Tootlafrance has a quick look over the coastal Atlantic city of La Rochelle to see if has all the elements required for the perfect French holiday
The first I ever heard of the city of La Rochelle was in the great Rough Guide to France, which described it as “the most attractive and unspoilt seaside town in France.”
Given the fact that there seem to be as many attractive and unspoilt seaside towns in France as there are stars in the sky, this was a very bold statement. To cut a long story short… they were right.
When you arrive in La Rochelle, the first thing you notice is that it is not just a seaside town: It’s a laid-back fortress of a city (if there is such a thing). Its white limestone streets reflect the warm sun and centuries of history. The colonnaded streets in the centre with all sorts of interesting shops and cafés set under their shaded arches are irresistibly inviting and the impressive long spread of restaurants by the inner harbour overlooked by the clock tower make for as charming a location as you’ll find anywhere in this salty old sea dog of a genteel city.
The attractiveness and well-preserved state of the city centre owes much to the attitude and work of a revolutionary mayor called Michel Crépau. He had the foresight to shout “NON!” to developers in the early 1970s (a real shock-horror at the time, apparently) and set about protecting and enhancing the character of the city centre.
But back to the beaches… There are two main beaches in La Rochelle. The first one is a short-ish strand within a very short-ish walk of the city centre called Plage de la Concurrence. The sand here is imported and what it might lack in splendour, it more than makes up for in convenience.
The other beach is at Les Minimes. This is a kilometre or so out from the city centre, but close to the main camp site in the town. In any case, there is a huge car park at the beach so even on the busiest days it’s possible to find a space. It’s one of those beaches where you’re in nice and deep without having to walk out too far and there’s a great buzz of activity going on all the time both on the water and on the sand.Apart from the really great pleasure in simply sauntering or cycling around La Rochelle, there is a lot to see and do in this town. One of the unmissable facilities of the town is the Parc Charruyer. This serpent-shaped public park runs 1.5km from the northern limits of the original walled town to the wide elegant boulevards of Allées du Mail and the aforementioned Plage de la Concurrence.
It’s the beating green heart of La Rochelle, complete with playgrounds, trees, lakes filled with ducks that want to be fed crumbs of bread and even an enclosure filled with young deer that love to be fed lettuce. It constitutes hours upon hours of cost-free entertainment for small children and adults alike.
Another great Rochelais facility is the Aquarium. It claims to be the largest in Europe. It’s not the only aquarium to put in such a play for supremacy but they might well be right on this occasion.
The Natural History Museum reflects the glory of La Rochelle’s and France’s past as a colonial power and the stunning collection of stuffed animals and preserved invertebrates will prove more entertaining than it might sounds – at least, that’s what we’ve found.
Get Yourself There
Brittany Ferries (www.brittanyferries.ie) operate a weekly ferry service to Roscoff (a 5-hour drive on smooth roads to La Rochelle) while Ryanair (www.ryanair.ie) operate up to three flights a week direct from Cork to La Rochelle in June and July.
• Camping Municipal le Soleil. Avenue Michel Crépeau, Les Minimes, 17000 La Rochelle, France, +33 5 46 44 42 53. Standard (i.e. high) French quality camp site conveniently situated midway between the Old Port and Les Minimes and a 10-minute walk to the city centre or the beach.
• Hôtel Henri IV. 31 Rue des Gentilhommes, 17000 La Rochelle, France, +33 05.46.41.25.79. A popular and somewhat old-fashioned hotel in the heart of town just a couple of steps from the harbour, this hotel might consequently be a little noisy for some. €70-€85 per night.