Apparently the port town of La Rochelle is one of the most visited cities in France, although it had never really appeared on my radar.
But a last minute decision to take a cheap Ryanair flight with the family for a late autumn trip to the city just one hour and 40 minutes away proved to be surprise delight.
The town is located on a peninsula that juts out into the wild and windy Atlantic Ocean but with clear blue skies and unseasonal warm weather we were lucky to see it in its best light, but without the crowds that congregate here in the summer.
The entrance to the old port of La Rochelle
Dominated by the twin towers of Tour de la Chaine and the Tour St Nicolas, the most recognisable landmarks that guard the entrance to the harbour, the old port or Vieux Port is the heart of the city where all its maritime activities are based.
Serried ranks of yachts from around Europe and further afield are neatly tied up within the harbour where old stone quays offer fantastic walks and sight-seeing.
Further along the old sea wall a pleasant stroll brings you to the fascinating Tour de Lantern, (Lantern Tower) the only medieval lighthouse on the Atlantic Coast that is still standing.
Within its looming interiors are cells that are covered in a remarkable array of graffiti, carved into the walls by the pirates and prisoners that were held here after it was converted to a prison in the 17th century.
From the harbour boating trips can be taken to the Île d’Aix and Fort Boyard and beyond, but the first stop for our family visit was the Aquarium La Rochelle and its thousands of Atlantic, Mediterranean and tropical species housed behind thick glass in three million litres of water.
At the Aquarium La Rochelle
For an admittedly hefty 50-euro plus family ticket for four we were treated to all manner of sharks, piranhas and massive sea cod, octopus, sea turtles and giant grouper fish.
The displays are well-presented although the explanations are all in French and the novelty quickly wore off for our four-year-old.
With all that fish on display we built up an appetite for some tasty seafood and we were spoilt for choice as the town is dotted with great café and seafood restaurants where the local specialty of mussels or ‘moulins’ are at the heart of every menu.
After lunch we strolled through the old Porte De La Grosse Horloge, the gateway to the old city, and along the ancient street of Rue de Palis with its ornate 18th century town houses to the unremarkable Place de Verdun, the commercial heart of the city.
From here it’s easy to catch one of the many bus services out the famous Île de Ré, which is linked to the town by an impressive 3km long bridge. Obviously, with a rental car, it’s easier to get out to and the 8 euro toll for using the bridge (16 in summer!) is worth it for the drive alone.
The capitalof St Martin on Île de Ré
Île de Ré is where the well-heeled Parisians head to from the city at the weekend and during the summer its numerous camping grounds are packed with foreign tourists, many of them Irish apparently, who make the most of the scenery and the wide, sandy beaches.
Even on an autumn day is it easy to see the attraction as the wide green scenery gives way to scenic little towns of which the capital, St Martin, is one of the highlights.
Built within the imposing military fortifications designed by the famous engineer Vauban, the atmospheric fishing port on the northside of the island boasts quaint white-washed houses and impressive stone-built piers. There are great walks around the massive walls that jut out into the sea but most people, from what we could gather, were getting around by bike.
Visiting motorists are herded into several car parks on the outskirts of town from where it is possible to rent a bike from the numerous rental shops along the way into the centre. For a very modest 15 euro we were able to rent two bikes with ingenious attachments for younger ones to sit on the back for over an hour.
Cycling on Île de Ré
It’s a great way to get around and we happily trundled out of town along the ramparts before wheeling back through the tiny streets to the centre again before we took a quick spin to the former prison located in the citadel. Unless I’m mistaken it’s not possible to visit the prison itself as it is now a French department of defence base.
It’s a bit of a shame as it is infamous as the last staging post for prisoners on their way to French Guiana which included Captain Alfred Dreyfus and Henry Charriere, whose exploits during his imprisonment there would be immortalised in the story Papillion.
Traveling back over the bridge you can catch just a glimpse of the massive U-boat pens at La Pallice built during the Second World War to service the German’s Atlantic flotillas.
The ramparts of St Martin
For me, as a history nerd, it was a frustrating glimpse as it is difficult to visit the pens now as they are located in the middle of a commercially sensitive port area behind security guards and security fences.
Apparently it is possible to visit the wartime base with the written invitation of the local authorities but as I had not come prepared I had to make do with a quick visit to the Bunker La Rochelle, back in the centre of town where the Germans built their U-boat headquarters under a hotel to hide it from Allied bombing.
Remarkably intact, the bunker has survived the intervening years although the hotel has not and the walls are adorned with the black cat symbol of the of the 3rd German U-boat Flotilla that was based here.
For our accommodation for the week, we decided to stay outside of La Rochelle itself, in a cute beach house we found on Airbnb. While there were some decent hotel choices in town, with a small family in tow it made sense to try and find a house to suit our needs.
Less than an hour’s drive away, Bourcefranc le chapus is a small fishing village located next to other impressive bridge that soars over the sea to another island, the second largest in France after Corsica, the Ile d’Oleron.
Cobbled streets of St Martin
Although probably not as well-known as its more famous northerly neighbour, that doesn’t mean that in summer its pristine beaches are not a major draw but at this time of year we had the place almost to ourselves.
D’Oleron is a well catered for the camping hordes that descend here every summer and there are campsite scattered all around the island. There are also numerous pizza places and cafes that were still open, even though the whole place had that just out of season vibe about it.
Being so close to the Ile d’Oleron enabled us to visit another quirky attraction, Fort Louvois located on a tiny outcrop on the mainland side of the bridge.
Built between 1691 and 1694, during the reign of Louis XIV, the fort is inaccessible for certain times of the day during high tide but as the sea recedes you can walk out to it on a stone causeway that is slowly revealed.
Although badly damaged by the Germans during the Second World War, the fort has been painstakingly rebuilt and is now a popular local attraction.
The guns of Fort Louvois
From the great views out over the ramparts you can see the oyster beds that are the mainstay of the local economy while further out to sea there is the odd-looking shape of another fort, Fort Boyer, standing sentinel in the channel.
Even though it was a quiet time to visit this part of France it was a joy to experience its coastal beauty outside the heady summer season and a very pleasurable way to spend a few autumn days.