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La Rochelle is an ocean side town that is about a four hour drive southwest of Paris or about three hours by train. It is the only stop in the book that is more than an hour and half outside of Paris but it is well worth the trip. I highly recommend an overnight for La Rochelle as it is actually more beautiful by night than by day but it is magical no matter what time of day you visit.

I have been to La Rochelle before – twenty years before to be exact. During my very first trip to France my friend Eric brought me here and two things always stayed in my mind – the medieval towers guarding the harbour and the oysters. Twenty years later I remember loving this village and my return visit did not disappoint.

Up until 1621 La Rochelle was an extremely wealthy and independent mercantile center that would frequently change its allegiances from France to England and back to France. This was not uncommon for independent towns and with each shift of allegiance it was granted more and more autonomy to sweeten the pot of changing nationalities. The city was virtually attack proof with its walls protecting it from a land attack and its foreboding towers protecting the harbour.

As France became more of a nation and less of a group of feudal territories it became more important that independent entities like La Rochelle turn its allegiance to the nation of France. The quest to unite France was led by Cardinal Richelieu, a ruthless man of the cloth that inflicted positive horror on this seaside village. Historians note that it was not only Richelieu’s desire to unite France but also his newly found company, in direct competition with the merchants of La Rochelle, that led him to seize the city. It should also be noted that France at the time was split between Catholics and Protestants (the Huguenots), and La Rochelle was mostly protestant. As you will recall the Protestant King Henry IV was assassinated by a Catholic zealot in 1610, followed onto the thrown by the Catholic King Louis XIII. This also contributed to the tensions leading up to the siege.

There is a lot of back history here that is too in depth and lengthy for a blog (there are whole books written about each one of the events leading up to the siege!) – these events include Henry of Navarre’s (King Henry IV) battles against the Catholic League, the Edict of Nantes in 1598, a plot to have Richelieu assassinated, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and Elinor of Aquitaine’s decision to turn the marshes around La Rochelle into the beautiful harbour we see today. But suffice it to say that in 1627 the Rochellais had no idea what hit them when Richelieu not only surrounded the city by land but also brought in a fleet of ships to drop large stones overboard to create a dike barring any ships from entering or leaving La Rochelle’s harbour. No food could enter the city and none of its inhabitants could leave.

While Richelieu oversaw the siege from the sea none other than that famous Museketeer D’Artagnan was responsible for the land siege. Yes, D’Artagnan was real and not just a fictional character from Dumas’ imagination. Unfortunately D’Artagnan was killed during one of the battles for La Rochelle but lives on in the pages of Dumas’ books!

So, what happened to La Rochelle and its inhabitants during the siege? Over a fourteen month period the Rochellais refused to surrender, not only starving to death day by day but having to endure watching Richelieu and his men promenade and dine on the dike he made to seal them into the city. Finally, on October 2, 1628 the citizens of La Rochelle surrendered. 28, 000 of its 33, 000 inhabitants had starved to death.

La Rochelle is not only rich in history but it is truly one of the prettiest places on France’s Atlantic coast. It is surrounded by small islands accessible by ferry (the most famous being Ile de Re), and is world renowned for its amazing seafood. The people of La Rochelle are lovely (as the French tend to be once you get out of Paris), and this city is well worth a visit on your next trip to France.

We are now at the end of our time in the French Renaissance and are moving into the days of one of France’s most famous Kings – Louis XIV, the Sun King.

Next Stop – Vaux le Vicomte

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