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The floating harbour with the old city behind.For hundreds of years, La Rochelle was one of the greatest port cities in France. Great sailing ships would depart from the historic port, laden with wines, salt and household goods, bound for the New World or for the port cities of northern Europe - Bristol, London, Rotterdam, Hamburg and beyond. La Rochelle was a wealthy merchant city to rival with Bordeaux or Nantes.
Its importance as a merchant port began in the Middle Ages, when the city became a free port, and began trading with northern Europe. By the 12th century, La Rochelle was a bastion of democracy on the edge of feudal France, a city controlled not by kings or dukes, but by a mayor and aldermen – the first city in France to adopt this new form of governance that was more common in northern Europe.
Houses of the old city surrounding the old portDuring its heyday as a port city, from the mid 16th century until the siege of 1628, La Rochelle was a great Huguenot Protestant bastion in Catholic France, an international city with its communities of English, German and Dutch merchants and traders. But in 1627, at the peak of the wars of religion in France, Cardinal Richelieu laid siege to the city, blocking its access to the sea and to help from the English fleet under the Earl of Lindsey. The inhabitants of La Rochelle, led by their mayor Jean Guitton, held out against the French siege for 14 months, until their capitulation on October 28th 1628. By the time the city surrendered, only 5,000 people from an original population of 27,000 were still alive.
Following the siege, most of the ramparts of the old city were demolished - leaving just the towers guarding the old Port, the great lighthouse tower, and the city walls between the two..
In the following years, la Rochelle developed as one of France's great colonial and international trading ports, trading with New France (French north America, including Quebec), the French West Indies, and Africa; but its importance as a port dwindled during the nineteenth century. It was too far from the great industrial centres of Europe, and the port could not take the large vessels of the industrial age.
Today, maritime trade has returned to La Rochelle thanks to a new deep-water port at la Palice; and the old historic basins have been turned over to new uses, including home for a historic ships collection, and a centre for yachting and pleasure craft. With moorings for 3500 yachts, La Rochelle is now the largest yachting marina in France.
Things to see and do in La Rochelle
The La Rochelle Maritime museum - on board a historic weather ship.La Rochelle is one of a number of provincial French cities that escaped the ravages of the 19th and 20th centuries, and have conserved their historic centres. While a new city has grown up round it, the historic centre of La Rochelle, standing on the edge of the Old Port and the floating harbour.
The historic centre is a criss-cross of narow streets, many of them closed to vehicles, bordered by medieval and Renaissance houses, built in the distinctive local white limestone. With tourism among the city's main industries, many of the narrow streets, notably those close to the port, are filled with bars and restaurants offering local specialities and cuisine from around the world.
The old city is also remarkable for its streets lined by arcades - some three kilometres of arcades in all. In bygone centuries, the arcades housed the booths of market traders, merchants and money-changers. Today they provide shaded sidewalks in front of cafés, boutiques and restaurants.
The finest historic building in the old town is the medieval town hall, or Hotel de ville; this was the seat of the governor or mayor in medieval times, and is the oldest town hall in France, though it was extensively renovated and embellished in the nineteenth century. Sadly, in October 2013, a huge fire engulfed the building, and the roofs caved in. The building is now being painstakingly rebuilt and is scheduled to reopen in 2019 or 2020. From the outside, it will seem as it was; though inside, even if many of the most important artefacts were saved, much of the earlier structure has been lost.
While much of the pleasure of la Rochelle is just to wander round the port, enjoy the cafés and restaurnats, and perhaps take a boat trip to the Island of Ré, the city has a number of other attractions, the most important of which is its Aquarium, situated beside the Floating Harbour. This is one of the largest in Europe, and is a showcase for the private company in La Rochelle that is one of the major specialist aquarium builders in Europe.
Just a few hundred metres from the Aquarium is the La Rochelle Maritime Museum, located on board a ship called the France 1, which spent many years as a stationary weather ship and beacon out in the Atlantic ocean.
There is also a Museum of Automata and small scale models, located in the Minimes district, west of the Old Harbour, and in the town centre "The Bunker", a Second world war museum, including a German submarine command bunker which has remained more or less intact. La Rochelle was at the time a major German U-boat base, and the bunker, as well as being a well preserved item from the war, tells the history of La Rochelle under German occupation.
In addition to these four distinctive museums, La Rochelle has a number of smaller museums, including a natural history museum, an art gallery (mostly French art, including views of the port of La Rochelle by Signac and Marquet.), and a museum of the New World.
Historic rope-twining machinery in the RopeworksFormer naval port twenty kilometres south of La Rochelle, Rochefort is most visited for its historic Royal Naval Ropeworks (la Corderie Royale), a historic monument that is unique in France. These ropeworks produced a good proportion of the ropes used by the French Royal Navy (still referred to even today in republican France as "La Royale") from its opening in 1669, to the end of the age of sail.
Next to the Royal Ropeworks is the dock that is the home berth of the "Hermione", a magnificent replica of the 18th century frigate on board which General Lafayette crossed the Atlantic to help the Americans in their war of independence against the British. Being a seaworthy ship, the replica is not always present in Rochefort. For information visit the official site of the Hermione association.
A short distance from the Ropeworks is a unique industrial heritage site, the Rochefort transporter bridge over the river Charente. though no longer in use, this is one of the rare surviving examples of transporter bridges in Europe, and the only one in France.
Another intriguing place to visit in Rochefort is the house of Pierre Loti, a famous 19th century French traveller and writer. During his travels, Loti acquired a large collection of artefacts from North Africa and the Middle East, and brought them back to Rochefort, where he used them to create exotic rooms in the family mansion: these include a finely decorated 16th century mosque, largely bought in Syria and reassembled in Rochefort.
Saintes and the Saintonge
12 century Romanesque sculptures on a Saintonge church.The small town of Saintes was once the Roman capital of western Gaul. To this day it conserves a fine Roman triumphal arch, the Arch of Germanicus. Saintes and the area round it are also famous for their incredibly rich collection of early medieval churches from the 11th - 12th century churches anywhere in Europe. As well as being numerous, the churches of Saintonge also offer, between them, the largest collection of early medieval sculptures in Europe, with some incredibly richly decorated doorways, apses and capitals.
Ile de Ré
A small island connected to the mainland by a toll-bridge just north of La Rochelle, the Isle of Rhé is a very popular tourist destination, famous for its sandy Atlantic beaches. Even if, in summer, it can get quite crowded, there is plenty of room for all to enjoy its kilometres of sandy beaches and two small ports.The port of Saint Martin is like a small version of La Rochelle, enclosed behind seventeenth century ramparts designed by Vauban, and part of the Vauban UNESCO world heritage site.
La Rochelle is located half way down the Atlantic coast of France
By plane - Nearest airports: La Rochelle, Limoges, Bordeaux
By road : La Rochelle is 7 hours drive from Calais, 5½ hours from Paris, and 2 h from Bordeaux.
By train: Train station La Rochelle .
Direct TGV services from Paris Gare Montparnasse (3hr 15), and Intercity services from Bordeaux (2h 15)
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