La Rochelle

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The city of La Rochelle has developed around its historical centre into a relatively large town by French standards. With its 100,000 inhabitants, it is without question the metropolis of the Charente Maritime area. There are four distinct neighbourhoods in La Rochelle: the historical city centre; the "new town" of Les Minimes, resolutely turned towards the future; the residential and industrial inner suburbs; and finally the east of Ré Island, an area renowned for its relaxing atmosphere, where many of the wealthiest Rochelais have chosen to live.

City Centre

A triangle between Place de Verdun, the Porte Royale and the Tour de la Lanterne makes up the true historical heart of the city, with its narrow streets and a complicated layout, where you will find the roots of the town and most of its architectural treasures. This neighbourhood is a true kingdom for pedestrians as many streets are pedestrianised and on the whole driving is quite heavily regulated. Head for the tourist information board, which is in the renovated part of the neighbourhood. Close by, you will find the Tour Saint-Nicolas, from which you will have a beautiful view of the vieux port, the true core of La Rochelle. Carry along the quays, before heading into the narrow streets of the old town. Don't miss l'hôtel de la Bourse or la Grosse Horloge. From the cathedral onwards, the streets become wider, and with museums such as le Musée du Nouveau Monde and le Musée des Beaux-Arts , culture is definitely not forgotten.
You won't have any trouble finding a restaurant in this part of the city, the sheer number of places to stop for a meal being most impressive. Moreover, the city has lots to offer for those looking for a bit of greenery. Le parc Charruyer is one of the most beautiful examples, for it allows you to walk among trees in the very heart of the city.

Les Minimes

This is the first neighbourhood you will see if you arrive in La Rochelle by train, since the station is very nearby. If the city centre neighbourhood is somewhat turned towards the past and the history of La Rochelle, Les Minimes looks resolutely towards the future. "La ville en bois" (the timber town), a large group of modern buildings of Scandinavian inspiration, and many other architectural innovations, are proof enough. It has become famous thanks to its marina, one of the largest in Europe, with more than 3,500 moorings, but also thanks to its large congress centre, located by the sea. Moreover, this is where you will find the different faculties of the university of La Rochelle, as well as the Technoforum, a research and studies centre dedicated to new technologies, and several graduate schools, not to mention the impressive mediatheque buildings. And the sea is never far away: check out the musée maritime Neptunéa and the pleasant beach.

The Suburbs

Little by little, La Rochelle has developed and many suburban areas have bloomed, but it is certainly La Pallice and Laleu which have grown most noticeably. La Pallice, with its harbours, is a great place for trade exchanges, fishing and oil especially. You will be able to reach Ré island bridge from this area. The Laleu neighbourhood, also near the bridge, is famous as you'll find La Rochelle airport there.

Ré island

The island is only three kilometres away and it only takes five minutes to reach it by car. Since the bridge was erected in 1989, the eastern part of the island has become a dwelling place for many La Rochelle inhabitants, who understandably prefer the tranquility of villages such as Saint-Martin or Sainte-Marie, as well as the close by beaches of Rivedoux or La Flotte . The quality of life on the island is without doubt one of the highest in the area.

History of La Rochelle

Taken as a whole, the history of the city of La Rochelle appears somewhat like a succession of times of crisis and periods of economical and cultural growth. From this past, that goes back over a thousand years, the inhabitants of the city have inherited of a taste for independence and innovation.

The town of La Rochelle appeared around the ninth century, and to begin with it was little more than a small village where surrounding marsh inhabitants gathered. Bit by bit, the town structure evolved and the first harbour was built during the twelfth century.

Several weddings between lords' families brought the town under English rule from 1360 to 1453. Following this period many Anglo-Saxon traditions remained, particularly religious ones. Indeed, the city became a Protestant stronghold from the middle of the sixteenth century onwards.

This history has formed the character of the inhabitants of La Rochelle, who are independent and often unwilling to accept change imposed from above. One proof if necessary: the siege of La Rochelle, which took place between 1627 and 1628, between the Protestant city and its English allies, and the Catholic French crown, and ending with the bloody defeat of the city.

Following this, the whole region was militarised and if you walk through the city you can still see numerous fortifications, such as la tour de la Chaîne built in the 14th century and la tour de la Lanterne erected a century later; as well as many other strategic sites in the area which were built under the reign of Louis XIV, like la corderie royale in Rochefort, which dates back to 1666.

From the 16th century onwards, La Rochelle expanded rapidly, thanks to trade exchanges with colonies and foreign countries, which took place in the harbour, now called le vieux port. This opening on to the world allowed the town to expand and evolve. New avenues, squares and monuments were erected, such as l'hôtel de la Bourse and la Grosse Horloge, both built in the 18th century and proof of the commercial power of the town.

During the French revolution (1789-1799), life was relatively peaceful in the city, especially in comparison with nearby places such as Rochefort, where the clergy was violently purged, and the Vendée area, where a counter-revolutionary uprising took place, leading to a bloody civil war between monarchists and republicans throughout 1793.

However, dark years hit the city with the Empire wars (1805-1815), between napoleonic France and the rest of Europe, which destroyed much of the city's trade. Only during the second half of the nineteenth century was La Rochelle again to enjoy flourishing trade: coal imported from England, wood from Northern European countries, as well as rum and sugar from the West Indies. The town carried on expanding with the creation of the parc Charruyer, for example, and even more so with the construction of la Pallice harbour in 1896, which was first a trade port, then a fishing harbour, before becoming the greatest oil port of the Atlantic coast.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the city was blooming, open to the whole world, but also well developed on a more local scale. Indeed, it is during this period that the university was opened, as well as many administrative centres and several museums, such as the musée du Nouveau Monde.

Since this time La Rochelle has often been at the heart of important events, like during the Second World War, when the city, having been taken by the retreating German army, was the scene of much fighting until the very last day of the conflict, May 8th 1945.

It was after the war that tourism began to grow in La Rochelle, as well as in nearby places such as Ré island, Châtelaillon-Plage, Oléron island and even Rochefort.

Economic development hasn't been limited to tourism however and today the city is home to many industries such as shipbuilding, which date back to the industrial revolution, train-building and chemical industries, which have existed since the 1920's, as well as numerous recent aquaculture companies.

Today, La Rochelle is still permanently innovating; the presence of many electric vehicles within the city is one of the many examples of the will of the inhabitants not to go against this tradition of modernity.

 

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