Why go now?
The world’s cliff-diving elite descends on this alluring city on France’s Atlantic coast this weekend for the Red Bull World Series. At least 75,000 people will throng the Vieux Port to watch the heart-stopping spectacle of professional divers launching themselves off the 14th-century Tour St-Nicolas (1). Once the hordes disappear, the port returns to its normal summer self – an agreeable mix of cafés, restaurants, craft stalls, buskers and chilled-out holidaymakers.
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted and East Midlands; easyJet (0330 365 5000; easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Bristol; and Flybe (0371 700 2000; flybe.com) from Birmingham, Manchester and Southampton.
The airport (2) is 5km from the centre. Bus no 7 runs to the central Place de Verdun (3) taking 15 minutes and costing €1.30 each way. From Monday to Saturday, it operates every 30 minutes, from 6.41am-8.33pm (yelo.agglo-larochelle.fr).
I travelled with Brittany Ferries (0330 159 7000; brittanyferries.co.uk), which has daytime and overnight crossings daily from Portsmouth to St-Malo, a three-and-a-half-hour drive away.
Get your bearings
La Rochelle’s medieval towers – Tour St-Nicolas (1) and Tour de la Chaîne (5) – stand guard at the entrance to the Vieux Port and are the city’s emblems. Cafés fill two of the three quaysides, from which several pedestrianised streets fan out. Carry on through the elaborate 14th-century Porte de la Grosse Horloge (6) to the left of the port to reach the arcaded streets of the old town. South-west of the Vieux Port is Les Minimes, an enormous pleasure port, behind which is one of La Rochelle’s main beaches.
The tourist office (7) is at 2 quai Georges Simenon south of the harbour in Le Gabut (00 33 5 46 41 14 68; holidays-la-rochelle.co.uk; en-charente-maritime.com), a district of colourful clapboard buildings that have more than a whiff of Scandinavia about them. About 500m south of here is the railway station (4).
The four-star Hotel La Monnaie (8) (00 33 5 46 50 65 65; hotelmonnaie.com) is in a handy location near the Tour de la Lanterne at 3 rue de la Monnaie. This 17th-century mansion has sleek, contemporary rooms as well as a small spa and works of modern art in the public areas. Doubles from €184, room only, and it’s worth upgrading from the standard size.
It’s only a short distance from the Porte de la Grosse Horloge (6), but the Vue sur Cour townhouse B&B (9) (00 33 5 46 27 70 59; vuesurcour.fr) at 10 rue Léonce Vieljeux is like staying in a French country cottage. Rooms flaunt antiques and tasteful florals, and some overlook the courtyard garden. Doubles from €120, including breakfast.
Un Hotel en Ville (10) (00 33 5 46 41 15 75; unhotelenville.fr), at 20 Place du Maréchal Foch, stands out from its budget rivals thanks to its adorable roof terrace with views of the Tour de la Lanterne. Rooms are simple yet stylish, with doubles from €79, room only.
Take a hike
Start at the Tour de la Chaîne (5) on the Vieux Port’s western quay and wander past the row of restaurants. Head under the Porte de la Grosse Horloge (6) and stay cool under the porticos of rue du Palais. Eventually you’ll reach Place de Verdun (3) and St-Louis Cathedral (11). Veer right on to rue Gargoulleau towards Place du Marché (12), where the superb daily market takes place every morning both in the square and inside the 19th-century market hall.
Carry on past the shops along rue des Merciers, which leads to what remains of the Hotel de Ville (13). This splendid, 17th-century town hall was devastated by fire in 2013 and is in the process of being restored. After a stroll through the warren of arcaded streets, cross the pedestrian bridge from Quai Maubec (14) towards rue St-Nicolas, where there’s a Wednesday and Saturday all-day flea market. Turn right to walk through Le Gabut (15) and finish at Tour St-Nicolas (1).
Lunch on the run
Arrive early to find a table at any of the cafés surrounding the covered market (12). Oyster lovers can pick up a platter from one of the fishmongers in the market and take it to La Gerbe de Blé (16) (00 33 5 46 41 05 94) where, until 1pm, they’ll supply bread, butter and a table for €4.50. Throw in a glass of local wine for €3.
Rue St-Nicolas is the place for quirky, independent shops including 200km à La Ronde (17) at No 33, where all of its handmade jewellery, crafts and food products come from within 200km of La Rochelle. There are also wonderfully wacky gifts and artworks and at Pourquoi Pas (18) (boutique-pourquoipas.com) concept store at No 2. International shops are along rue St-Yon (19) and rue des Merciers, the latter home to a branch of Nature et Découvertes (20) (natureetdecouvertes.com) at No 9, possibly the trendiest outdoors shop you’ll come across.
