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Visiting La Rochelle in France (1)If you haven't been to La Rochelle yet this is one place well worth a visit. In fact it is not surprising that La Rochelle is the third most visited city in France, with more than three million visitors a year.
Yet the inhabitants still retain the fast-diminishing charm of the provincial people who still find time to talk to visitors and do not let the stress of modern living get the better of them.
Besides it is just a bridge away from the Island of Ré, the equally popular holiday destination for the French themselves. These two places are well worth a visit at any time of the year but particularly so in July or August to enjoy swimming in the sea.
In fact, its strength as a tourist destination is that it allows for leisured strolls either along the old quarter or in its shopping area. There is little trace of the hustle and bustle of city life and car honks from impatient motorists are quite rare indeed here.
Compared to the famous French Riviera on the south of France, the well-kept beach at Port des Minimes in La Rochelle is still relatively unspoilt by the big spenders. To go to the Minimes beach you can either take the "sea bus" (bus de mer) from the vieux port (old port) near the Chain Tower end for 2.50 euros or a numberless bus simply called ILLICO from the bus terminus at Place de Verdun for 1.30 euros. But watch out, this bus doesn't run on Sundays and public holidays in which case it is replaced by local bus number 43.
However, if it is a sunny day and you intend to spend a whole day on the beach it is worth making the trip out of La Rochelle to the neighbouring Island of Ré (Ile de Ré) which has a number of really good beaches to offer. It will also enable you to have a leisurely cycling holiday (you can easily hire bicycles there for the day) as there are cycle paths criss-crossing the island's countryside. The roads are flat and children cannot be safer on bicycles than here.
It is possible to go to Ile de Ré by bicycle, car or bus over the bridge from La Rochelle but there are also boat cruises from the old harbour which take you there as well as to other islands such as Ile d'Aix, Ile d'Oleron or just to have a close look at Fort Boyard, location of a popular TV adventure game.
Of all the cities in France La Rochelle is the one that is most concerned with ecology and the quality of urban life. It has recently even started using solar energy for its parking meters.
It was the pilot city for testing and using electric cars (there are over 250 of these in use today). It was also the pioneer, in 1997, of the first "En ville sans ma voiture" campaign in France forbidding the use of cars in the city centre on that day thus inciting more people to use the bicycle. This idea was eventually adopted by a few other French cities.
In keeping with this strategy it has made bicycles available for free to all and sundry. Previously they required foreigners to leave their passports for safekeeping in order to borrow one of their yellow bicycles for the day (it's free for the first two hours) but when I was there again in August 2013 they do not ask for your passport anymore. All they need now is your Visa Card so they can "block" an amount of 150 euros in case you don't return the bike (you have to return it to the same place by 19h00). There are such free bicycle parks all over La Rochelle but they are meant for the locals - the one for tourists is situated just outside the Tourism Office near the railway station. But watch out, such bicycles may not be available during the week-long Francofolies song festival.
Apart from its touristic attractions La Rochelle is also an educational centre and is proud of its multidisciplinary university opened in 1993 and an international hotel management school (Lycée Hôtelier) near Les Minimes. Surprisingly, there are very few cybercafes for internet in La Rochelle. I was told that of the six that existed four of them had closed. The two that remain (updated on 20 August 2013) are:
1. Espace Multimedia at 41 Avenue des Ameriques (it's the street next to the Mediatheque) which is open from 09h30 to 19h00 and
2. Atlantis Video at 25 Quai de Marans quite near to the railway station which is open from 15h00 to 23h00.