La Rochelle: Part III, History and Practical Information

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Following a winter wanderbout in La Rochelle by night and by day, a brief accounting of local history, some practical advice, restaurant tips and hotel suggestions for this town for all seasons, whether for a 1-, 2-, or 3-night stay, plus excursions to the nearby islands.
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Despite the summer attraction of its nearby beaches and pleasure port, overseas visitors shouldn’t approach La Rochelle so much as a sun-and-fun town as a handsome, active county seat and an appealing town to explore in any season, whether alone, in love, with family, or with friends.
Off-season, consider a one- or two-night stop whether by car or by train. A direct 3-hour ride train ride from Paris makes this an easy, coastal getaway for a day or two. The center of the old town is fully given over to boutiques, making this one of the most enjoyable towns along the coast for an afternoon shop ’n’ stroll.

From spring to fall you might stay for two or three nights and include a half-day or full-day trip to the nearby islands, particularly Ile de Ré which can be reached from La Rochelle by car or bus (via a 1.8-mile bridge), or boat. The best way to explore the Ile de Ré is by bike, easily rented (inquire at Tourist Office). Boats from La Rochelle also go to the tiny island of Aix and the larger island of Oléron, with a view of Fort Boyard between the two. Boats are easily accessible as they leave from the Old Port at the center of La Rochelle.

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A Brief History of La Rochelle
La Rochelle developed and thrived in the Middle Ages on the trade of wine and salt between France and England, particularly after Eleanor of Aquitaine showered favors on the town during her long reign over the region in the 12th century.

Willing to step into the English-French conflict of the Hundred Years War only far enough to secure its advantages, La Rochelle eventually became the largest French port along the Atlantic and remained so until the 15th century.

Trade with the New World developed in the 16th-century, beginning with Newfoundland. The Musée du Nouveau Monde (Museum of the New World) recounts that history and then some. (A representation of an American Indian on a keystone of the arcade at City Hall, circa 1600.)

Another small museum, Musée Rochelais d’Histoire Protestante (La Rochelle Museum of Protestant History), recounts the influence and development of Protestantism in the region during the 16th and 17th centuries, when La Rochelle became one of a handful of pockets across France where the Reformation, having blown in from the east, took root and flourished. In 1570 La Rochelle became one of a four cities designated as Protestant strongholds in France, which allowed it significant independence with respect to dictates from the king and, naturally, from the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, a series of Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants marks the history of France in the second half of the 17th century.

City Hall dates from the heyday of Protestant La Rochelle at the turn of the 17th century, when Protestant-cum-Catholic Henri IV was king. A ceramic statue of the king, who had spent time here as a child and adolescent, stands above the courtyard.

The increasingly centralizing policies of (Henri IV’s son) Louis XIII and his Prime Minister (Cardinal) Richelieu sought to rein in La Rochelle’s independence and reassert royal, Catholic dominance in the Protestant strongholds. The Rochelais now found themselves caught between the French movement towards absolutism and the English desire to control trade along the coast. When the Rochelais failed to be sufficiently disturbed by the arrival of the English fleet on the nearby island of Ré, Louis XIII and Richelieu came in person to set French forces in place for the siege of La Rochelle. Jean Guiton, shown in defiance outside of City Hall (see photo inset), was elected mayor during the siege and inspired continued resistance to stand up to royal forces. But after 13 months of siege that had led to the starvation of 65-75% of the population and eliminated any hope that the English fleet would break through the blockade, the Rochelais surrendered.

La Rochelle then lost its privileges and its ramparts, and Catholicism was restored, but the town was physically spared, including its three main towers that can be seen today: the Chain Tower and the Saint Nicolas Tower at the entrance of the port (a chain was drawn across the two towers to prevent unwanted ships from entering the port) and further back the Lantern Tower, one of France’s oldest surviving lighthouses. The Great Clock Tower leads into the old town.

Within a decade after the siege the port had regained its sea legs. The town flourished through much of the 17th and 18th centuries, though two major ports just to the north (Nantes) and to the south (Bordeaux) new drew increasingly heavy traffic.

