Seduced by the sea

 

There’s a seductive pace of life in La Rochelle and on its neighbouring island of Île de Ré, where the salty, sedate, and grandiose blend together brilliantly, writes CONOR POWER

The first thing we discovered about it is that being a nice seaside town is only part of the story. This ancient fortress of a small city (its population is officially about 80,000) has a history stretching back to the 10th century. The Old Port forms the real central focus to the town, with its cobbled quays and view to the medieval towers that formerly guarded the entrance to the city.

In former times, an oversized chain strung between the two towers kept belligerent invading hordes out. In these more peaceful times, the 15th-century Tour de la Chaine and the Tour St Nicolas today act more as the affectionate arms of La Rochelle, welcoming all who throng the Vieux Port area on fine summer evenings.

The range of restaurants is breathtaking. Local seafood is an obligatory and rewarding experience, and many of the best are concentrated in this part of town.

Radiating out from here is a fine city centre that’s characterised by white colonnaded limestone streets that make it a very pleasant place to stroll around on a summer’s day, with the arches providing welcome shade. In fact, much of the preservation of La Rochelle owes its existence to visionary mayor Michel Crépeau, who in the 1970s forced through the (then) highly controversial policy of pedestrianising and saving the character of the city centre from the advance of private developers.

La Rochelle has also been to the forefront in looking at ways of getting people around its streets more efficiently. The municipality was one of the principal pioneers of electric vehicles. Distribution of goods in the city centre is now being done almost exclusively by electric van and solar-powered shuttle boats have been introduced. Almost four decades before they turned up in cities like Dublin, La Rochelle had its own free bike scheme. The city has no hills to speak of and an elaborate network of cycle lanes make it a very pleasant place to navigate.

There is a well-groomed town beach (Plage de la Concurrence) of imported sand and a larger natural beach a kilometre or so out of the town centre in an area known as Les Minimes. This area is a hive of youthful activity in summer, with volleyball contests onshore and all manner of sailing competitions offshore. It’s a historical city with its own natural history museum, its own university and the largest marina on the French Atlantic coast. It also has its own microclimate, protected by the island of Île de Ré, which means that it gets even better weather than anywhere immediately north or south of it.

For those accompanied by small children – as we were – one of the highlights of La Rochelle is the Parc Charruyer. This long serpentine oasis of leafy tranquillity runs almost one and a half kilometres from the northern limits of the original walled town to the wide boulevard of Allées du Mail and the municipal beach.

It’s a shady place to stroll on a warm afternoon and is meticulously tended to by the town authorities. Its waterways are full of ducks and various other fowl who just love being fed. As well as playground facilities, there is an enclosure containing young deer. This is a particularly big hit with the younger ones, who clamour around to feed the “Bambis” through the chain-link fence.

Île de Ré is one of the city’s great attractions. Joined to the mainland by a bridge since 1988, you can access this beautiful flat paradise by bus, car or bicycle. You have to pay a toll on the bridge (€9 or €16.50 for a car depending on time of year, free for pedestrians and cyclists), but most find it rewardingly good value.

The low-lying whitewashed buildings of Ré with their orange tiles and green shutters reflect its low-key relaxed nature and the seductive pace of activity on the island seems to revolve around tourism and the more traditional practices of sea salt excavation and oyster farming. At the unfortunately-named town of Ars-en-Ré and the port-side capital of St Martin, the atmosphere is strictly Mediterranean. It was from here that notorious criminals (including the famous inmate/novelist Papillon) were despatched for the penal colonies of South America.

Nowadays, the high demand for the island’s charm, coupled with its strict planning laws have combined to make it a destination of choice for the glitterati of French society and many Rochelais refer to it as the “new Côte d’Azur”.

Former prime minister Lionel Jospin and American actor (and long-time French resident) Johnny Depp are just two of its regular visitors. The beaches on the island are spectacular at any time of year and, if you’re in any way observant, you’ll hardly fail to notice the large defensive bunkers that the Nazis installed during their own halcyon Île de Ré days. They proved notoriously difficult to destroy, so today they stand as historical monuments on the shoreline.

Back on the mainland, La Rochelle’s large choice of museums and visitor centres seems to reflect the prominence of its strategic location rather than its size.

There’s a lot to explore within the town including museums, shopping, churches and lively markets. The tourist office on Le Gabut organises a range of daily guided tours of the city, including night-time walks by characters in costume and cycling tours. Some are seasonal, so it’s best to contact the office beforehand. There are many boat trips available, mostly leaving from the Vieux Port, which visit the nearby islands of Aix and Oléron. One of the best ones available, however, is the Fort Boyard trip. It involves a tour around a spectacular man-made island fortress, which is now more famous for an adventure game show of the same name.

La Rochelle is my kind of place: it has an unpretentious and genuine friendliness about it. It’s also an exceedingly pretty town that boasts as many sunshine hours per year as the Riviera.

Within its relatively modest confines, it collects a lot of the world and wraps it in one attractive package, where the salty, sedate, historical and the grandiose all blend brilliantly.

5 places to stay

Hôtel Henri IV.

