LA ROCHELLE, FRANCE, AN UNKNOWN JEWEL

Settled by a Gallic tribe and then taken over by the Romans, La Rochelle, France, has an interesting history. The city was under England’s rule during which time the Knights Templar were granted privileges there and established their largest base on the Atlantic Ocean. Several religious wars, the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution all left their mark. La Rochelle was the last French city to be liberated after WW II. Today it is one of the most beautifully maintained and picturesque cities in Europe.


Start at the Harbor:

  • Check out the Calypso, Jacques Cousteau’s ship, at the Maritime Museum.
  • Walk around Les Minimes, the largest marina for pleasure boats in Europe.
  • Dine at a seafood restaurant in the “Vieux Port” (Old Harbor), the heart of the city.
  • Take a boat trip to the Ile d’Aix or Ile de Re and view La Rochelle from the water.
  • Shop for handmade crafts, sold by the artists themselves on the waterfront.

Something unique:

  • Toy Museum (Musee des Automates) has a near life size recreation of Montmartre.
  • The Reserve Naturelle Marais d’Yves (Nature Center, free) has telescopes to help track migratory birds.
  • Aquarium La Rochelle, the #1 attraction for visitors, puts you in a submarine on the ocean’s floor. The café here is a wonderful place for lunch, especially the fresh seafood.

Learn a little history:

  • The Lantern Tower is the only medieval lighthouse still standing on the Atlantic coast, built in 1445. Read the graffiti on the walls left by pirates and prisoners held here.
  • Tour the three towers (now a National Monument) that protect the harbor.

Become French for your stay:

  • Go to the very back of the market here and buy a bunch of French lavender.
  • Shop along the Rue du Palais under the arcades and stop for a pastry.
  • Attend a mass (in Latin with Gregorian chants) at the Chapelle Notre-Dame dl’Esperance.
  • Try playing petanque with the locals.
  • Settle in at a café to people-watch with a café au lait and a pain au chocolat.

Above all, have fun and make some memories. Bon voyage!

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  • Only 28 kilometers south east of La Rochelle is Rochefort, a 17th century military harbor and important naval base at that time. Stop at Place Colbert where you’ll find Town Hall, several shops and restaurants and cute places for a coffee. The arsenal is fun for kids and the Corderie Royale, built in 1670, which made ropes for all the ships, and demonstrates that art today.

  • The Ile de Re, only 19 miles long and everyone on bikes (very few cars), is just a three hour train ride from Paris and a short ferry ride from La Rochelle. There are ten villages, all on the beach, and more than 60 miles of bike paths. Much cheaper than the Cote d’Azur and very much like Cape Cod, with a bike rental shop in each village. Local markets are fun for food, espadrilles, cooking supplies and interesting souvenirs. This is a quiet, fun place for families. House rentals available by the week or there are some small hotels.

  • The Plage Les Minimes is a great local beach, about a 20 minute walk from the old port. It’s clean with plenty of restaurants but gets really crowded in August. It’s a cheaper alternative to Ile de Re. There is also a water taxi to get there. The Marina Les Minimes is the largest in Europe and filled with yachts. Sit in a cafe there and become a “flaneur” (people-watcher).

  • The towers that guard the harbor can be visited and are filled with historical information. Buy a ticket for all 3 to save money or go on the first Sunday of the month (Nov. to Mar.) and get in for free. Views from the top are awesome. Also, there are many cute restaurants all around the harbor area, including pizza and sushi.

  • We traveled through Europe with a map and had the kids find places we were visiting as well as places they saw in ads, on license plates, etc. They got really good at this!

  • There are two islands you can see from the harbor of La Rochelle and they can be reached by ferry. Take a picnic lunch and spend the day.

  • Politeness counts so much in France. Be sure to say “Bonjour” as you enter a shop and “Merci” as you leave, even if you don’t buy anything. And even using your rusty high school French will go a long way because people in La Rochelle really appreciate that you’re trying. They are much more patient than in Paris with foreigners.

  • If your French is not perfect, try asking a teenager for directions. They study English and generally like to practice with Americans. They also listen to American music and know “The Simpsons”!

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