Normally I save this until the end of the article, but I’m going to lead off with it this time. La Rochelle passes our ‘would we live here’ test with ease! It’s a beautiful small seaside city with long pedestrianised shopping areas, fascinating historical architecture blended with impressive modern buildings, plenty of yachts in the port, heaps of parkland to get away from the town that are perfect for kids, cafes and restaurants aplenty, and all of the cultural attractions you’d want such as galleries, museums and the extra impressive Aquarium.
Probably the only thing that lets the town down is the weather. I can imagine during the warmer months the city centre would be absolutely heaving. I’ve been told to forget about driving there during the summer because there are so many cars on the road it’s basically a permanent traffic jam. But we went in the middle of winter, and it was absolutely freezing. Having said that, we’ve been to places in winter here that haven’t impressed us at all, such as the Loire Valley, that are universally lauded for their beauty. The weather plays a massive part in determining if you leave raving about a place, or if you feel disappointed or let down in some way. The great thing about La Rochelle was that despite the arctic temperatures, we still felt a vibrancy about the city. There were still people out on the streets shopping, eating in cafes, heading off to uni and generally going about their business. We could envisage what La Rochelle would be like when the sun comes out!
Arriving in La Rochelle
The four of us, Sarah, Jack, my mum and I, made a beeline for the Tourist Office to find out the best way to spend the day. We were given a city guide that had plenty of information about what to see and do, along with a map that had a couple of recommended walking trails. I really love it when maps have recommended walking trails because I feel it shows they value having tourists in their town and want to make sure they see everything worth seeing. The city of Poitiers took it once step further. Their map has four walking trails, each one colour coded, then as you step outside the tourist office, there are four painted lines on the ground heading off in various directions. Instead of trying to following the walking trail on the map, you just follow the coloured lines on the ground. Now that’s taking care of your tourists! However, you want to make sure you don’t just rigidly stick to the walking trails, because often the best experiences are those off the beaten track.
We jumped back in the car and parked in the underground car park close by. One great thing about not being in Australia is paying for parking. Our five hour parking costs in La Rochelle was around €4, in Australia in a similar car park it would have been closer to $60! It’s scandalous how much people are charged for parking in Australia, legalised theft if you ask me.
Our 90 minute walking trail took us around four hours as we stopped for lunch and did plenty of window shopping along the way. For the whole month of January every shop in France has a sale. And I’m not just talking about the poor excuse for a sale they have in Australia where they plaster their store with ‘SALE’ signs, then have one rack of rubbish clothes discounted while the rest of the store remains extortionately overpriced. In France, everything is anywhere from 30-70% off, including new season clothing. Needless to say that we’ve been able to replenish our wardrobes with a few items, after all it makes good financial sense right? Here are a few places we saw along the way:
Along with the nearby Ancient Bassin des Chalutiers and Bassin à flot, this is where all of the yachts are moored in La Rochelle. It’s a fantastic site as the Vieux Port, with the St Nicolas (was a defensive tower, then a state prison) and The Chain Towers (houses the system for raising and lowering the gate) creating an impressive entrance. It’s nestled right up alongside the main road that runs through town, and there must have been at least 100 yachts in dock, some of them worth $millions. As I’ve mentioned it was very cold, and there was hardly any water, so many of the boats were resting on the port floor. But it was still great to see and we could all imagine how great the place would look in the summer months.
The Great Clock Tower
The main entrance point into the town centre, the Great Clock Tower was built in the 14th century and originally had two entrance points, one for carts, the other for pedestrians. In 1672 this was reduced to a single arch that survives to this day, with the top of the gate added in 1746.
The Law Courts and Stock Exchange
Along Rue de Palais, the main road you enter as you pass through the Great Clock Tower, is where you’ll find the Law Courts and Stock Exchange in close proximity. The Law Courts were built during the reign of Henry IV in 1604 in Corinthian style, with strong columns the feature of the building. To appreciate the building properly you need to stand back, because if you walk past on the same side of the street there’s a good chance you might miss it! The Stock Exchange was home to the Chamber of Commerce from 1760 to 2002. It’s a really beautiful building, simply designed but the perfect proportions really do stand out. Well worth a visit.
The Town Hall
Definitely the most emblematic building in La Rochelle’s historic old town centre, it has a really decorative facade that fortunately survived the catastrophic fire of 2013. Fortunately all of the towns treasures and historic artefacts were saved, but internally the building was gutted and restoration work has begun that is expected to take five years.
The Cathedral was built after the 1628 Great Siege had ended, when the town surrended and the Catholics took over. It wasn’t until 1784 when it was eventually finished and consecrated by the Bishop of Crussol d’Uzés.
Aquarium La Rochelle
We didn’t go into the aquarium because we didn’t have enough time, but we’ve heard amazing things and if we go back we’ll definitely make time. It’s located near the city centre and it’s one of the largest private aquariums in Europe, holding three million litres of sea water in its tanks. Featuring marine life from the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean and nearby tropical seas, there are 12,000 species from jellyfish to sharks. It’s open every day of the year and costs €15 for adults, €12.50 for students, €11.50 for children 3-17, and is free for kids under three. You can also hire audio guides for €2-3.
There are more than 350 hectares of parks around La Rochelle, but the biggest and the best is Parc Charruyer. At the southern end of the park are animal enclosures with deer, goats, peacocks, swans and ducks among other animals, while to the north there’s a children’s playground and mini skateboard park. It’s a great place for parents to relax while the kids check out the animals and blow off some steam.
We hope to be back
There is so much to do in La Rochelle you could literally spend weeks here and never get bored. Apart from walking tours, shopping, museums, galleries, parks and the Aquarium, there are also fishing and boat tours, sailing, sea kayaks, swimming pools and beaches, and wellness centres. You can be entertained at the Comedy Theatre, Music Hall, Casinos, festivals and a huge calendar of events jam packed across the whole year. As you can tell, I’m a bit of an advocate for La Rochelle!
While La Rochelle is easily explored by foot, we high recommend hiring bikes. When I say hiring, the first two hours are actually FREE, then after that the cost is so low that it hardly costs anything for the whole day! There are 160km of cycling tracks around La Rochelle, so there’s plenty to explore.
We hope to get back to check out a lot of the things we missed. We didn’t get to explore the nearby islands, Ré, Aix and Oléron, as they worth a day each of exploring themselves. And there’s plenty we didn’t get to see in La Rochelle itself. If we’ve got enough money in the bank to add La Rochelle to the itinerary when we leave our current housesitting assignment, then we’ll definitely make the effort to get there once again. And we strongly suggest you make the effort to get to La Rochelle as well.