I had never heard of the seaside town of La Rochelle before first visiting last year. But that has more to do with my perspective as an American than it does anything else. This picturesque community has long been a hot spot for European tourists, but here are some of my reasons why I think La Rochelle should be on everyone’s must-visit list and why it’s definitely on mine.
1. Easy to get reach – Located on the Atlantic Coast of France, La Rochelle is easy to reach by plane or, more likely, train. The trip from Paris is less than two-hours on the high-speed TGV and is a pleasant trip through the French countryside. Once you’re there the city is also really easy to navigate on foot, depending on where your hotel is located. I stayed at the Hôtel Saint-Nicolas, which is just seconds away from the harbor and main sights. To really feel like a local, be sure to rent a bike in La Rochelle for the afternoon or even your entire stay. The first hour is free, thereafter you must pay.
2. The food! – This could be said of most cities and villages in France, but the food in La Rochelle absolutely added a lot of fun to my time there. The local restaurants I tried served fairly traditional cuisine, but with a modern edge. One of my favorites was at a little wine bar near the port where the unique wine and dinner pairings stole the culinary show. Salt is also a big commodity in this region, namely fleur de sel, and it is found everywhere and in everything. The best manipulation of the condiment I ate though was at an ice cream shop that delivered a mouth watering Fleur de Sel ice cream that had me going back for seconds.
3. Great for history lovers – Europeans probably scoff whenever they hear an American talk about the omnipresence of history in Europe, but it’s true, it’s of endless fascination to us. Personally, it’s amazing that I can walk though a town and see so many centuries of history on display, ready to be discovered. La Rochelle is no different and thanks to its position on the coast, it has been an important city for a long time. Biking around town you see old crosses from when the Knights Hospitalier were there, a Crusader brotherhood that were widespread throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Still more recent history is on display though, including the Quebec flag that flies proudly overhead. Many immigrants to Canada came from the La Rochelle area and the city has never forgotten its important ties to the New World.
4. Île de Ré – Easily reached by ferry, the island known as Île de Ré is a great day trip for a more pastoral retreat. Oddly enough, the island has near perfect summer weather, getting as much sunlight as France’s southern coast. Over the years this has made it a popular tourist destination, but lately it’s made a come back from the days of cheesy British holiday makers. Today tourists go for the sunshine, but also for the views, the chance to bike around this beautiful island and the drink. It’s here where the famous cognac house Camus produces their special Île de Ré cognac, a blend that captures the salt and the sea into a delicious after-dinner drink.
5. Towers abound! – If you’re looking for beautiful, old towers for your photos then La Rochelle seems to be the place for you. In town, two towers form the entrance way to the harbor, protecting the city as they have for generations. What many people come to see though isn’t in town at all, but a 30-minute ferry ride out to the middle of the ocean. Fort Boyard had many fits and starts in its construction, but when it was finally finished in the 19th century it was to serve as part of the national defense system, an early warning system to protect the coast. It was soon abandoned though and it wasn’t until the 1990s when a French game show by the same name decided to film using the location. Today ferries shuttle tourists out to see the old fort every day, its popularity sadly guaranteed by TV and not history.
6. Gateway to Southwestern France – After I was done exploring lovely La Rochelle, I picked up a rental car and started driving. Thanks to its position, La Rochelle is a great place to start a weeklong, or longer, exploration of this beautiful and sometimes overlooked part of France. Leaving La Rochelle I drove to Rochefort, Cognac, Angouleme and then Toulouse before I swapped the rental for a train pass to take me further south. Along the way I met amazing locals who shared their lives with me and saw scenery the likes of which I thought only existed in postcards. Getting out and exploring was the best decision I made and La Rochelle the best place to start.