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By mid-day each Friday, Parisians begin pounding the pavement and squeezing into metro cars with a weekend’s worth of rolling luggage. As beautiful as the city is, the air and lush greenery found just an hour or two outside, is something that Parisians take advantage of on a regular basis. Chances are if you are visiting Paris, you will have the urge to leave the city for a day or two as well. Outside the lights of the Eiffel Tower, the incense of Notre Dame, and the endless museum crowds, sits an entire country that is unique in any direction your train or plane may take you. Four hours southwest by train will bring you back in time along the Atlantic coast to La Rochelle, the picturesque capital of the Charente-Maritime department.
Founded in the 10th century and recognized as an important harbor in the 12th, La Rochelle is both rich in history and beauty. The city enjoyed successful fishing from the start due to is western location, which saved days of sailing time. This became even more prosperous after the founding of the New World, where the city excelled in trade. La Rochelle also played a key role in each of the major wars following its founding. From the Hundred Years War to the French Wars of Religion and continuing into World War II, the city’s location and prosperity led its ownership to change hands more frequently than other French cities. During the Second World War, Germany established a submarine naval base at La Pallice (the main port of the city). A German stronghold, La Rochelle was the last French city to be liberated at the end of the war.
The bedrock of La Rochelle and surrounding areas is composed of layers of limestone dating back to the Jurassic period (circa 160 million years ago), when a large part of France was submerged under water. Layers of thick white rock, formed during periods of relatively warm seas, alternate with highly fragile layers containing sand and remains of mud, formed during colder periods, and with layers containing various corals, that were composed during more tropical times. The limestone that ultimately formed is traditionally used as the main building material throughout the region.
Although it sits on the same latitude as Montreal in Canada, La Rochelle features an Oceanic climate. The area is quite mild throughout the year due to the influence of the Gulf Stream waters, and since insolation is remarkably high, the city seldom experiences very cold or very hot weather.
The La Rochelle train station is located a short walk from the city’s main attraction, the “Vieux Port.” Filled to capacity with various commercial vessels, the dark water remains still due to the calamity of the bay, allowing visitors to promenade anytime along the natural beauty of the space lined with fresh seafood restaurants. The well-preserved city is entered by the way of La Rochelle’s famous clock tower. The immense limestone structure gives way to medieval buildings and streets featuring additional restaurants and cafes, along with endless shops ranging from Galleries Lafayette and other well-known clothing chains, to small boutiques featuring specialities from the region such as sardines, nautical-wear, and cognac.
Perhaps one of the first things you will want to do, however, is climb one of the three large towers located on the mouth of the bay. The La Chaine Tower and Saint-Nicholas Tower, both palatial residences built in the 14th century, formed the defense at the entrance of the port. The Lanterne Tower, which served as a lighthouse, seamark and prison, bears witness through its intricately-carved graffiti to those who lived within its walls. Each Tower offers various preserved rooms to discover during your walk to the top, which provides a wide-ranging view of the city and the depths of the Atlantic.
After a day of exploring the city, chances are you will be itching to take one of the boat rides (offered by numerous tour companies along the port) to sail around Fort Boyard and spend half a day on the Ile d’Aix. In choosing to use Navipromer as your boat of choice, visitors are given access to a two-story boat, complete with indoor and outdoor seating. The vessel is also equipped with bathrooms and a snack bar for the hour ride out to Fort Boyard, an enormous defense structure set in the Atlantic Ocean built by the command of Napoleon and made famous more recently by the highly-entertaining TV show of the same name.
Access onto the Fort itself is prohibited due to both construction and TV filming schedules. The boat, however, makes its way around the entire structure, providing a view of each side, before docking at the island. Depending on the package you choose, visitors can either return directly to the port at La Rochelle or spend several hours exploring the island before catching a later boat back. The island is highly recommended for exploring.
Upon entering the island, visitors walk over a drawbridge which leads to the small main quarter, where shops, sandwich-style restaurants, and bicycle rental stations can be found. After grabbing something quick to eat, it is time to explore the terrain. The island is inhabited by residents, and it is both interesting and a bit strange to transverse the dirt roads lining the coastal-worn houses. Walking along the coast of the Atlantic, wandering through various nature paths, or taking in one of the island’s now-abandoned forts, it feels as if you are entirely alone, discovering something of a ghost town. Unless you plan on picnicking, two hours is a sufficient amount of time to spend on the island. The boat ride back goes directly to the port at a fast pace, so be prepared if you get seasick easily.
If you are able to have a more extended stay in La Rochelle, the city also features a spacious aquarium, a small botanical garden, and the Maritime Museum of La Rochelle, which holds The Calypso, the ship used by Jacques-Yves Cousteau as a mobile laboratory for oceanography, and which later sunk after a collision in the port of Singapore in 1996.The more beach-like Île de Ré is accessible via a bridge from La Rochelle as well.
As always when booking a weekend excursion in France, the earlier you buy your train tickets and select a hotel, the cheaper it will be. The TGV services La Rochelle directly from the Montparnasse train station in Paris. There are numerous hotels along the city’s port, but the best deal and location was found at Hotel Saint Jean d’Acre.
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