When we were in France two years ago, we went to La Rochelle after reading Ina Caro’s chapter on this historic city in her book, “Paris to the Past.” Like her, we immediately fell in love with the place and returned later that year. Since then we’ve looked forward to a trip back to La Rochelle and Monday, off we went. We are happy to report that we love this place even more than ever.
First, our hotel. The first trip two years ago we lucked into the best room in the place: top floor, seaward corner. From its balcony we can watch the hundreds of boats going into and out of the harbor, many of them sailing students in classes.We can watch the tide covering and uncovering Richelieu’s Dike, watch the sunset, and just generally enjoy life. This trip I had requested that room when I booked online but when we arrived, we learned that I had mistakenly also asked for a room with twin beds (I don’t remember doing that) and so we had a different room. But the two managers on duty leapt into action with their computers and fifteen minutes later, had re-arranged room assignments so we could have our favorite room. Talk about customer service! Here’s why we like that room:
La Rochelle is quite an historic town. For many years it was one of several towns that had permission of the French king to be Protestant. However, in 1627 that paragon of religious tolerance Cardinal Richelieu decided that he’d had just enough of that and laid siege to the city, building a dike across the harbor mouth to prevent La Rochelle from getting food and military supplies from the sea. The city, fearing surrender would mean a repeat of the Huguenot slaughter of 1572, held out. After 14 months, the population had dropped from 28,000 to 5,000 and the city surrendered, losing all its rights to religious freedom. I think the Cardinal forgot the “love your neighbor as yourself” part of his religious training…
We were a little worried about what it would be like here in the middle of vacation season for the French. It was indeed jammed with French (and some Belgium and Dutch and British) tourists, but we loved even that part; La Rochelle is big enough to absorb them all and they all seemed to be in the area around the old port. There were thousands of tourists – all ages, sizes, shapes, many families, enjoying vacation in the great weather, just as we were. We walked back from dinner at 10:30 the last night, and the area around the old port was jammed. It was great fun, actually.
Laurie is an inveterate shoe-watcher, marveling at the variety of not-exactly sensible footware, particularly since most of these old cities have old cobblestone walks. She made me take this picture of the perfect strolling shoe:
On the other hand (foot?), it was all I could do to keep her from rushing in to buy these shoes:
I talked Laurie out of buying those shoes by pointing out that she had just bought another pair, specially for the trip to La Rochelle. Here’s proof: Laurie’s feet in her new shoes (and our favorite red wine):
Laurie loves to dip her toes in the Atlantic ocean when we’re at La Rochelle. Here she is standing on the only remnant of Richelieu’s dike (see above):
One thing we find interesting about La Rochelle is that the buildings of the downtown area all seem to have survived 300-400 years, not recently restored but continually maintained (not always well). In Paris, you’ll see blocks of beautiful old buildings with a modern monstrosity right in the middle; here, there’s none of that, so the streets have a distinctly ancient feel to them. Take away the cars and the modern stores on the ground floor, and you’re in an 18th century city. Here are some pictures of the downtown area.
And you just have to love the sign on this pharmacy:
We had some fine meals in La Rochelle, as you can imagine for two seafood-loving souls. Dinner our last night was at an excellent restaurant, Le Thiers Temp, where we both had swordfish. Now, I love swordfish and have it every time I can, and I can tell you that this was the best swordfish I’ve ever had, anywhere.
Le P’tit Bleu – we had grilled mussels (every restaurant in La Rochelle must serve mussels) and grilled calamari. You order, get a table in the back and a few minutes later a server shows up with your food, still too hot to eat. Both mussels and clamari were great. We actually love Le P’tit Bleu – great food, low cost, sitting right next to the water of the old port on a warm night. Pretty nice.
La Rochelle has a huge market that seems to be there every day. Want strawberries or raspberries? We got ’em:
That’s La Rochelle. It is our favorite place in France and right up there on our list of favorite places in the world – maybe at the top. We already are looking forward to returning next year.