La Rochelle, France

La Rochelle

La Rochelle is an Atlantic port city located on the Bay of Biscay on the Western coast of France and is the capital of the Charente-Maritime department.  It’s connected to Paris by a 3-hour high speed train and is linked to the Île de Ré by a roughly 2-mile bridge.  Île de Ré is a small island on the northern side of the Pertuis d’Antioche strait.

Why to go:  This is a beautiful region to explore on the Western coast of the country.  La Rochelle has a lot to offer on its own as noted below.  In addition, it’s conveniently located near the Bordeaux region which makes a nice wine-tasting complement to the harbor visit.  La Rochelle is a great city to visit on foot but can also be seen via bike using the bike rental service that was one of the first of its kind (started in 1974).

When to go:  Being a resort town on the water, summer is probably the best time of year to visit.  However, be aware that because of the French vacation schedules, August is a particularly busy month for La Rochelle and the surrounding towns.  It’s not a terrible time to be there as long as you come prepared with the expectation of seeing lots of fellow tourists.

What to see/do:  Tourism in La Rochelle revolves around the Old Port (Vieux Port) this is a charming, historic part of the city.  Central to the Vieux Port are the Three Towers (Tour St. Nicolas, Tour de la Chaine and Tour de la Lanterne).  These towers date back to medieval times and were originally built to defend the harbor.  Visitors can climb the stairs for a full view of the exhibits and rooms on display.  Also, within walking distance of the harbor, and a perfect rainy-day activity, you’ll find La Rochelle Aquarium.  The exhibits are translated into English and worth the wait in line to enter.  And, if yachts are of interest, you definitely want to make your way over to Port des Minimes which houses a huge number of leisure boats alongside a beach.  If you’re in town on market day mornings (Wednesdays and Saturdays), head to the covered market to browse the local farmers’ stands for fresh produce. And, if you happen to be visiting during mid-July you might want to attend “Les Francofolies de La Rochelle”, one of the biggest music festivals in France.

What to eat/drink:  Seafood is the specialty in this region.  You’ll find many dishes containing oysters, mussels, shrimp and clams among other local catches.  Look for Charentais mouclade if you want to try a local specialty dish.  This is prepared with fresh mussels grown on posts.  Salt is a popular element of the cuisine in this area, so if you’re in the mood for dessert, try the waffles with “caramel au beurre sale” (salted butter caramel).  Or if it’s an after-dinner drink that you’re craving, try some of the famous Camus Île de Ré cognac.

Where to make a detour:   As noted, ‘Île-de-Ré makes a great detour from La Rochelle via the bridge connecting the small island to the mainland.  It’s a long wait to cross the water in the summer but you’ll be rewarded with beautiful beaches, fantastic food and some great cycling if you enjoy the sport.  Another option is a 2-hour drive to Bordeaux wine country.  If you’re a fan of this tasty wine, it’s worth the excursion to the city of Bordeaux and the chance to explore the various wineries.