The mesmerising maritime town of La Rochelle has been winning fans for hundreds of years for good reason: beautiful buildings and streets, a picturesque port and plenty for visitors to see and do, not to mention the best seafood in France (probably!)…
Even arriving by train, you’re plunged straight into maritime La Rochelle. 1920s murals adorning the interior of the monumental stone railway station depict galleons at anchor in the bay. Ten minutes walk away is the real life update, thousands of private yachts at their moorings in the leisure port of Les Minimes, enlarged last year to become one of the five biggest in the world. The ranks of sleek white craft spill over into the Vieux Port, where the café terraces and broad stone paved quaysides seeth with tourists in summer.
The narrow channel leading into the old port is still guarded by the twin sixteenth century round towers between which a massive chain could close off the entrance, beside a third edifice, the Lantern Tower, standing just as it did when described by Rabelais in his 1532 best-seller Pantagruel. At the foot of the towers the 1947 brasserie of the Bar Andre, whose plateaux de fruits de mer Rabelais would have loved, may not be quite as historic, but is more useful, and more jolly with its extravagant marine decor.
Just inland from the quays, behind the ornately sculpted medieval Gate of the Grosse Horloge, colonnaded streets of grey-white mansions and shops and polished flagstone pavements testify to the wealth generated by a millenium of ship-building, banking, despatching emigrants and trading in salt, wheat, wine, slaves, and furs. Only an unfortunate Rochelais tendency to back the losing side in events such as the Wars of Religion has restricted the wealth of historic buildings in the city. In 1627 Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu besieged and sacked the defiantly Protestant city, so that few buildings preceding that date remain in the historic centre. Well but not excessively preserved and maintained, it’s still a delight to stroll around.
The best way to get up to speed on history is the Musee Maritime, which reopened in 2015 after a 10 year rebuild. If museums strike you as dull, think again. The Musee Maritime offers an absorbing account of a thousand years of Rochelais activity, through films, recreated interiors, objects, documents and clever wheezes such as a scale model of the fishing port around the 1970s showing the whole process from unloading trawlers at the quayside through gutting, washing, crating, auctioning, to re-loading aboard fishmongers’ lorries, re-enacted by dozens of little metal figures and their Dinky Toy vehicles. And it’s not all miniature. Moored beside the long row of yellow and red canopied sheds is the museum’s historic ship collection, all visitable: a stubby ocean-going tug, a great butch diesel-gobbling trawler and a big meteorological survey ship, the France 1, which you can wander through the cabins and kitchens and workshops of, admiring the functional 1950s interior design, before having lunch in the sun at the upper deck café/restaurant.
La Rochelle’s museum stock deals with life below the surface of the sea as well as above it, incidentally. The city’s aquarium, though still family-run, is one of the biggest and most spectacular in Europe, and if you’re not an aquarium fan either, don’t be deterred. The educational side of a walk through half a million litres of water divided into gigantic glass tank-theatres, some equipped with waves and tides, is undeniable. But from a frivolous aesthetetic point of view, the stunning array of fishy costume is even more striking, from dull bronze scale micro-mesh finishes smarter than any Porsche to Cartier-like sculpted silver plating and fluorescent oranges, mauves, whites and inky black silk on little tropical specimens.
Philip Sweeney has written and broadcast on culture and travel in the French-speaking world for three decades, for the Independent, the Telegraph, BBC Radios 3 and 4, and many other media. He is working on books on the French and Algeria and Cuba, seen through its food.