Travel: La Rochelle on France's Atlantic Coast

A colourful garden in La Rochelle.
A colourful garden in La Rochelle.
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Anthony Coppin, takes a hop over the English Channel to explore some Gallic seaside charm and culture.

I do like to beside the seaside, whether it is bracing Blackpool or the balmy Atlantic coast of France.

Seafood is plentiful in La Rochelle

Seafood is plentiful in La Rochelle

And when it’s time to go Gallic sur la mer where better than France’s Charente Maritime region with its twin jewels - the historic port of La Rochelle and the neighbouring holiday resort island of Ile de Re?

Visitors to the port and island are never more than a kilometre or two from the sea, and the sense of the briny is everywhere. Coupled with regular summer sunshine (demonstrably as sunny as parts of the French Mediterranean), it’s no wonder this region is popular with Parisians and other residents of inland France.

La Rochelle is known for the 1572 massacre of its Protestant population and the castle-like medieval towers which form an impressive gateway to the old port.

It’s difficult to imagine the religious persecution from half a millennia ago in this warm, welcoming, place where the old towers remain as strong as ever - these days as tourist attractions rather than navigational aids and defence structures.

Old port of La Rochelle's first fortifications

Old port of La Rochelle's first fortifications

The busy harbour is a playground for matelots of all kinds. Giant cruise ships which bring tourists from around the world, dock further downriver at a modern docklands complex.

One of the most striking things about the La Rochelle is its relative compactness. It’s easy to get around on foot, on public transport or bike.

One day I travelled au pied (on foot) taking in the delights of the ancient streets and courtyards, many with splendid gardens. Traffic isn’t too heavy and, amid the atmospheric architecture, it’s easy to imagine oneself back in medieval times.

France’s love affair with all things cycling is clear here. Several important cycle routes pass through the area, but for the less energetic who want to explore the port, riverside and seaside by bike, a few euros will hire you a “Yello Velo” for the day.

We explored many cycling lanes passing through parks, alongside beaches, and through the port’s new housing development, where modern homes have been created to exist in harmony with neighbouring commercial and maritime enterprises (including the acclaimed aquarium). The “Yello Velo” scheme links up with the port’s passenger ferry services so if you want to take a rest from pedal power simply hop on a ferry with your distinctively coloured bike.

Gentle cycling is also one of the many activities enjoyed on La Rochelle’s immediate neighbour, the holiday island of Ile de Re (pronounced Eel de Ray).

Getting to the island from the city takes about 20 minutes by car or taxi, via a sleek, modern bridge. The easy access to the island make it a magnet for thousands, especially in the peak holiday month of August.

The island and its 12 small villages boast fine restaurants (with an emphasis on seafood), easy to cycle bike lanes, vibrant open air markets (again,with a stress on seafood and fresh fruit et legumes). In the coastal villages there’s a cultured social scene and relaxed nightlife.

Alongside tourism, the other main industry is the “farming” and processing of oysters and mussels for both the local and national markets. You can even have a go at collecting shellfish on the beaches yourself, but make sure you check the sizes of your catches against the official size charts on the beachfront (or if in doubt leave the tiddlers alone!).

One of the many must see attractions on the island is the lighthouse, le Phare des Baleines. The climb up the 267 steps is worth the splendid panoramic view of both the island, the Atlantic, and the French mainland.

Like many seaside resorts, Ile de Re has donkey rides for children....but here’s there’s a twist. To prevent the docile animals from being bitten by midges, the Re donkeys are dressed in pyjama-style pants! It keeps the midges at bay, adds to the sartorialism of the asses and amuses the kids.

Perhaps Blackpool’s seaside donkey businesses could learn something from their equine-owning continental cousins?

The most memorable, and certainly restful part of the visit was chilling, with a cool drink, at the harbour side on the final evening in St Martin de Re. Our visit coincided with a music concert there, with folk, jazz and some pop music. Although the place was lively the atmosphere was relaxed and the music went on until after dark. I continued to enjoy the sounds of music and the crowds echoing round the waterside from my hotel balcony - while toasting this excellent part of France which deserved to be better known by British tourists.

Factfile

For more infomation on visiting France check out www.france-atlantic.com (click on the English version)

Facebook: La Rochelle Tourisme

Facebook: Destination Ile de Re

Flights from various UK airports including Manchester (Flybe service)

Anthony Coppin stayed at Hotel St Nicolas (www.hotel.saint-nicolas.com/la-rochelle/fr/). On the Ile de Re we stayed at Hotel La Jette at St Martin, which overlooks the attractive village harbour and upmarket shops.