31 Rue des Gentilhommes, 00-33-5-4641-2579, hotel-henri-iv.com. A popular and somewhat old-fashioned hotel in the heart of town just a couple of steps from the harbour, this hotel might consequently be a little noisy for some. Traditional warm welcome at a nightly rate of €70-€85.

Hôtel Les Brises. 1 Chemin de la Digue Richelieu, 00-33-5-4643-8937, hotellesbrises.eu. Overlooking the rocky shoreline to the west of the town centre, this hotel has magnificent sea views and is a 15-minute stroll to the town centre. Double rooms from €80.

Hôtel de l’Océan. 36 Cours des Dames, 00-33-5-4641-3197, hotel-ocean-larochelle.com. One of the cheapest hotel options, this two-star establishment features many rooms overlooking the Vieux Port at nightly rates of €40-€55.

Hôtel Le Clos. Cours Pasteur, 17410 St Martin de Ré, 00-33-5-4601-1062, le-clos-saint-martin.com. A high-end option, but a real oasis of tranquillity located in the heart of the capital and atmospheric port of Île de Ré. Standard room from €135.

Camping Municipal le Soleil. Avenue Michel Crépeau, Les Minimes, 00-33-5-4644-4253. Standard French quality campsite conveniently situated midway between the Old Port and Les Minimes and a 10-minute walk to the city centre or the beach.

5 places to eat

A Coté de Chez Fred. 32 Rue St Nicolas, 00-33-5-4641-6576. The name means “beside Fred’s place”, his place next door being a fish shop. Inside, all is unassuming and nautical and owner Fred (himself a former fisherman) serves simple seafood cooked to perfection.

Les Flots. 1 Rue de la Chaine, 00-33-5-4641-3251. les-flots.com. Situated at the foot of the Tour de la Chaine, you won’t find a better place to watch the world go by in the heart of the Vieux Port. Seafood is superb and not as expensive as you might expect (Set menu around €40).

Le Bar André. 5 rue St Jean du Pérot, 0-33-5-4641-2824, barandre.com. Its cavernous nostalgic interior evokes the Douce France of the post-war era, stretching through a whole block in the Vieux Port part of town. A venerable institution in La Rochelle, going back to 1947, it offers fine seafood and service to match but at the higher end of the price scale.

Tonton Louis. Port de Péche de Chef de Baie, Rue Samuel Champlain, 00-33-5-4668-2597, tontonlouis.fr. With set menus starting at €22, this increasingly popular haunt is situated scenically out from the city centre between the fishing port and the beach.

Café de la Paix. 54 Rue Chaudrier, 00-33-5-464-13979. When you tire of looking at fellow tourists go by, why not order coffee with a sticky bun and watch Rochelais society go by in this genuine Belle Époque brasserie, complete with huge gilded arched mirrors, wood-panelling and elaborate ceiling décor.

5 places to go

Aquarium de La Rochelle. Quai Louis Prunier BP-4, 00-33-5-4634-0000, aquarium-larochelle.com. One of a growing number of aquariums claiming to be the largest in Europe, this could be it. Huge venue and superbly presented, it should not be missed by visitors of any age.

The Three Towers. la-rochelle.monuments-nationaux.fr. The “guard” towers of Tour St Nicolas and Tour de la Chaine, along with the nearby Tour de la Lanterne (aka Tour des Quatre Sergents), all have a fascinating collective history and can be visited all year round.

Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. 28 Rue Albert 1er, 00-33-5-4641-1825, museum-larochelle.fr. You might just be amazed at the range of exhibits on show at this fine natural history museum, located in an elegant leafy part of town.

Musée des Modèles Réduits/Musée des Automates. Rue La Désirée, La Ville en Bois, 00-33-5-4641-6808, museeslarochelle.com. These twin museums near the Minimes area are worth spending an afternoon in. The miniature models have great detailed displays while the automated machines offer a quirky step back in time.

Fort Boyard. You thought man-made island fortresses existed only in James Bond films? Visit here and you’ll think again!

Hot spot

Casino Barrière de La Rochelle. Allées du Mail, 00-33-5-4634-1275, lucienbarriere.com. The Rochelais generally value relaxation above noise levels, making nightclubs a bit tamer than you might expect, so the casino is an attractive option. On certain evenings such as Valentine’s Day and throughout the summer, you can get a meal/show/€10 in chips combination starting at around €40 per head.

Shop spot

Rue du Palais. The principal shopping street and one of the most charming in the city, featuring a wide range of boutiques, gift shops and local produce set against a backdrop of 18th-century townhouses, half-timbered houses and ground-floor arcades.

When to go

Mid-to-late June is best but earlier in the season the weather is already wonderful, the locals are at their friendliest and it hasn’t become too crowded.

More information

Office De Tourisme De Le Rochelle, Le Gabut, 00-33-5-46411468, larochelle-tourisme.com

Go there

Under a new franchise with Aer Arann, Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) run a seasonal twice-weekly direct service from Cork to La Rochelle.

Ryanair (ryanair.com) run a seasonal twice-weekly direct service from Dublin to La Rochelle.

Brittany Ferries (brittanyferries.ie) have a seasonal weekly service from Cork to Roscoff – approximately a five-hour drive from La Rochelle.

Irish Ferries (irishferries.com) run a seasonal weekly service from Rosslare to Roscoff.