The digging of a new, deeper port in the late 19th century allowed La Rochelle to gain tonnage. That port was deep and useful enough that during WWII the Germans occupying the coast set up a submarine base here. La Rochelle’s fishing and commercial ports are now on the outer lip of the estuary, several miles from the Old Town, while a closer port called Les Minimes is given over to pleasure boats. Passenger boats for tours and transport to the nearby islands of Ré, Aix, and Oléron leave from the Old Port.

Meanwhile, the 20th century saw La Rochelle’s development as an important center for the rail industry. A rail yard in the works just before the outbreak of WWI proved to be ideally situated for the American arrival into the war in 1917. American ships brought with them locomotive and railway wagons packed in kits that were assembled here. The stately façade of the train station dates from the early 1920s. Over the ensuing decades, a vast suburban industrial site grew to produce trains and subways for use around the world.

The company now called Alstom took over the industrial site in 1972 and immediately set out to develop the TGV, Train Grande Vitesse, the high-speed that has ruled the rail lines of France since the early 1980s and is used in rail networks throughout the world. 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION
 
Museums, Events, Links
La Rochelle Tourist Office, Le Gabut, between the Old Port and the Aquarium. Tel. 05 46 41 14 68.  www.larochelle-tourisme.com.
Musée du Nouveau Monde. 10 rue Fleuriau. Closed Tuesday.
Aquarium, Quai Louis Prunier. Open daily. Considering renting the useful audio-guide. Count about two hours. www.aquarium-larochelle.com.
Musée Rochelais d’Histoire Protestante. 2 rue St-Michel. Open afternoons (except Sun.) July-mid-September. Open by appointment only the rest of the year. Tel. 05 46 50 88 03.
Boat show, Le Grand Pavois. One of the most important boat shows in Europe takes places each year in the middle of September. www.grand-pavois.com.
 
Restaurants
Restaurants crowd around the port and along rue Saint-Jean-du-Pérot so you can work up a good appetite by wandering about checking out menus while visiting the area. Local fare naturally leans heavily toward fish and seafood but you’re sure to find a bit of everything available in Western France. At lunchtime, you might also check out the bistros and food stalls at Place du Marché in the center of the old town.
I nevertheless note here three of the better known restaurants of La Rochelle.
Coutanceau is the name that headlines the local restaurant scene thanks first to Richard Coutanceau and then to his sons Christopher and Grégory.
 
Hotels
If La Rochelle is bypassed by high-end travelers that’s largely because of an absence of luxury hotels. The hotel landscape is instead led by its 3-star hotels, beginning with:
 
La Monnaie, 3 rue de la Monnaie. Well situated between restaurant row and Le Mail in a 17th-century mansion. Tel. 05 46 50 65 65.
Followed by:
Champlain France Angleterre, 30 rue Rambaud. Tel 05 46 41 23 99. www.hotelchamplain.com. A mix of aristocratic cozy and mid-budget restoration, I note it here primarily for the vast rooms in the old section of the hotel. Member Best Western.
And continuing with:
Masqhotel, 17 rue de l’Ouvrage à Cornes. Tel 05 46 41 83 83. www.masqhotel.com. A sleek-lined hotel. Practical for an overnight for those arriving by train because near the station, to be weighed against the fact that it’s a 10-minute walk to the Old Port and Old Town. Member Best Western.
Le Yachtman, 23 Quai Valin, facing the old port. Tel/ 05 46 41 20 68. www.logis-de-france.com. Member Logis de France.
Recommendable 2-stars include:
Trianon et de la Plage, 6 rue de la Monnaie, Tel 05 46 41 21 65. www.hoteltrianon.com. A friendly, worthwhile place of character and characters in a 19th-century mansion. Across the street from La Monnaie.
Francois 1er, 15 rue Bazoges. Tel 05 46 41 28 46. www.hotelfrancois1er.fr. In the center of the Old Town.

© 2008 by Gary Lee Kraut

Go to La Rochelle: A Winter Wanderbout in an Old Port Town, Part I: Night.

Or to La Rochelle: A Winter Wanderbout in an Old Port Town, Part II: Day.

 

1 COMMENT

  1. I lived in the environs of La Rochelle when my father was stationed there in the late ’50’s. My mother is French (from the Pas de Calais region of France and also lived in Paris as a child). I wish there was more infor on the German occupation during the war as I understood they had a sub base in the area and I recall seeing a sunken ship with its hull upright in some harbor. I loved living there.

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