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.
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.
© ATOUT FRANCE/R Cast
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, leading 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.
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, 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.
LA ROCHELLE CITY PASS
A 2, 3 or 7 day pass offering:- Unlimited transport (bus, sea bus, passenger or bike) - Reduced admission to the Aquarium, Art and History Museums, Museum of Natural History, Maritime Museum, Towers of La Rochelle, Automaton and Scale Model Museums, La Rochelle Town Hall and the Perfume Bottle Museum.