It’s the old port. La Rochelle is a port, so the old port, really, to come admire this natural haven, which was constructed in the 12th century is really something wonderful.
To venture off into one of its towers is also something extraordinary because when you’re up high, you see the ground below, which is flat, and you can see very, very far across the ocean. So that’s something not to be missed. And then, just to wander about the streets which are lined with houses, a few from each era… 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th centuries, that makes for a fabulous architectural setting.
If you come to France, and if you’re looking for a town to explore to reflect back on ancient France, you couldn’t improve upon heading towards La Rochelle. Situated on the Atlantic coast, the city of La Rochelle was made known through Alexander Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers. Today, it’s a modern city, full of good restaurants and hotels, retaining the traces of a passionate history.
Philippe Legrand, head of public relations at the tourism office, recounts La Rochelle’s very ancient history:
La Rochelle became a big city from the time, we’ll say, from the moment it was endowed with a common charter, but it was already very old – 1174 (one thousand one hundred seventy-four). Guillaume X of Aquitaine entrusted an extraordinary privilege to this small town, which was the possibility to elect every year one of its own to be a driving force in the city’s future. This was opposite of what was done in a lot of places where there was a lord or a bishop who led the towns or the territories. Thus, from that era on, La Rochelle would have a lot of importance because people would quickly notice that this freedom also gave them much boldness and many opportunities to trade with other countries, since we are a port, you’ll remember. And so, the port negotiated with the northern countries, mainly because the merchandise produced in the region at that time was salt, and salt you know, is an essential element since it allows preservation of food, fish, fish products and game. And not only salt but also wine. They produced wine in this region which was of mediocre quality perhaps, but which for the time period was very important. So, they could exchange wine and salt for silk products, draperies, pewter, which came from England, and loads of other products which they couldn’t find here.
A wind of freedom has always blown on the city of La Rochelle, and this is still the case today.
Ah, yes, yes, yes. I think that has remained up through today. One senses that La Rochelle still has… how can I say this… it has, quote, individualistic behaviors at the heart of the French community because it has always behaved in a somewhat autonomous fashion. It’s a city which didn’t turn towards the country. It turned towards the ocean. And thus, it received a lot from the ocean, a lot of people, ideas, and then, it reignited them. It reworked them and lived off them. It lived off them in a really different way.
At first glance, you see that the city’s architecture is out of the ordinary. Three towers guard the port:
I don’t know if you can talk about architects from that time… well, it was already the fourteenth century when the port and the city justifiably became important and coveted places. They were, of course, preoccupied with defending it. Very rapidly, they built ramparts around it, first around the city but then around the port because the port was a very strategic location. You know that the port was closed by a large chain that could be seen from the docks. Only the magistrate, the mayor, had the right to open or close it. And therefore, a ship could be refused entry into the port. So, it was enormous power, and thus, the towers were really constructed to show to what extent this place was very important, and they are all, more or less, from the fourteenth century, 1350-1380. They have amazing gothic rooms on the inside that you can discover if you venture into the towers.
Under the reign of Louis XIII, the minister Richelieu subjected La Rochelle to the royal power:
The ramparts, unfortunately, disappeared because, you know, in the seventeenth century, the city became so rebellious, and at that time, the royal power so desired to have a united France that there was a clash. And, this was the time, too, when La Rochelle’s ideas… La Rochelle had adopted the ideas of the Reformation, while the king of France, he, he was fighting for the pope and thus for the Catholic community. Therefore, the Huguenots and the Catholics confronted each other at La Rochelle, and of course, La Rochelle lived through a dreadful siege which lasted 13 months. And it lost because out of 25,000 inhabitants, only 5,000 made it through.
And so, once the siege was over, the city surrendered. It lost all its privileges, and then the ramparts were completely dismantled.
On the other hand, La Rochelle was spared by the last world wars:
So, we were very lucky. The First World War did not make it here. And during the Second World War, the Germans chose the city to be one of 5 submarine bases, you know, on the Atlantic coast. And thus, it was really scary at the end when the landing began. Contrary to what was happening in Normandy, we saw a lot of Germans coming, and we were a little concerned. In fact, the Germans were assembled here, possibly, to take the Allies from the reverse side.
But we were dealing with two intelligent men, in the noble sense of the word. A German admiral, Admiral Schirlitz and the French commander Meyer managed to agree, so that the Germans could get out of there without being bombarded.
Therefore, thanks to them, we avoided the worst, and so, we have an extraordinary heritage, that is true.
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