LA ROCHELLE, France — If you want to enjoy an ancient sailor's city, and have tried the watering spots along the eastern seaboard of France for fashion and frivolity, try La Rochelle.
La Rochelle has a waterfront so picturesque that one wonders if it has been used for a movie set. The lovely old battle towers guarding the inner harbor look as if they came out of an old print.
La Rochelle was founded as a fishing village in the 10th Century, a rocky platform in the center of a huge marshland about 100 miles north of Bordeaux. Fishing has always been one of the main activities. Today, sport fishing boats and commercial fishermen steam in and out between the famous 14th-Century stone battle towers, and myriad pleasure yachts sail from the inner harbor or out of La Pallice nearby.
In 1199, Eleanor of Aquitaine (England's Queen Mother) gave the community of La Rochelle a charter that freed the town of the payment of feudal dues. At that time and long afterward England and France were battling mightily all along the coast.
The frugal inhabitants of La Rochelle capitalized on the quarrels between France and England to increase their privileges. They arranged to supply salt, wines from inland vineyards and fish to both French and British. The mayor, the municipal council and the shipowners formed a tight little band to increase their independent power and wealth.
Thus, La Rochelle became an independent city-state. Its fleet and the stone city walls and battle towers, with a huge chain that could stretch across the narrow channel to the inner harbor, offered fine protection from the storms at sea and from the fleets of France and England.
So, La Rochelle became a small but important commercial republic during the Reformation. The absolute monarchy in France, however, found La Rochelle a threat to the kingdom and to Cardinal Richelieu's unification of France.
By 1628 the might of the monarchy prevailed, despite the heroic efforts of Jean Guiton, the mayor. The resistance of La Rochelle came to an end. King Louis XIII, who had starved the city, tore down part of the battlements and made La Rochelle part of the French Empire.
But the beautiful protected harbor of La Rochelle had a rebirth in the 18th Century, helped by the importation of sugar from the Caribbean and furs from Canada. This period was also a cultural and artistic rebirth for La Rochelle; it became the intellectual center for western France.
The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars caused La Rochelle to slip again down the ladder of importance. It wasn't until the more modern deep-water port of La Pallice, outside the old historic inner harbor, was constructed that La Rochelle came back once again.
Cruise Into History
For the sailing buff, the entrance between the old stone battlements is a picturesque cruise into history. You can tie up along the old stone quay (temporarily) to iron bollards that have secured sailing craft for centuries.
Along the outside of the old cobblestone quay, a busy street circles the harbor, swinging past the old line of cafes, brasseries, bars and open-air restaurants that make a delightful waterfront. The cafes and stores look out over fishing and pleasure boats anchored or sailing out and returning to port.
You can see the ancient stone towers (there are three of them; the one now on land served as a lookout and early defense against an invasion over the beach) while you dine or shop or have an aperitif.
One of the best seafood restaurants along the coast of France is at the end of the quay. Any visitor who would like a lobster or seafood meal inside the busy unpretentious restaurant, or outside at a sidewalk table, can have Chablis or Bordeaux red from the area and the finest French seafood at Serge's. You can dine like Louis XIII and see your boat tied up nearby, safe and convenient. Dinner for two cost us $24.80.
There are plenty of waterfront bars and brasseries along the quay, also open-air and inexpensive. For 50 cents you can get a glass of harsh Bordeaux wine. A good cheese or meat sandwich is another 50 cents.
In these waterfront bars the waiters run their own tabs, buying the grog and food from the proprietor. They will not hesitate to overcharge tourists and visiting sailors, as they did my wife and me.
It was a battle in their rapid French and my limited low French to convince the bar boss of the overcharge, with the waiter protesting loudly. But I got the money back. Finally, with an eye-to-eye confrontation, I gave the waiter a measly 7-centime tip, about 1 cent. We glared back and dared him to make an issue over the gratuity insult.
With his boss there, he decided to back down. Any sailor in a foreign port becomes used to these overcharge attempts, which sometimes work.