Known as “La Ville Blanche” (the White City), La Rochelle is a delicate concoction of pale limestone, warm light and sea air. The city was one of the most important ports in France during the Renaissance, and its rich past is visible in the city’s grand arcades, turrets and timber-framed houses. Due to the foresight of mayor Michel Crépeau, the city’s historic centre and waterfront were wrested from developers, and its streets freed of traffic in the 1970s. Controversial at the time, the policy has since been adopted across the country – even surpassing Crépeau’s successful yellow bicycle plan, imitated in Paris and London.
Eleanor of Aquitaine gave La Rochelle a charter in 1199, releasing it from feudal obligations. This spurred rapid growth through salt and wine trade. The Wars of Religion devastated the town, which turned Protestant, and was ruthlessly besieged by Cardinal Richelieu in 1627. The English dispatched the Duke of Buckingham to their aid, but he was caught napping on the Île de Ré and suffered defeat. By the end of 1628 Richelieu had starved the city into submission. Out of the pre-siege population of 28,000, only 5000 survived. The walls were demolished and the city’s privileges revoked. La Rochelle later became the principal port for trade with the French colonies in the Caribbean Antilles and Canada. Many of the settlers, especially in Canada, came from this part of France.
The Vieux Port, where pleasure boats are moored, is the heart of the town. You can stroll very pleasantly for an hour or more along the seafront in either direction from the harbour: down to the Port des Minimes, a vast marina development 2km south of the centre, or west, along a promenade and strip of parkland, towards Port Neuf. Dominating the inner harbour, the heavy Gothic gateway of the Porte de la Grosse Horloge touches the entrance to the old town to the north, and to the south reaches towards the tree-lined pedestrianized cours des Dames, where sailors’ wives used to await their husbands’ return. Leading north from the Porte de la Grosse Horloge, rue du Palais runs towards the cathedral and museums on rue Thiers.
The area around La Rochelle is ideal for young families, with miles of safe, sandy beaches. Visiting in August is best avoided, unless you’re camping, or book accommodation months in advance.