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Updated on February 16, 2015

  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.
Olivia Ruiz on stage at Francofolies festival
The stage (photo above) and the huge crowds (below) during a Francofolies concert by Olivia Ruiz.
Crowd at Olivia Ruiz's concert at Francofolies festival
This charming seaport has everything to satisfy the holidaymaker. It combines history (one look at the Vieux Port at the waterfront with its turrets and mediaeval buildings will show you how steeped in history this city is) with modernity (you'll even be able to find shops selling state-of-the-art objects here). A walk along la rue du Palais is a must as it combines the best of both worlds - the ancient and the modern.
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.
The city is at its best during the yearly French songs festival over five nights, popularly known as Francofolies, which will next be held from 13 to 17 July, 2016. It normally coincides with the fireworks display along the whole of the esplanade at Avenue Michel Crepeau round midnight every July 14 to commemorate Bastille Day (French National Day). So if you are at La Rochelle on that day you will be able to enjoy the concert as well as the gigantic fireworks display.
The train journey from Paris by the TGV (France's bullet train) takes only three hours making a weekend visit feasible. In fact if you are pressed for time you can spend one whole afternoon just visiting the Musée Maritime, the Médiathèque and the Aquarium (inaugurated in 2001) as they are all conveniently located next to each other and to the main railway station as well. From here it's only a stone's throw to the scenic port, the old quarter filled with alfresco restaurants and the shopping area
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.

Click on photo to see an enlarged version.
Tractor combs sand at Minimes Beach in La Rochelle
Early every morning a tractor combs every inch of the sandy beach at Port des Minimes to ensure that it is spotlessly clean for the sunbathers who will come in throngs later in the day.
Removing stagnant objects from yachting port in La Rochelle
The same attention to cleanliness applies also to the ports where the sailing boats are moored. A motor-boat goes the rounds every morning to remove dead plants and stagnant objects that float in the waters.
Bus Velos at Place Verdun in La Rochelle
Its obsession with ecology is such that it even encourages bicycle-owners to have their bicycles transported across the bridge to neighbouring Ile de Ré without any extra charge in its "Bus Velos" at Place Verdun.

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.

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