A good spot to watch the action in La Rochelle is the Brasserie des Dames on Place Barentin. From the sunny terrace there’s a perfect view of the two famous towers guarding the Old Port and, on the other side, the Porte de la Grosse Horloge, the clock tower marking the entrance from the port into the medieval city. On a July afternoon, the scene is lively with locals and festivalgoers milling around between concerts and admiring the crafts displayed on the quays. But La Rochelle, nicknamed “La Rebelle”, was not always so peaceful.
In the Middle Ages, it was the most important French port on the Atlantic coast, growing rich and powerful from the wine and salt trades. In the 16th century, the city was caught up in the new ideas of the Reformation, and eventually declared itself a free city as well as the capital of the French Protestants. But Louis XIII and Richelieu could not accept this affront to the unity of the kingdom. In 1627 and 1628, they laid siege to La Rochelle for 13 long months. Abandoned by its British allies and famished, the city had to ask for royal mercy.
Stripped of its privileges, its ramparts in shambles, the city nevertheless bounced back to become an important center of trade with the New World. Sugar from the Antilles, cotton from Louisiana, furs from CanadaP and the port’s role in the triangular slave trade—helped to put La Rochelle on the map again, not only as an economic power but also as an artistic and intellectual cen-ter. The Musée du Nouveau Monde on Rue Fleuriau documents the city’s relationship with the Americas with fascinating old maps, paintings, engravings and Native American artifacts.
A strategic site during World War II, La Rochelle was used as a submarine base by the Germans and also harbored a pocket of French resistance, starting with the mayor, Léonce Vieljeux, who was deported and shot at the age of 80. A street in the historical center of the town bears his name. But the city itself was spared from destruction and today visitors can still enjoy a leisurely stroll through its charming old streets and their famous arcades.
Built by merchants who wanted to display their wares and protect customers from bad weather, the arcades cover about six kilometers (nearly four miles) all through the downtown area. Today many other areas are pedestrian-only, including the Rue du Temple with its remaining medieval houses. While much of the Francofolies activity is centered around the Old Port, a visit beyond the clock tower is a must. You should not miss the beautifully ornate turn-of-the-16th-century Hôtel de Ville, stamped with the initials of Henry IV and Marie de Medici; the Grande Rue des Merciers with its houses dating back to the 1600s; or the Rue de l’Escale paved with Canadian stones first used as ballast on ships bringing furs to France. Among the old town’s many museums is the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle with its Cabinet Lafaille, a perfect 19th-century curiosity cabinet installed in beautiful wood-paneled rooms. The Office de Tourisme organizes several guided tours of the old town, including a nighttime stroll following in the footsteps of a night guard.
A walk through town can end in the Parc Charruyer, a long strip of greenery that provides peace and quiet along a meandering stream. The park ends at the Plage de la Concurrence, a small beach very close to the city center. While it does not provide much swimming opportunity, a tired traveler can enjoy a nap along its retaining wall with the soft lapping of water in the near distance. At least outside of festival days. How did La Rochelle come to attract a festival focused on the new talents in French music? The history of the Francofolies is closely tied to one man. Jean-Louis Foulquier, nationally known for a music program called Pollen, got the idea for the festival in Montreal in the 1970s. “It soon appeared to me that this party had to take root in La Rochelle and nowhere else,” he said about the connection between Quebec and his native city. “La Rochelle is the port from which the French took off to conquer the New World.” (Foulquier retired from festival activity in 2004.)
Launched in 1984, the festival was meant to uncover new talents of the chanson francophone. French artists like Jacques Higelin, Bernard Lavilliers, Renaud or Véronique Sanson were the early festival’s first stars, along with musicians from Quebec including Dan Brigras, Richard Desjardins, Jean Leloup and Lynda Lemay. Concerts are divided
among several venues including the out- door stage of Saint Jean d’Acre beneath the Lantern Tower at the far end of the port and the Coursive theater.
The 2008 program includes an open-ing concert with singer-songwriter Cali (Bruno Caliciuri) and Alain Bashung. Other noted artists this year are Vanessa Paradis, Christophe Maé, Christophe Willem and Thomas Dutronc. There will be a special concert honoring the late Nino Ferrer and another on the theme “We are all Claude François” during which a dozen musicians will revisit the iconic singer of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
After the Francofolies crowd leaves town, it might be a good idea to stick around to enjoy a quieter version of the city. From July 19–25, La Rochelle hosts both a theater festival and the start of the sailing race La Solitaire du Figaro, which sets off from here to finish in Brittany after a 1,880-nautical-mile circuit through the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay.
Other local attractions include the aquarium, one of the biggest in Europe, and, opposite the port among the former shipbuilding workshops of the Ville-en- Bois quarter, the Musée Maritime and the Musée des Automates with some 300 wind-up figures. By jumping on a boat in the port, visitors can tour the Ile d’Aix, where Napoleon was exiled after Waterloo, or the oval Fort Boyard fortress. By car, it’s an easy drive over the bridge to the Ile de Ré, a formerly quiet island where many French celebrities now have summer homes. And 20 minutes to the south, shipbuilders in the port of Rochefort are constructing a full-sized replica of the Hermione, the boat that took La Fayette to America.
LA ROCHELLE NOTEBOOK
Francofolies festival website
Résidence de France 43 rue du Minage, 05.46.28.06.00. A cozy, ivy-covered hotel with 16 rooms.
Masqhotel 17 rue de l’Ouvrage à Cornes, 05.46.41.83.83. A brand new contemporary design hotel.
L’Aunis 14 rue Saint Jean du Pérot, 05.46.41.03.00
La Petite Auberge 25 rue Saint Jean du Pérot, 05.46.41.28.43
Richard et Christopher Coutanceau, Plage de la Concurrence, 05.46.41.48.19
Les Flots 1 rue Chaîne, 05.46.41.32.51
Le Comptoir des Voyages 22 rue Saint Jean du Pérot, 05.46.50.62.60
L’Entracte 35 rue Saint Jean du Pérot, 05.46.52.26.69
La Solette 11 rue de la Fourche, 05.46.41.06.33
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of France Today.