Scroll on down for more details on what to see and do in this historic, coastal French town.
Disclosure: I travelled to La Rochelle as a guest of Poitou-Charentes.
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Picture the scene: 30 books open at the same page, a scattering of scarlet gingham amid grass-stained shorts and charcoal trousers. Thirty pairs of eyes looking restless at the sun beyond the window. And being redirected back to the page, to the sound of cassette tapes whirring and uttering the immortal words...
“Un aller retour à La Rochelle.”
For some reason, the textbook for teaching French in English schools had a fascination with this city. A generation recited verbs, discussed orangina, citron presse, and a crazy woman called Fifi Folle and, time and time again, bought tickets to La Rochelle.
And, as you’ve probably guessed, I was one of those children.
So ingrained was this phrase that for years I didn't realise that “aller retour” could be split from “La Rochelle.”
But perhaps that was the plan all along: a covert operation to attract thousands of stuttering rosbifs to the place, whether they meant to go there or not.
Well, that was then and this is now.
Now I’m standing on the platform in Paris Montparnasse. Croissant in one hand, train ticket in the other. And that’s right, you guessed it. It’s un aller retour a La Rochelle.
Three hours later, through blurred meadows and yellow-flowered fields, I arrived.
In La Rochelle.
I’d actually very little idea of what to expect, the only survivor from my Tricolore schooldays seemed to be the name of the place.
The air was fresh, the breeze sharp. Sunshine seared past clouds as I picked up my keys and headed to my cosy B&B. In the very short journey, my childhood heart skipped with glee to see baguettes, orangina, and rhomboid-red signs for tabacs pass me by. I even saw a poodle being served french fries in a restaurant.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, I’d better give you a flavour of the place (in case you spent your formative years painting CND symbols on your bag with tippex instead of paying attention in class as well.)
La Rochelle: Surprisingly English
La Rochelle is a harbour town with fortification after fortification leading into a sheltered cove.
Much of its design stems from days when life in western France largely revolved around fending off attacks from the English. (Although, as an interesting side note, sometimes England was actually on La Rochelle’s side since they were Protestant and the rest of Catholic France was, well, not and apparently no one then tolerated a mix and match combination.)
Riches arrived through the slave trade in sugar and the fur trade in Canada and, as ever, it’s odd to remember that some of the most beautiful places in Europe come from some of the ugliest moments in history. The Knights Templar had a stronghold here and La Rochelle was also the last city in France to be liberated from the Nazis at the end of the Second World War.
While many French town centres have looping medieval stone arcades, La Rochelle gets an A on its report card with street after street of these beautiful arched walkways that provide shade from the sun and headaches for photographers.
And while you can’t actually see the Little Rock that gave La Rochelle its name (it’s buried underground somewhere. Perhaps as insurance against those pesky Brits?) you can climb the Lantern Tower and overlook all that Atlantic blue.
Like all good French towns there’s a fresh food market
And a magnificent cafe.
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In fact, the Cafe de la Paix began life as a military hospital before switching to the cream and caffeine trade back in 1793. It had an Art Deco makeover just over 100 years ago and has kept the look ever since. If ever you’re passing by, I’d recommend the French version of rice pudding just-as-grandma-makes-it. (Suspiciously lump free and not a thick brown skin in sight.)
Yet for all the lavender and poppy dreams of La Rochelle, I also found a saltier, edgier side to the city.
The place is no stranger to tourists, that’s for sure, but unlike parts of Provence and the Dordogne, it’s escaped being consumed by them.
It has a modern university, a stark Scandinavian section, a thriving cinema scene (with a festival second only to Cannes according to the locals) and at least one B&B at least that’s not afraid to innovate (my room for the night was a renovated wine cellar now lined with plum violet, a glowing bathtub and a lampshade of twisting fairy lights.)
La Rochelle has energy and a song of summer lightness in the air. It has bicycles and baguettes, orangina and a sense of style.
And above all else. It has fulfilled a childhood dream.
It allowed me to say, without fear or foggy confusion, un aller retour a La Rochelle.
Now the only thing left to do is to search for Fifi Folle.
To fly to La Rochelle, there is a small airport, La Rochelle Airport, that is 6 km from centre of town. Ryanair, Easyjet, and Flybe are all airlines that fly directly into La Rochelle. However, there are other airlines that fly into the airport as well from destinations across Western Europe and the United Kingdom. Once you arrive at the airport, there is a bus you can take Place de Verdun, which is the central bus station in town. Buses run every 30 minutes on weekdays and every 80 minutes on weekends. It costs 1.30 euros to ride the bus. Service runs from 6:30am until 8:00pm. There is no bus service on May first, Labor Day. You can also rent a car or taxi from the airport.
Another option would be to ride the train to La Rochelle. Depending on where you’re traveling from, you could fly into Paris and then take the TGV, France’s high speed train to La Rochelle. From Paris, it takes about 2 and a half to 3 hours to get to La Rochelle and costs between 60 and 80 euros. You can book tickets online and then pick them up at the station when you arrive in Paris.
Fares from London to La Rochelle start at £109 standard class return. All fares are per person and subject to availability. For bookings visit www.raileurope.co.uk or call 0844 848 4070. Personal callers are welcome at the Rail Europe Travel Centre, 193 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EU.
The best way to travel about La Rochelle is by bus, train, on foot or by bike. Many areas are closed to cars therefore, it is quite pointless to attempt to drive. Most of the tourist attractions are easily accessible by foot and are in quite close proximity. Similarly, you can also rent bikes and since the area is quite flat and there are many paths, biking around town is fairly easy.
The bus is the easiest public transportation and can take you around town and into the surrounding suburbs. There is a flat fare of 1.30 euros you can pay on board or you can aquire a day pass for 4.50 euros. Be aware that there are fewer routes operated on Sundays. The primary bus station is Place de Verdun.
Finally, there is a commuter train that runs from La Rochelle at the Porte Dauphin station all the way down the coast to Rochefort. Times are somewhat irregular so it’s best to check the schedule ahead of time. Similar to the buses, lines are sparse or closed on Sundays and holidays. The maximum fare is 7.50 euros.
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