La Rochelle

Soaring stone towers and a historic port define this French Atlantic city. And now that there are fewer holidaymakers, you can also enjoy the Ile de Ré, says Mary Novakovich

Click here for 48 Hours In... La Rochelle map

Why go now?

The return of French holidaymakers, en masse, to the cities is under way, leaving more room for you in one of the most attractive ports along France's Atlantic coast. Catch the last of the summer's heat now, or aim to be there around 13 September for the annual free outdoor spectacle Voiles de Nuit – a night-time nautical "ballet" and firework display in the old port.

Touch down

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted. EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick and Bristol. FlyBe (0845 084 8915; www.flybe.com) flies from Southampton, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow; and Jet2 (0871 226 17337; jet2.com) from Leeds Bradford and Edinburgh. The airport is 5km from the city centre. Airport buses run daily, except Sunday, to Place de Verdun (1) in the city centre; the 10-minute journey costs €1.20 (£1) each way. Taxis cost €10-€15 (£8-£12.50).

By rail, Eurostar (0870 518 6186; www.eurostar.com) can get you there in six to eight hours from London St Pancras via Paris, for £99 return if you book in advance and travel off-peak.

Get your bearings

Life revolves around the Vieux Port, at the entrance to which stands La Rochelle's distinctive stone towers. The quaysides form a square around the harbour, and it's a bustling place full of bars, restaurants, and even a tiny park with a carousel. Here, the Gothic gateway of the 14th-century Porte de la Grosse Horloge (2) leads into the old town, with its pleasing combination of arcaded streets and striking architecture that ranges from the medieval to the belle époque.

The main tourist office (3) is at 2 quai Georges Simenon, in Le Gabut on the southern side of the harbour (00 33 5 46 41 14 68; www.holidays-la-rochelle.co.uk). It opens Monday-Saturday 9am-8pm, and Sundays 10am-5.30pm. There you can buy a Pass' Rochelais, which saves on admission to 12 attractions and gives free city transport (www.passpartout17.org); a two-day pass is €5.90 (£4.90).

Check in

A 16th-century former convent, Résidence de France (4), at 43 rue du Minage, near Place de Verdun (00 33 5 46 28 06 00; www.hotel-larochelle.com), is the town's only four-star hotel. Modern, spacious rooms set around pretty gardens cost from €110 (£92) for a double to €400 (£333) for a suite in high season, with breakfast available for €12.50 (£10.40) per person.

The refined Masqhotel (5), at 17 rue de l'Ouvrage à Cornes (00 33 5 46 41 83 83; www.masqhotel.com) stands near the wonderfully elaborate train station. The interiors of this new design hotel are hi-tech and funky, yet comfort hasn't been sacrificed for style. Doubles from €108 (£90), breakfast €12 (£10) per person.

Right on the quayside, in the old port, at 23 quai Valin, is Le Yachtman (6) (00 33 5 46 41 20 68; www.logis-de-france.fr), a friendly three-star Logis de France that has its own pool – a rarity in La Rochelle. Doubles from €93-€110 (£77-£92). Breakfast costs €12 (£10) per person.

Take a view

Choose between three massive stone towers in the old port for sweeping views of the city and beyond. The 14th-century Tour St-Nicolas (7) and the Tour de la Chaîne (8) stand guard at the entry to the harbour, with the 15th-century Tour de la Lanterne (9) a few metres away along the old city walls. Tickets cover visits to either two, €7.50 (£5), or all three towers for €10.50 (£8.30).

Take a hike

Start at the taller of the two towers, Tour St-Nicolas (7), on the eastern side of the harbour, and walk up the quay through the Porte de la Grosse Horloge (2) into the warren of pedestrianised streets. Turn left into rue St-Sauveur, where you can admire the half-timbered 14th-century buildings before you make a right into rue de l'Hôtel de Ville. Soon you reach the flamboyant 17th-century town hall (10), with its Gothic walls enclosing the courtyard, with its magnificent balustraded staircase.

Carry on towards the Place du Marché (11), La Rochelle's covered market. It takes place every morning until noon. On Saturdays and Wednesdays, the market takes over the square completely. Turn left into the rue Gargoulleau towards Place de Verdun (1) and the Café de la Paix, a fine example of 19th-century opulence. Continue down the arcaded rue du Palais until you're back at the port.

