Exciting, always in motion, firmly rooted in its culture but resolutely turned towards the sea, La Rochelle is one of those stopovers where the change of scenery is total. From the bottom of its old port, defended by massive towers, thousands of emigrants exiled themselves across the oceans to supply the colonies of the New World with labour. La Rochelle has maintained close ties with Quebec, as evidenced by its flagship festival, the Francofolies, which gave birth to its little brother in Montreal. And to take advantage of this 2019 edition, meet us between July 10 and 14.
Three massive towers characterize the port of La Rochelle. The Saint-Nicolas tower, at the southern entrance to the basin, dates from the 14th century and has experienced several collapses in its history, which explain its "Tower of Pisa" aspect, slightly inclined towards the sea. It housed the family of the captain in charge of defending the port, whose residential areas can now be visited. One stroke of the electric ferryman and here we are on the other side of the port, in the Chain Tower. It takes its name from the gigantic chain that, attached to the Saint-Nicolas tower just opposite, wrapped itself around it to erect an impassable barrier to all ships and defend access to the port. The third and last tower is slightly set back from the other two, at the end of the rue sur les Murs, built on the old ramparts. When it was built in the 15th century, the Lantern Tower was also used as a 70-metre high lighthouse. And it is here that everything begins, around the basin in the water, between these same towers, for all the passengers who have just disembarked from the station, a stone's throw away
Overrun by pleasure yachts, surrounded on all sides by terraces of cafés that still breathe a summer atmosphere, the old port holds a central position in the discovery of the city. To the south, the old fishing districts of Gabut and Saint-Nicolas; to the west, the sailors' quarter around rue sur les Murs; to the north, the old town and its cobbled streets lined with arcades around the town hall
The Gabut district, the old fishing village
South of the old port, adjacent to the basin, this very modern district was completely redeveloped in the 1990s. Contemporary dwellings and buildings coexist with typical houses decorated with coloured wooden facades that inspired the nickname "wooden city". Once a fishing village, then an area of sheds and warehouses, the houses were once built by marine carpenters who knew only woodworking. The renovation, with the development of the media library and the expansion of the Aquarium, has changed the look of this district which seems to lead a small life apart. On the quayside, terraces of cafés and restaurants are always full, offering breathtaking views of the towers and the Big Clock. Surrounded between the floating basin, where pleasure yachts float, and the trawler basin, where a few fishing boats still sail, it hides above all the last French weather vessel, Le France 1. Disarmed in 1985, it now houses the Maritime Museum: a unique opportunity to discover from the inside these sea monsters and the daily life of the sailors who embarked on missions lasting several months. A little further along the quays is the Museum of Automata and the Model: an amazing collection of mechanical toys and miniature cars from all periods
But if so many people walk in La Rochelle in the Gabut district, it is above all for its main attraction: the large aquarium, an adventure that began in 1970 and has become one of the main French tourist sites after four decades of expansion, innovation and improvement. The staging, the presentation of the different species, the reproduction of natural environments and biodiversity from different continents, all contribute to make this an exciting visit, even for those who, a priori, do not have any chemistry with fish and shellfish. Wandering through the jellyfish tunnel, meeting sea turtles or shivering in front of the shark basin are among the most unforgettable experiences. Return by electric boatman to the old port to discover the old town of La Rochelle. A walk along the Cours des Dames, a nicely laid out quayside, bordered by terraces, facing the afloat pool. At its northern end, the Big Clock Tower is a massive gate flanked by two high towers, which marked the entrance to the city
The old town, the heart of La Rochelle
Beyond the Grosse Horloge, you enter the heart of La Rochelle, towards the Place de l'Hôtel-de-Ville. The building housing the town hall was built in the 15th century and was intended to reflect the wealth of the city at that time. The prestigious architecture is decorated with ornaments evoking the different resources of the territory: the vine, salt and, of course, the sea. The exit is via rue des Merciers, which leads to the central market. Here you will find the facades of some of the oldest houses in La Rochelle
On the market, around the 19th century halls, activity is at its peak on Wednesday mornings and weekends as the stalls are filled with seafood. Take to its left the rue du Minage. This arcade-lined street, like so many others in La Rochelle, has always hosted businesses, and its arcades were used to protect goods from rain during unloading. It leads to the vast esplanade of the Place de Verdun, dominated by Saint-Louis Cathedral. From there, you can go back to the Natural History Museum
A mythical festival
But for music lovers, La Rochelle is above all a must-see musical event! Because in the heart of summer, the Saint-Jean-d'Acre car park is becoming a major meeting place for French-speaking song and contemporary music, with a programme that is most representative of popular song, more alternative song, shows for young audiences and the discovery of young talents. A large stage, shared each evening of the festival by several artists and several side stages to enjoy different atmospheres in the city. All year round, the "francos" is also "the francos' work site", a way of helping and promoting young artists. A very attractive program with renowned singers and young artists who join forces to thrill and dance the city for five days. See you in mid-July!
When? When? From May to September to enjoy the sunny weather, long days and cultural activity. To attend the Francofolies, please visit us from July 10 to 14, 2019.
Getting there. By plane, train (3h15 of journey) or car (475 km by A10 from Paris, then N248)
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OFFICE DU TOURISME DE LA ROCHELLE - More information on the website
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