The old Atlantic seaport city of La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay in southwestern France is not on the usual American circle tour of France. Rick Steves does not even mention it in his guidebooks, which is good news for those who want to travel as the French do.

La Rochelle has beautifully maintained its architecture, making it one of the most picturesque and historically rich cities on the Atlantic coast, and a popular destination for the French.

The Tower of Saint-Nicolas and smaller Chain Tower guarding the entrance to La Rochelle's Old Port. Photo by Donald Grant
The Tower of Saint-Nicolas and smaller Chain Tower guarding the entrance to La Rochelle’s Old Port. Photo by Donald Grant

Saint Nicholas and Chain Tower

The classic view of the town includes two towers guarding the bay. Known as the Saint Nicolas Tower and the Chain Tower, together they constitute the incredible fortress gateway to the Old Port of La Rochelle.

Built in the 14th-century, the towers were connected by a huge chain that was stretched across the waterway at night. The chain protected the port from pirates and attacks by the British and other enemies.

The historic center of the city is crisscrossed by a maze of arcaded walkways along narrow streets, many of which are now pedestrian-only. The pathways are lined with shops, cafes, bars and restaurants offering local specialties such as la mouclade (mussels cooked in white wine, with cream), local seafood and goat milk cheese.

The architecture is medieval and Renaissance, with an abundance of half-timbered houses or ones built of local white limestone. You are never far from the sea, and with squawking seagulls overhead, and occasional views of bobbing boats in the harbor, it is as romantic as any French coastal city.

La Grosse Horloge (Big Clock Tower). Photo by Donald Grant
La Grosse Horloge (Big Clock Tower). Photo by Donald Grant

Rochefort, France

Just 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) south of La Rochelle is the city of Rochefort with its historic Royal Naval Ropeworks. The dock nearby is the home berth of the Hermione, a magnificent reconstruction of a French frigate from 1779. The original Hermoine gained fame by carrying General Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic to help the Americans win their war of independence against the British.

Rochefort is the home port of the full size sailing reproduction of the 18th century frigate, Hermoine. Photo by Donald Grant
Rochefort is the home port of the full-size sailing reproduction of the 18th-century frigate, Hermoine. Photo by Donald Grant

The tall ship replica was finished in 2014 and is completely authentic-looking, although the sails are made of linen and the 32 cannons are lightweight and nonfunctioning.

Still, with its French flag flying and gold leaf stern sparkling in the sun, it is one of the most gorgeous tall ships of the world.

Isle of Ré, France

The small island of Re just north of La Rochelle is connected to the mainland by a toll-bridge and is a very popular tourist destination, famous for its sandy Atlantic beaches. Though it can get quite crowded in summer, there is plenty of room for all to enjoy its miles of beaches and two small ports.

The port of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. Photo by Donald Grant
The port of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. Photo by Donald Grant

The port of St. Martin is enclosed behind 17th-century ramparts, and a nearby fortress was designed by the French military genius Vauban. It is a UNESCO world heritage site.

About the AuthorDonald Grant was born and raised in New York, where he studied art before moving to Paris 40 years ago. He is the author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books that have been translated into many languages. His greatest pleasure is traveling around the world, photographing…and drinking wine. You can follow his adventures on Instagram @images.of.france.