Green Traveller's Guide to La Rochelle, France
In combination with our guide to Ile de Ré, Ginny Light provides a guide to La Rochelle, with tips where to stay, eat and visit based on her visit to the west coast of France this summer.
If La Rochelle sounds familiar and you are not exactly sure why, perhaps it is taking you back to the clatter of the classroom and a stern "asseyez-vous". For generations of British schoolchildren, French lessons and La Rochelle became synonymous thanks to the illustrious series of French language textbooks, Tricolore. A short ferry, train or plane ride and the daily comings and goings of a bakery-owning family in the port city can become a reality and a chance for ‘les rosbifs’ to brush up on their long-lost French.
La Rochelle is on the Atlantic coast in the Charente Maritime region. Its proximity to the UK has long made it popular day trip destination as well as offering a stopping off point for the islands of Ré, Aix and Oléron. It has a large marina so welcomes cruise ships and yachties in addition to Parisians in search of some sea air and fresh seafood.
The most striking and enduring feature of La Rochelle is its elegant pale facades. The limestone buildings and arched pavement arcades have aged gently and elegantly and are especially magnificent at sunset when they glow in the long, low light. Indeed, for centuries, writers and artists have spoken of the light in this part of the Atlantic coast, and the luminous effect it has on this ancient port city.
Rain or shine, the arches are an effective cover for shoppers drawn to the boutiques and cafes of the city’s historic centre. Many visitors while away a few hours hunting a souvenir stripy t-shirt or pot of sea salt from nearby Ile de Ré (more below on what to buy). Rather like Pisa’s leaning tower, parts of the substrata beneath the city are soft, so in places the buildings gently list to one side as the foundations slowly subside into the mud below. Despite the sinking foundations and years of salt-weathering, a huge amount of medieval architecture remains, notably the medieval timber frame buildings that clad in slate to protect the wood from the elements. This is mixed with ornate Renaissance houses and mansions of the 18th ship owners who profited from trade links with Canada.
What to do The hub of the city remains Vieux Port and it is here that most visitors begin their trip. The mis-matched entry towers of St Nicholas and the shorter Tour de la Chaine, whose top was blown off by some badly stored ammunition in the 17th century, are a starting point for visitors. The chain that used to hang between them to prevent ships from entering the port at night without paying their taxes, now hangs, weatherworn and gnarly, between some bollards on the quayside.
While the café-lined streets and two medieval towers remain unchanged, development is afoot to bring about more broad promenades to the port. The quayside was pedestrianised in 2015 and now the hope is that the ambling tourists of Vieux Port can be encouraged to explore more of Le Gabut and the area around the former fishing docks. When the work to what will be known as Square Valin is complete in July, the two harbours of Vieux Port and Chalutiers will be joined by wide pavements, a playground and trees. The fishing boats that once docked in Chalutiers now use Chef Baie-La Rochelle harbour outside the town. It was not a popular move among all quarters. While some residents and visitors complained of the ‘mauvaise odeur’ from the fishing boats that brought the oysters, langoustines and sea snails to the café tables, the fishermen were reluctant to give up their city-centre spot, but the former were victorious and regeneration of Chalutiers continues apace.
There’s still a fresh maritime smell in the air but it hints more at garlic from the local cafes than fish guts. What was the fish market is now a conference and events space and next to it is a vast glass building housing a state-of-the-art aquarium. The harbour is also home to the Maritime Museum, which incorporates a Météo France frigate for a chance to learn about meteorology as well as a tug boat and trawler to climb aboard. The area provides a good day’s entertainment, especially for families, who can skip the five-minute walk from Vieux Port to Chalutiers by taking the solar-powered boat from the foot of Tour de la Chaine.
Le Gabut is a stark contrast to the rest of the city with its brightly painted clapboard buildings that were conceived by a Danish architect inspired by his homeland. A scroll through online travel forums reveals mixed reviews for the area but much is being done to address this, starting with a new initiative for this year. In a patch of unused land the city authorities have given the green light to an experimental arts and dining venue called Belle du Gabut. The courtyard space looks like something out of Copenhagen’s boho Christiania district with its fairy lights, graffiti and salvaged furniture. It is open everyday from midday to midnight and is host to a varied programme of film, music and art. There’s outdoor drinking and dining, a children’s play area in the shade and a dance floor, should the mood take you. The space is expected to be open until the autumn.