Take a view
You’ve got three towers to choose from, and the combined ticket for €8.50 for all three is good value (tours-la-rochelle.fr; daily 10am-1pm and 2.15-6.30pm, closing 5.30pm October to April). Tour St-Nicolas (1), dating from 1376, shows signs of its past as a royal residence and a prison, and has a 37m rooftop terrace. Tour de la Chaîne (5) is slightly shorter, and within its 14th-century walls are engrossing exhibits telling the stories of French settlers in Quebec, Nova Scotia and Louisiana. Spiky Tour de la Lanterne (21) was rebuilt in the 15th century and still has graffiti etched into its stone walls from former prisoners.
Go to church
St-Sauveur Church (22) (00 33 5 46 41 16 70; paroisse-larochellecentre.fr) has had a battering history, and its flamboyant Gothic bell tower is its only remnant from the 15th century. The interior is a relatively restrained one, with simple vaulted ceilings giving it an intimate atmosphere. Until 20 September, there’s a fascinating exhibit of contemporary sculptures by French artist Claude Klimsza. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-12.30pm and 2.30-6pm, Sunday 4-7.15pm, with Mass at 6pm.
Mingle with the after-work crowd at Cave de la Guignette (23) (la-guignette.fr) at 8 rue St-Nicolas. It’s all industrial chic inside this friendly wine bar set in a old forge, where, alongside traditional French wines, you can drink its own refreshing version of light fruity wines for €8.50 a bottle. It’s purely for aperitif time, as it closes at 9pm.
Dine with the locals
Les 4 Sergents (26) (les4sergents.com) stands out among the long row of restaurants along pedestrianised rue St-Jean-du-Pérot between the Tour de la Lanterne (21) and Tour de la Chaîne (5). The cuisine is as classy as the greenery-filled atrium dining room, where two-course menus start at €20 and dishes include a slow-cooked egg with truffle cream and parmesan.
Sunday morning: out to brunch
Restaurant Prao (27) (prao.biz) at 10 rue St-Nicolas not only does excellent lunches and dinners, but also puts on a generous Sunday brunch from 11am to 2.30pm. You can have a “petit brunch” of eggs, pancakes and jam for €12, or go for “le québecois” blowout with eggs, bacon, sausage, roast potatoes and various extras for €22.
A walk in the park – and the beach
Flop on the sands at Plage de la Concurrence (28), west of the Vieux Port. It’s at the foot of Parc Charruyer (29), a narrow 350-hectare park that snakes its way north for nearly 2km. They’re La Rochelle’s lungs, with an animal park, mini golf, wooded paths and shaded streams.
Take a ride
From April to September, you can join a boat cruise and explore some of the islands in the Charente archipelago, including Ile d’Oléron (30) (France’s second largest) and tiny Ile d’Aix (31). Boats also give commentaries as they circle Fort Boyard (32), a fierce-looking fortress (and former location for a TV game show) built in the 19th century but deemed obsolete by the time it was finished. Boats leave daily from the jetty at Cours des Dames (33) and cost from €20 (holidays-la-rochelle.co.uk).
The Musée Maritime de La Rochelle (34) (00 33 5 46 28 03 00; museemaritimelarochelle.fr) at Place Bernard Moitessier south of Le Gabut displays the long history of the city’s maritime industries, particularly fishing. You might need some French to get the most out of the exhibits in the main museum, but the chance to explore a retired meteorological frigate in the harbour is worth the cost of the €8 admission alone. Open daily from 10am to 7pm.
While you’re on that side of the port, spare a couple of hours for the Aquarium (35) (00 33 5 46 34 00 00; aquarium-larochelle.com) in Quai Louis Prunier. It’s an enthralling and imaginative space, with 12,000 marine creatures in 83 aquariums as well as a tropical forest. Open daily from 9am to 11pm July and August; other times vary; admission €16.
The icing on the cake
Cross the Pont de l’Ile de Ré (36) near La Rochelle’s airport and visit one of France’s most exquisite islands. It’s worth the €16 toll (payable only the way in) to explore this 30km by 5km island of whitewashed villages, long sandy beaches, vineyards and marshes filled with oyster beds and salt pans. Hourly buses go from La Rochelle’s train station (4) and Place du Verdun (3) and cost €5 for a day’s travel (lesmouettes-transport.com).
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