Saturday, July 5, 2014

Tours and Towers of La Rochelle

Samedi, 5 juillet.

In the Middle Ages, English visitors to the port city of La Rochelle were struck by the pale limestone that provided the foundation for many of its buildings and gave the city a lasting nickname: la Ville blanche, or the White City. Walking around the city a couple of hundred years later, it's easy to see where they got the idea...


Despite its bland nickname, the city of La Rochelle has a fascinating and colorful history. (That being said, no shame if you're just here to look at the pictures!) Like much of the surrounding area, La Rochelle was inhabited first by the Gauls and then by the Romans, who were the first to exploit the region's potential for salt and wine production.

The city of La Rochelle as we know it today was not founded until the 10th century, around which time it was declared an independent commune. As a result, the city became the very first town in France to elect a mayor! More importantly, La Rochelle's autonomous status meant that the city was allowed to mint its own coins and was declared exempt from (some) royal taxes, which bolstered its economic status. La Rochelle became an important trading center in the Middle Ages, selling primarily salt and win. Although the city's location was great for trade -- allowing merchants to easily exchange goods with England, Spain, and the Netherlands -- it also made La Rochelle an attractive target. In the 12th century, England gained control of the city when its future king, Henry Plantagenet, married Eleanor of Aquitaine. (Yes, the same Eleanor of Aquitaine who was married to Louis VII of France in the Bordeaux Cathedral. Girlfriend got around.)

Over the next couple of centuries, the city was passed back and forth between the French and English. Its role as a port city is evident today: street signs reference old fish markets and a boulevard called le Cours de Dames marks where the wives of sailors would wait for the return of their husbands.

Although some of these historic clues are on the subtle side, the Vieux Port, or Old Harbor, is marked by three unmistakable towers, visible in the photo above. (You caught a glimpse of them in my earlier post, Snapshots of La Rochelle.) These tours de la Rochelle -- which include le Tour Saint-Nicholas, le tour de la Chaîne, and le tour de la Lanterne were constructed several hundred years ago as part of the city's defensive fortifications. The first two towers, which served as an entryway into the city's port starting in the fourteenth century, were connected by a large chain ... hence the name, tour de la Chaîne ("Chain Tower"). Today, it's possible to tour all three of the towers, which have been preserved as monuments nationaux since the 1800s.


The tour Saint-Nicholas, as seen from its neighbor, le tour de la Chaîne.

Located a little further down the ramparts, le tour de la Lanterne was built in the twelfth century and first used as a residence for the desarmeur des nefs, the officer who guarded the weapons of the various ships entering the port. (At this time, it was called the Tour de Garrot.) Following fifteenth century renovations, it was used as a lighthouse for a couple centuries before being converted into a medieval prison. At a striking 55 meters in height, it's the tallest of the three towers, and provides a panoramic view of the city and coastline.


The view from the first balcony, called the chemin de ronde.

Although le tour de la Lanterne is celebrated today for being the oldest lighthouse on the Atlantic coast, I think its history as a prison is MUCH more interesting. The tower's walls are full of graffiti, chiseled into the stone hundreds of years again by the sailors and pirates who were imprisoned there. Among these prisoners were thirteen priests, imprisoned and later killed during the Wars of Religion; their presence inspired another of the tower's names, le Tour de Prêtres.


What's left of a damier, or checkerboard, carved by prisoners.

Then I kept climbing... and climbing... and climbing...

Breathtaking, right?! The upper balcony, called la galérie, is only 38 meters in height. (I know, ONLY. But seriously, that's nothing compared the Strasbourg Cathedral.) But on all of my recent adventures, I've been on highly-fortified viewing platforms with loads of other tourists.

So between the waist-high railing, the high winds, and the fact that I was completely alone on the top of a medieval lighthouse ... I've got to say that the tour de la Lanterne was definitely the scariest place yet!

When my fear of heights kicked in... my hands were shaking when I took these photos!!

During the Middle Ages, in addition to being a ever-expanding commercial center, La Rochelle also became a religious haven for France's Protestants, called Huguenots. Their influence can be seen in the city today, many of whose churches were damaged during bouts of extreme iconoclasm, and is documented at the Musée Rochelais d'Histoire Protestante. Though the Huguenots were technically under the protection of the Edict of Nantes, the French monarchy recognized the threat posed by such a powerful, independent city.

In the 1620s, the city was besieged for THIRTEEN MONTHS by France's Carholic king, Louis XIII, and his commander, Cardinal Richelieu. After they surrendered, he destroyed much of the city's defensive fortifications. Luckily, the tours de la Rochelle were spared!

A map of my mini-tour of La Rochelle. Highlighted in blue is my three-mile trek to the beach! Phew.

La Rochelle quickly recovered from the siege and once again became a bustling commercial center, thanks primarily to its location on the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to facilitating trade with other European countries, this location also made La Rochelle a center of transatlantic trade and an importantly stopping-off point in the journey to the New World. The city prospered from its involvement in the slave, sugar, and fur trades. You can see proof of this prosperous time period in the arcade streets in the historic city center.

This street, la Grande rue des Merciers, is still bustling with shops and restaurants. Its buildings are a mixture of eighteenth-century town houses and fifteenth-century half-timbered buildings.

While looking for a place to rest my Keds, I stumbled across the incredibly picturesque courtyard of the Maison Henri II. 

This medieval townhouse was built in the 1550s for the personal use of one of La Rochelle's public officials. Its current name, however, is a bit of misnomer, as what visitors see isn't actually a maison, or house, but rather the gallery that linked two separate buildings! The two levels of arcades represent two different architectural styles, with etruscan and ionic arches. But what I found more interesting were the carvings of animal skulls that look like something straight out of West Texas! (You can see them in this photo right under the upper arcade.)

Although it's only a block or two from La Rochelle's busy commercial streets, the courtyard was quiet and peaceful ... the perfect place to stop and read! The book that I'm currently working on is a seventeenth century version of La Belle et La Bête. (It was an impulse 2€ purchase at the train station in Lyon, but has been a fun read so far!)

In one of those perfectly fortuitous coincidences, it just so happens that the author, Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, was born just under five hundred years ago ... IN La Rochelle. Although the city doesn't appear in her book, which is set "dans un pays fort éloigné de celui-ci" ("a country far from this one"), the author was definitely influenced by her hometown. (For example, the book references slavery ... which, according to the editor, Madame de Villeneuve would have known about because of the presence of the slave trade in La Rochelle.) I couldn't help but wonder if Madame de Villeneuve ever visited the very spot where I was reading her book!

When France's role in the Triangular Trade declined (due in part to the abolition of slavery in 1794), so did the success of La Rochelle. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that the creation of the port of La Pallice brought the city out of its slump.

This decision came back to haunt the city during WWII, during which time La Pallice was transformed into a German submarine base. When the Germans built, they built ... so, like similar bases sous-marines in Bordeaux and Saint-Nazaire, the concrete structure remains to this day. However, unlike the submarine base of Bordeaux (which is now an art gallery) and that of Saint-Nazaire (which is now a museum), the base at La Rochelle has been pretty much abandoned. Although it is closed to the public for the time being, it has previously been opened to filmmakers -- most notably, for the filming of the 1981 German war movie Das Boot and for the shooting of a couple scenes in Stephen Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark.

An extract from Le Bunker talks about cinema at La Rochelle...

Although the submarine bases are off-limits, the German bunker -- constructed surreptitiously under a hotel in the middle of centre-ville to protect soldiers from Allied air raids -- has since been turned into a museum. Stay tuned for a museum tour of Le Bunker de la Rochelle and more information about the city during the war!

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