- Travel in France
- Where to go
What to see and do
- the connoisseur's guide to France
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.
of the old city surrounding the old port
During 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
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
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
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;
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
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
, located on board a ship called the France 1, which
spent many years as a stationary weather ship and beacon out in the
There is also a Museum of Automata
small scale models, located in the Minimes district, west of the Old
Harbour, and in the town centre "The
", 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.
the area - Around La Rochelle
rope-twining machinery in the Ropeworks
Former naval port twenty kilometres south of La
is most visited for its historic Royal
(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
Next to the Royal Ropeworks is the dock that is
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
A short distance from the Ropeworks is a unique industrial
heritage site, the Rochefort transporter
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
, a famous 19th century French traveller and writer.
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
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
arch, the Arch of
. 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
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.
Location and access
La Rochelle is located
half way down the Atlantic coast of France
plane - Nearest airports:
La Rochelle, Limoges,
La Rochelle is 7 hours drive from Calais, 5½
Paris, and 2 h from Bordeaux.
Train station La Rochelle .
Direct TGV services from Paris Gare Montparnasse (3hr 15), and
Intercity services from Bordeaux (2h 15) For timetables and
online tickets, see Trainline.com