to France’s historic and cultural ties to the New World continents of North and South America. Housed in one of La Rochelle’s grand mansions, the collections includes paintings, engravings, drawings, sculptures, ancient maps and decorative art objects. 10 rue Fleuriau; tel: 05 46 41 46 50
Musée du Flacon à Parfum: an unusual museum but well worth a look, on dispay are more than 1,000 perfume bottles including designs by the famous houses of Dior and Hermés. One of the most interesting pieces is ‘Aphrodite de Cnide’, a bottle in the shape of a face that was manufactured by Baccarat, and based on a drawing made by Salvador Dali. 33 Rue du temple; tel 05 46 41 32 40
Musée des Automates: another of La Rochelle's quirkier museums - here on display are antique moving figurines, from very small to life-size, of the type seen in shop displays and events where robots were used to draw in the crowds. Rue la Désirée, la Ville en Bois; tel 05 46 41 68 08.
Musée des Modeles Réduits: housed in the same building as the Musée des Automates, this museum is devoted to model cars, boats, trains and aeroplanes. The computer-controlled naval battle scene is great fun. Rue la Désirée, la Ville en Bois; tel 05 46 41 68 08.
Musée d'Orbigny-Bernon: features items on the history of the city plus a collection of porcelain, paintings, and a section on Far Eastern art, containing artefacts brought back by French diplomat Baron Charles de Chassiron, after whom the lighthouse on Île d'Oléron is named. 2, rue Saint-Côme. Tel: 05 46 41 18 83
ATTRACTIONS NEAR LA ROCHELLE:
Île de Ré: nicknamed the French Hamptons, the island of Île de Ré is famous for its pretty villages of white-washed houses and gardens of hollyhocks, beaches of fine sand and expanses of wild rosemary. For more information, see Île de Ré
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.