Bustling, always on the move, 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 depths of its old port, defended by massive towers, and with a warm climate, life here is peaceful and has, throughout the year, a false air of summer holidays.

A permanent summer atmosphere

Three massive towers characterise the port of La Rochelle. The Saint-Nicolas tower, at the southern entrance to the basin, dates from the 14th century and has collapsed several times in the course of its history, which explains its "Tower of Pisa" side, leaning slightly towards the sea. It was home to the family of the captain in charge of the port's defence, whose living quarters can be visited today. One electric smuggler's blow and we are on the other side of the port, in the Tower of the Chain. It takes its name from the gigantic chain which, attached to the Saint-Nicolas tower just opposite, was wrapped around it to set up 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 street on the Walls, built on the old ramparts. When it was built in the 15th century, the Lantern Tower was also used as a lighthouse at a height of 70 metres. And this is where it all starts, around the water basin, between these same towers, for all the travellers who have just disembarked from the station, just a stone's throw away

Overflowing with pleasure yachts, surrounded on all sides by café terraces always breathing a summer atmosphere, the old port holds a central position in the discovery of the city. To the south, the old fishermen's quarters, Le Gabut and Saint-Nicolas; to the west, the sailors' quarter around the rue sur les Murs; to the north, the old town and its cobbled streets lined with arcades around the town hall

Le Gabut district, the former fishing village

To the south of the old port, next to the basin, this very modern district was completely redeveloped in the 1990s. Contemporary houses and buildings stand side by side with typical houses adorned with colourful wooden facades which inspired the nickname "wooden city". Formerly a fishing village, then an area of sheds and warehouses, the houses were once built by marine carpenters who only knew woodworking. The renovation, with the installation of the media library and the extension of the Aquarium, has changed the look of this district which seems to lead a small life apart. On the quay, cafés and restaurants terraces are constantly crowded, offering breathtaking views of the towers and the Big Clock. Enclosed between the floating dock, where pleasure yachts float, and the trawler dock, where a few fishing boats still sail, it conceals above all the last French weather ship, Le France 1. Disarmed in 1985, it now houses the maritime museum: a unique opportunity to discover from the inside these monsters of the seas and the daily life of the sailors who embarked on missions lasting several months. A little further along the quays is the Automaton and Model Museum: a hallucinating collection of mechanical toys and miniature cars from all eras. The highlight of this visit is the animated reconstruction of the Montmartre district, with its shops, cobblestones and metro, and a giant electric train circuit that will make young and old alike dream.

But if so many walkers in La Rochelle circulate in the Gabut district, it is above all because of its main attraction: the Grand 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 various continents, everything contributes to making it an exciting visit, even for those who, a priori, do not have a chemistry with fish and crustaceans. Wandering through the jellyfish tunnel, meeting sea turtles or shivering in front of the shark tank are among the most unforgettable experiences. Return by electric ferry to the old port to discover the old town of La Rochelle. A stroll along the Cours des Dames, a beautifully laid out quay, lined with terraces, facing the basin afloat. At its northern end, the Grosse Horloge 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, one enters the heart of La Rochelle, in the direction of 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 enamelled with ornaments evoking the different resources of the territory: vines, salt and, of course, the sea. During the visit, you will be able to admire the splendid coffered ceiling of the main building, which was built at the beginning of the 17th century, as well as the office of Jean Guiton, mayor of La Rochelle at the time of the great siege, whose statue dominates the Place de l'Hôtel-de-Ville. The exit is via rue des Merciers, which leads to the central market. There you will find the facades of some of the oldest houses in La Rochelle

On the market, around the 19th century covered markets, the activity is in full swing on Wednesday mornings and weekends when the stalls are filled with seafood products. On the north corner, the fountain of the pillory, dating from the 16th century, is worth noting. Take the rue du Minage on its left. This street lined with arcades, like so many others in La Rochelle, has always been home to shops, and its arcades were used to protect goods from the rain when they were unloaded. It leads to the vast esplanade of the Place de Verdun, dominated by the Saint-Louis Cathedral. From there, you can go back to the Natural History Museum, presenting fascinating collections of naturalized land and sea animals and insects from the region or brought back by explorers at the time of the great maritime discoveries. The Place de Verdun is often a departure point for visitors to La Rochelle. It is from here that buses leave for the neighbouring Ile de Ré, one of the most attractive ways to extend one's stay in Charente-Maritime

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When? From May to October to enjoy the good weather, long days and cultural activities

Get there. By plane, train (3h15 journey) or car (475 km by the A10 from Paris, then the N248)

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