Tip 11 for the summer, and one of our absolute favourites, is the city of La Rochelle, 139 km from our place.
Where to start?
Well, there is an excellent Wikipedia article on La Rochelle for those who really want to dig into the history of this amazing city. So we’ll just give you a couple of highlights – things we find interesting and want to point out:
From the Gallic tribe of the Santones to Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Plantagenets
La Rochelle is an ancient seaport on the Bay of Biscay. It was founded in the 10th century. But the area has been occupied way longer than that.
In antiquity the Gallic tribe of the Santones lived here. Subsequently the area was occupied by the Romans. They developed salt production along the coast as well as wine production, which was then re-exported throughout the Empire.
In the middle ages, legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122/24-1204) inherited the Duchy of Acquitaine from her father, William X. A communal charter promulgated by him, granted the city many privileges, such as the right to mint its own coins, and to operate some businesses free of royal taxes, factors which would favour the development of the entrepreneurial middle-class (bourgeoisie).
Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet (1133-1189) in 1152, thus putting La Rochelle under Plantagenet rule, until Louis VIII captured it in the 1224 Siege of La Rochelle. During the Plantagenet control of the city in 1185, Henry II had the Vauclair castle built, remains of which are still visible in the Place de Verdun.
The Knights Templar and La Rochelle
Seal of the Templars. Reproduced in: Thomas Andrew Archer, Charles Lethbridge Kingsford. 1894. The crusades; the story of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, p. 176, Public Domain [CC0 1.0], Wikimedia Commons
The mythical Knights Templar
had a strong presence in La Rochelle since before the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine. She exempted them from duties and gave them mills in her 1139 Charter.
This seaport city was for the Templars their largest base on the Atlantic Ocean, and where they stationed their main fleet. From La Rochelle, they were able to act as intermediaries in trade between England and the Mediterranean.
A popular modern myth (said to origin with the book “The Holy Blood, and the Holy Grail” 1982) claims that in autumn 1307 the Templars left Europe from this port, never to be seen again: A fleet of 18 ships, laden with knights and treasures, then set sail from La Rochelle. In October 1307 a warrant for the arrest of the Order was issued, and at dawn on Friday, October 13, 1307, scores of French Templars were simultaneously arrested by agents of King Philip IV (the Fair), later to be tortured in locations such as the tower at Chinon, into admitting heresy and other sacrilegious offenses in the Order. Then they were put to death.
The Order’s Grand Master, Jacques de Molay (1244-1314) was burned at the stake in Paris on March 18, 1314, and his ashes dumped into the Seine.
Cardinal Richelieu and the Siege of La Rochelle!
Who hasn’t imagined himself or herself to be d’Artagnan? Athos, Porthos, Aramis? The mean cardinal Richelieu
, or the duke of Buckingham? Perhaps the very evil Milady?
The growing persecution of the Huguenots in the area culminated with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685. La Rochelle, and the siege of 1627 form much of the backdrop to the later chapters of “The Three Musketeers” by Alexandre Dumas, père (1844):
When it comes to religion, La Rochelle’s history is a bloody one. To put a long story short, the city adopted protestant ideas during the Renaissance. Calvinism started to be propagated in the region, and during the 1550s the Huguenot presence in La Rochelle increased. In 1560, La Rochelle was the first French city, together with Rouen, to experience iconoclastic riots. Further cases of Reformation iconoclasm were recorded in La Rochelle from 30 May 1562, following the Massacre of Vassy. Protestants pillaged churches, destroyed images and statues, and also assassinated 13 Catholic priests in the Tower of the Lantern.
Louis XIII and his Chief Minister cardinal Richelieu declared the suppression of the Huguenot revolt the first priority of the kingdom. The English came to the support of La Rochelle, starting an Anglo-French War, by sending a major expedition under the Duke of Buckingham. The expedition however ended in a fiasco for England with the Siege of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. Meanwhile, cannon shots were exchanged on 10 September 1627 between La Rochelle and Royal troops. This resulted in the Siege of La Rochelle in which Cardinal Richelieu blockaded the city for 14 months, until the city surrendered and lost its mayor and its privileges.
The most charming area of La Rochelle is its old harbour. There are three medieval towers in the city, two of them guarding the entrance to the harbour, the Tour Saint-Nicolas (14th century) and the Tour de la Chaîne (late 14th century). The third tower, the 15th century Tour de la Lanterne, is situated right next to them. Several good restaurants are to be found nearby. No need to write more about this gem! Corot painted a beautiful picture of the Vieux-Port in 1851, which we have published underneath.
The Aquarium La Rochelle
The Aquarium in La Rochelle. Photograph by William Scot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
is home to 12,000 Atlantic, Mediterranean and Tropical animals. We haven’t been there yet, but if you are travelling with kids (or just have a keen interest in marine life), we guess it is an excellent place to visit.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts La Rochelle
The Musée des Beaux-Arts de La Rochelle. Photograph by Tux-Man (Own work) [Public domain, CCo 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
This museum is a well-kept secret! Actually, so well kept that the museum does not have its own webpage. A pity, really! You’ll find a tiny bit of information about it on the city’s own website
, but not much.
The museum’s collection includes some 900 artworks (paintings and drawings), from the 15th to 20th centuries, as well as far-eastern, historical and ceramic collections. Some of the more famous artists represented here are: Luca Giordano, Camille Corot, Gustave Doré, William Bouguereau, Paul Signac, and Aristide Maillol.
Excellent seafood restaurants!
Our favourite restaurant in the area is the Restaurant Le Bar André. They serve the most delicious plates of both seafood and other foods! We try to have a meal here every time we visit La Rochelle, and our favourite dish is their mouclade, a regional French mussel dish! (Here’s a recipe if you want to try making mouclade yourself!) You can dine both outside and inside.
This restaurant is very popular, so it might be an idea to reserve a table, but so far we’ve been lucky whenever popping in.
Waiting for Mouclade at the Restaurant Le Bar André in La Rochelle. Photograph © 2016 Greta Storm Ofteland