Like many people of a certain age, I have a certain affinity with the French town of La Rochelle for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if, like me, you’ve seen the seminal submarine film Das Boot, you’ll know that the U-boat crew were based in La Rochelle and the movie starts and ends there.
Although granted, you don’t see much of it beyond the grim-looking concrete U-boat pens that are still there to this day. If they seem really familiar, the U-boat scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark were also shot in La Rochelle.
Secondly, and probably slightly more cheerfully – if, like me, you were made to study GCSE French whether you liked it or not, the odds are you would have learned some of it from the wildly popular school textbook “Tricolore”, a character-based book that detailed the trials and tribulations of the lovely people who lived in the town of La Rochelle.
Who can forget Monsieur Dhome and his family, with their lovely looking bakers’ shop crammed full of deliciously looking pastries? Man, I’d go to La Rochelle just for those, so I did feel some delight and an odd sense of not-quite-deja-vu when Mrs B declared we should have a day trip to La Rochelle on our drive back from our Family Half Term holiday to Eurocamp Hourtin.
A Day Trip to La Rochelle
Clearly, because we were driving back, to get our end-of-holiday ferry, the only option was to drive to La Rochelle, but I have to say that the railway station we drove past looked incredible. An almost decadently wonderful, cathedral-like building, topped with a 45-metre-tall clock tower built in 1922.
Google tells me that it has a direct line to Paris, so I guess if you wanted to travel by train there, it’s entirely possible – but for us, it was the car. The beauty of the station certainly sets the standard for the rest of the town.
Now, I was a little bit reticent to drive into an unfamiliar town centre. If French town centres are anything like English town centres, there would be an impossible to navigate one-way system, bewildering roundabouts and signs, streets that were far too narrow to get down. There would be furious white van drivers blocking your every turn while your SatNav decides now is just the right time to get confused and try to send you to Edgbaston instead.
Fortunately, La Rochelle is nothing like an English town centre. Outside of Paris, there are really only two types of road in France – disquietingly empty toll roads where the maximum speed is about 120 mph, or disquietingly empty free roads, where the maximum speed is about 20 mph and everyone just sort of gently potters along, and that includes rural roads and La Rochelle town centre.
My SatNav played ball and gently delivered us into a town centre car park which was reasonably priced and so it was with some excitement we parked up, walked up the steps to street level and ended up – and I’m not making this up – in the middle of La Rochelle’s annual Gay Pride march.
Fortunately, the French LGBTQI+ community is just as friendly and happy as the UK community. Although I did have to distract my children’s eyes from a rather androgenous-looking person with their nipples out. But, once we’d made our way past that, we headed for the harbour area for a good old nose around.
Towers of La Rochelle
First up, and rather dominating the harbour area, were the Towers of La Rochelle, otherwise known as Tour Saint-Nicolas, the Tour de la Chaîne and the Tour de la Lanterne.
The Tour Saint-Nicolas and the Tour de la Chaîne are the two most obvious ones because they form the gateway to the Old Port and look exactly like the sort of castle towers you should find in a Disney movie. Of course, because this is France and slightly out of season when we went, the main parts were closed for a nice long lunch, but you could still have a good old nose around the ramparts.
When they’re open, you can climb up them for 6 Euros (Adults, Children free) from 10 am to 1 pm and again from 2.15 pm to 6.30 pm.
Feeling slightly jealous of the Castle staff’s long lunch, we walked back towards the Old Port, which is now a riot of different restaurants, mostly offering seafood, as befits a French coastal town. Being a hot day, the kids took a break in the public park just off Quai Valin, which has not only a rather charming antique merry-go-round in operation but also a rather clever water mist fountain that gently showers you in a fine mist of water, thus cooling you down without drenching you.
And so, we set off for what should have been a simple matter of lunch, but there was a simply bewildering number of choices. Literally, every shop along Quai Valin and Quai Duperre, a good kilometre worth of streets, offered food. Judging from the absolutely packed seating outside, they were all wildly popular with both locals and tourists alike.
We found Le Bretagne, which had friendly staff and a menu that seemed to cater to most of our families’ tastes – the Boy and I like to mostly eat steaks, Mrs B was hankering after some moules and Miss B was interested in getting outside a cheeseburger but sadly Mrs B reported that her moules were a bit dry and unappetising.
There were no complaints from the Boy and I who swiftly demolished some steak frites and so by way of compensation I authorised the purchase of some delicious ice cream from a pop-up stand outside.
Now, at this point in a travel blog, you’d probably expect some sort of list – “Top 5 things to do in La Rochelle” or something but look; if I’m being honest, the best thing to do in La Rochelle is to just wander around the town. It’s an experience. It’s the architecture and the people and the atmosphere. It’s a genuinely pretty town and down every street and turn, something catches your eye and makes you go “oooh” or “ahhhh”.
The harbour area itself is so stunningly beautiful you could sit down and drink in the view for a bit. Then you could wander the backstreets and admire the buildings and the shops for a bit before admiring the inside of a bar or restaurant. Then you could admire the Quartier du GabutI packed with high-end shops.
I think, in a way, La Rochelle recognises that the town itself is the experience and offers both Segway and Electric Scooter tours to save your legs on a hot day – from 19 Euros per person. There’s also a big aquarium if the weather turns bad, and a botanical garden (the Jardin des plantes de La Rochelle) if you’re into that sort of thing.
Unfortunately, we had to catch a ferry later that day, and small children have small legs, so after a little wander around the town, it was soon time to head back to the car via the now slightly subdued Gay Pride march, to continue our journey.
For a day trip and a superb lunch, I can thoroughly recommend La Rochelle on a nice day – or even on an average day. Regrettably, I did not find Monsieur Dhome or his family, in their lovely-looking bakers’ shop but there were a lot of lovely-looking bakers’ shops to pick from.
Still, at least now when I see my daughter’s school French textbook, or indeed Das Boot, I can annoy you by pointing and loudly exclaiming “We’ve been there!”