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Savoring a fine old port

With its quaint harbor and Franco-American links, La Rochelle delivers history (and seafood) on a platter.

October 20, 2002|Peter Wortsman | Special to The Times

La Rochelle, France — We didn't take long to RSVP when friends who are renovating a 200-year-old farmhouse near La Rochelle invited us to visit in August. "It'll be good for the children's sense of history," said my French wife, Claudie, a college professor. I readily agreed, noting the proximity to Cognac, where the world's most famous brandy was born, and to Marennes-Oleron, France's finest oyster bed. And there was La Rochelle's new aquarium, a tantalizing lure for the kids.

Of course, there was also the setting and the scenery.

La Rochelle has one of the best -- and most picturesque -- harbors along the Atlantic Coast, as well as western France's largest yachting basin. The entrance to the Vieux (Old) Port is guarded by two 14th century towers, the Tour St. Nicolas and the Tour de la Chaine, from which links of the chain that once blocked the harbor at night still dangle. The view toward town is also impressive: An outsize clock tower rears its domed head above the town gate, dwarfing all other dwellings. Arcades and stately mansions grace medieval byways that play hide-and-seek in the folds of time.

We arrived at our friends' house on a Wednesday night and enjoyed their hospitality the next day. But that made us slow in getting started for our actual destination. We finally rolled into La Rochelle at twilight, when the gulls fly low and the sky closes in, reclaiming the city from the sea.

Our little clan of four joined a group of 80 or so spectators near the Tour St. Nicolas, the fortified, slightly off-kilter keep named for the patron saint of mariners. We awaited the appearance of a guide to lead us on the Ronde de Nuit (Night Watch), a hike through old La Rochelle organized on Thursday nights from early July to mid-September by the local tourist office.

Children don't usually take kindly to historical walking tours, especially nocturnal ones. But when at last our man emerged from the tower in medieval garb with staff and lantern, a ring in one ear and a twinkle in his eye, my kids followed him as if he were the Pied Piper, racing to keep up with his commentary.

Pointing his staff out to sea, the night watchman (alias Philippe Laugrand, manager of the welcome center of the La Rochelle tourism office) launched into the saga of the fishermen, monks, merchants and mariners who made their mark on this accommodating rock (la roche in French, thus the name).

The two-hour romp through the past made the cobblestones come alive. There were encounters with barefoot Franciscans, white-wigged merchants and women in 18th century decollete, all tourist office staff. It helped to have good walking shoes and at least a rudimentary knowledge of French, although the tourist office also runs walking tours in English.

Returning to La Rochelle the next morning, the Night Watch still fresh in our minds, we lingered awhile at the Vieux Port, which was full of small boats. "Will you buy me a toy boat to sail in it?" asked my 7-year-old son, Jacques, evidently charmed by the harbor's Lilliputian dimensions.

Toylike to the contemporary eye, this big bathtub hardly seems large enough to contain all the history that has sailed through. It was from here that the wines of the Charente, the illustrious brandy from nearby Cognac, and precious salt harvested from the neighboring marshes made their way into the world. Here the fiercely independent Huguenots, who had turned the town into the capital of French Protestantism, made a last stand before succumbing to the forces of Cardinal Richelieu. Some sailed all the way to the New World to save the faith and founded such havens as New Rochelle, N.Y. Later, the Vieux Port was a pivotal link in the so-called triangular trade with Africa and the West Indies, harboring heavy vessels laden with spices, skins and slaves. Fortunes were amassed and lost here by merchants and ship owners gambling on the trade winds.

Leaving the harbor behind, our crew entered the old city, as travelers and traders have done for centuries, through the Gothic Porte de la Grosse-Horloge (Gate of the Big Clock Tower). Continuing along the Rue du Palais, the city's central axis and shopping street, we ducked into the palatial courtyard of the Chambre de Commerce, built in 1749 in the style of a miniature Versailles. We passed the opulent 18th century residences of the great shipping magnates that line the stately parallel thoroughfares, Rue Admyrault and Rue de L'Escale.

We then stopped for a look at the luxurious trappings and human toll of trade at the Musee du Nouveau Monde (Museum of the New World) in the refurbished digs of an 18th century merchant family named Fleuriau.

The museum highlights the exotic and the dark side of the city's heritage of trade with Africa and the New World, a heritage with which, for better and for worse, we Americans are deeply bound. Cargo vessels sailed for Africa laden with French textiles, clocks and firearms and returned with a hold full of slaves.

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