As I mentioned in the previous post documenting our arrival in La Rochelle the obvious features that attract the attention in the picturesque harbour area are the three medieval towers lining the coastal walls of the city. These towers opened at 10:00 in the morning (this visit taking place on a Tuesday) and there was a small discount on the usual admission price as one of the three was closed for repairs; the normal price for all three towers at the time of our visit was €9 but check the official site – Tours de la Rochelle – for confirmation if you’re planning a trip there.
The first of the towers that we ventured into was…
Tour Saint-Nicolas De La Rochelle
Situated on the eastern side of the harbour entrance and the obvious first stop was Tour Saint-Nicolas de la Rochelle, one half of the gateway to the harbour. This tower and the one opposite it were built from the mid to late 1300s. The original plan was to create an arch between the towers as well although this was never realised.
The foundations of this tower were wood, driven into the mud of the water basin, but the tower itself is so heavy that there is a very slight lean to it. It’s still perfectly safe to explore these days, though, and a series of steep, spiralling staircases and narrow corridors curving around the inside of the tower wall and offering entry points into the central, circular section at a number of spots eventually lead up onto the roof where some excellent views of La Rochelle and the surrounding region can be seen. We’d timed our visit to coincide with a bank of low-level cloud so the French city wasn’t quite as pretty as it could have been but as you’ll see from the photos of the next towers we visited that cloud quickly evaporated in the pleasing breeze and rising temperature of the day.
Tour De La Chaine
Getting to the second of the towers required us to retrace our approach hugging the harbour on our left and around the attractive waterfront shops, bars, and restaurants.
The Tour de la Chaine (or Chain Tower) is the western side tower guarding the entrance to La Rochelle’s harbour. This was the tower that controlled access to the port and as you might be able to guess from its name it did this using a chain that could be strung between it and Tour Saint-Nicolas either for defensive purposes or to ensure that tax was duly applied to arriving or departing vessels. In fact, the chain itself was originally controlled from a smaller tower alongside this one although that was removed in order to widen the entrance.
This was the tower that was closed when we visited although, on seeing the door was open, we ventured inside where we were told that we could pass through and onto the small, fortified area closer to the harbour entrance. We did, because we could, and so that I could snap a few photos. If we’re allowed to go somewhere then you can pretty much guarantee we will just to say we have because that’s what travelling’s all about for us.
Tour De La Lanterne
The most visually impressive of the three towers was the Tour de la Lanterne (or Lantern Tower), situated at the western end of the Rue sur les Murs, the same section of defensive wall that housed the Tour de la Chaine. This “road on the walls” featured some attractive architecture among its houses’ designs.
Built in the middle of the 1400s the Tour de la Lanterne is the oldest lighthouse on the Atlantic coast and if that’s not a good enough reason just to visit it then I don’t know what is. My advice if you’re visiting, though, is to hang around and wait for a bit outside if you see a queue or a large group of people entering. The entry doorway is narrow and the actual route into the tower is on your right as you pass in. However, to gain entry you have to head into a small room straight ahead to have your “three towers” ticket approved or buy a single ticket, then head back out and through the door you passed on the way in. This is fine if there are only a few of you. This was chaotic when we turned up as it was a heaving mass of bodies trying to head one way then another then squeezing past. But still very worth it.
In addition to serving as a lighthouse and providing obvious defensive capabilities to the city of La Rochelle the tower was also a prison for a long period. The interior walls are filled with carvings in the stone from former prisoners, some of the more important of which are highlighted or explained in further detail on plaques as you ascend the structure. It’s incredibly fascinating to see some of the writing, the dates, the artwork even of formerly-incarcerated people long dead and it’s shocking just how many people there were held at a time in some of the rooms; it must have been hell in there.
It’s not a true holiday for us unless we’ve climbed to the top of some steep structure panting and sweating and shaking our heads wondering why we put ourselves through such torture. But we know why really, and that’s so we can get great views from wherever we are. Climbing to the top of the Tour de la Lanterne and looking all around La Rochelle was a fabulous experience. The clouds were little more than distant haze at this point and the warmth of colours along with the contrast of the blues of the sky and sea against the greenery of nearby parkland and the red-tiled, white-walled buildings of the city was an absolute joy to behold.
The walkway around the former housing for the lantern that gave the tower its name and lighthouse-functionality is only wide enough for one person at a time and there is no indication as to which direction you should head around it. Expect lots of reversing and trying other directions and repeating that until you finally make the circuit. A minor inconvenience for that wide, beautiful landscape in every direction and so you can say that you reached the highest point on the tower.
If you’re visiting La Rochelle then it’s really worth the effort and very reasonable price to spend an hour or so exploring the three towers protecting its old harbour area. Each tower has its own charm and associated bit of history and each provides unique views of the city that you shouldn’t miss.