Where to stay Hotel Le Champlain is handy for Vieux Port, market and shopping streets, just off Place de Verdun, where the buses terminate from the airport and from Ile de Ré. It is a sensitively refurbished Best Western with plenty of charm - antiques, a sunny courtyard for breakfast and a rather grand stone staircase. Rooms from E89 per night.
Where to eat L’Entracte is a chic little eatery one street back from Vieux Port in the restaurant-lined rue Saint-Jean du Pérot. The E19 ‘formule express’ menu is excellent value for a dish and dessert, or pay E22.50 to add a glass of wine and coffee. The food is fresh and locally sourced with an emphasis on clean, simple flavours and a range of classic and more quirky dishes. My haddock tartare on the more expensive Menu Plaisir (E32 for three courses) was delicate and fresh, although it is the beef tartare, prepared at the table, for which this restaurant is better-known.
Le Bar André in the shadow of the Tour de la Chaine is a La Rochelle institution popular with residents, yacht sailors and tourists alike. The E23 daily menu is good value for three courses or there is a choice of lavish seafood platters with the most extravagant, The Royal Andre (E59), including lobster, langoustines, prawns, oysters, clams and winkles. My cod brandade, a sort of fish pie in which the mashed potato is mixed with the fish and then grilled, was simple and tasty.
Where to shop For self-catering holidaymakers, the most affordable grocery shopping is in the large supermarkets on the outskirts of the city. However, a more immersive shopping experience can be had at the daily market in Place du Marché. Do as the La Rochelle residents do and ask to try before you buy. The selection of cheeses, breads, ham, fish, wine, fruit, vegetables and tarts include a great deal of regional delicacies that would make a good picnic. Most of the produce will not travel, but salt makes a good souvenir, packaged in little jars with a tiny wooden spoon.
Salt is one of the main local products in La Rochelle. Photo: Ginny LightSea salt businesses have undergone a resurgence on Ile de Ré with two main types produced. The most expensive, fleur de sel, is the pure white sea salt that is gently raked off the top of the salt that is left behind once the seawater has evaporated. The cheaper sel de marin is coloured grey by the clay that mixes with it when it is collected from the bed of the salt marshes. Esprit de Sel on rue Bletterie has outlets across the region and sells elegantly packaged salt as well as herby salt mixtures for marinades.
While the odd chain store is represented in La Rochelle’s historic shopping streets, many of the retailers are independent, with holiday fashion such as sandals, beach bags and cotton t-shirts aplenty. Rue des Merciers seems to specialise in smart French childrenswear, meanwhile the further one gets towards the port, the more stripes appear, with shops such as Esprit Marin on Cours des Dames offering Breton tops of every colour and style.
Getting around La Rochelle was one of the first French cities to introduce free bicycles in 1976 and ever since has embraced a low-impact public transport system. Like other free schemes, the bikes soon disappeared, with sightings reported from as far afield as South Africa. Now a payment scheme is in place with 49 bike stations dotted around the city and a deposit system in place to deter souvenir hunters. The Yelo scheme is free for the first 30 minutes and costs E1 per 30 minutes up to two hours and E3 per 30 minutes beyond two hours. The same branding exists across the bus network, which is part-electric and the sea bus, which operates from the old port to the former fishing port and marina courtesy of a solar powered boat.
Getting there By train: There's a direct train from Paris to La Rochelle, which is just over 3 hours, but from this July the LGV fast train will launch between Paris and La Rochelle reducing the journey time to 2.5 hours.
>> See Greentraveller's journey planner: Train from London to La Rochelle
By ferry: The closest ferry port, St Malo, is about 3.5 hour’s drive away. It is served from the UK by Brittany Ferries.
By plane: Direct flights to La Rochelle Airport are operated by Easyjet from Gatwick and B
More information: holidays-la-rochelle.co.uk
==== Disclosure: Ginny Light was a guest of the French Tourist Office, Atout France. She has full editorial control of the review, which is written in her own words based on her experience of visiting Ile de Ré in June 2017. All opinions are the author’s own.