Lunch on the run

The relaxed ambience of Le Gabut helps to make it the perfect place to settle by the water's edge with a pot of steaming mussels. The Pizzeria di Venezia (12), at number 27 (00 33 5 46 42 64 98) on the quayside, does great moules- frites for €10.90 (£9.10), as well as the usual pizzas.

Window shopping

Keep cool under the stone arcades of rue du Palais and rue des Merciers, where there's a very good range of shops selling clothing and kitchen goods as well as those specialising in all products to do with the sea – namely the pungent sea salt of the region. And as you're in cognac country, visit Paul Bossuet (13) at 21 rue Gargoulleau (00 33 5 46 41 31 92), which stocks an excellent selection of brandies as well as pineau, the local grape-based liqueur.

Colourful afternoon

La Rochelle's Aquarium (14), on Quai Louis Prunier (00 33 5 46 34 00 00; www.aquarium-larochelle.com), is one of Europe's biggest. More than 12,000 marine animals live in 65 tanks representing the world's aquatic regions. It's open 9am-11pm daily in July and August, 10am-8pm from October-March, admission €13 (£11).

An aperitif

A stroll along Quai Duperré turns up a bewildering choice of bars. If there's room, try the attractive Quai 22 (15) at No 22 (00 33 5 46 50 66 08; www.quai22.com), which is cheaper than the others: a happy-hour pint from 6-8pm costs €2.70 (£2.10).

Dining with the locals

The pedestrianised rue St-Jean du Pérot in the old port has at least a dozen restaurants, and one of the most enjoyable is L'Aunis (16) at number 14 (00 33 5 46 41 03 00). Carnivores and fish-eaters are catered for imaginatively, with starters (from €8.80/£7) including a salad of scallops and quail. Mains (from €15.50/£13) range from duck confit to grilled prawns or John Dory.

Sunday morning: go to church

La Rochelle has a bloody history as a Protestant stronghold, but that ended in 1628 after a lengthy siege led by Cardinal Richelieu himself. It took another century before the Catholic diocese was able to realise its plans for a grand cathedral, the Cathédrale St-Louis (17), whose austere exterior looms over Place de Verdun. The interior is awe-inspiring, with high vaulted ceilings. Open every day, Sunday Mass is at 11am.

A walk in the park

Parc Charruyer (18) is a relaxing haven on a hot day. Its 350 hectares provide cooling forests, streams, scented gardens, a skating park and even a little animal park that offers pony rides. At its southernmost tip is the Plage de la Concurrence, the closest beach to the old port.

Out to brunch

Sample some of the region's excellent seafood at Le Bateau Ivre (19) at 42 Cours des Dames (00 33 5 46 41 50 70), named, of course, after the poem by Rimbaud. This is one of the best of the restaurants facing the water in the old port, and opens at 11am on Sundays. The two-course lunch menu for €17.90 (£14) is great value considering the quality and freshness of the seafood and meat dishes.

Take a ride

You can cover much more ground in La Rochelle if you take advantage of the free bike hire offered by the city. The first two hours are free; then it's only €1 (80p) per hour. Look out for the rows of distinctive yellow bikes at Quai Valin (6) and on Place de Verdun (1). All you need is a form of ID such as a driver's licence.

To test your sea legs, hop aboard one of the boats that explore the islands beyond the port, including Ile d'Aix and the imposing Fort Boyard (20), where Napoleon was exiled after Waterloo. Boats (00 33 825 135 500; www.inter-iles.com) generally run twice a day from the Cours des Dames in the old port, and cost €17-€26 (£14-£21).

Icing on the cake

One of France's best-loved islands is just across the bridge from La Rochelle's airport. The Ile de Ré is a delight: 30km long and 5km wide, with beautiful beaches, great seafood and charming ports. Hire a bike at one of the rental shops near the bridge and cross for free (the toll is €16.50/£13 for cars, payable only on the way in) and explore the island as the Rétais know it. Or catch a bus from La Rochelle's railway station (21) for €13.20 (£11) return. They depart every 45 minutes or so (www.aunis-saintonge.fr/rebus).

Suggested Topics
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

    £25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Ashdown Group: Project Accountant (Part-Qualified Accountant) - Manchester

    £23000 - £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Project Accountant (Part-...

    Beverley James: Accounts Payable

    £23,000: Beverley James: Do you have a background in hospitality and are you l...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat