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La Rochelle Maritime Museum - Quay Sights

La Rochelle Maritime Museum - Quay Sights

Ever feel the call of the sea, yet somehow the prospect of simply lying on a hot beach doesn’t appeal? Tucked away in La Rochelle you’ll find just the thing to satisfy your nautical cravings...

 

La Rochelle has become one of France’s most attractive short-break destinations, the travel media having gone so far as to describe it as ‘the St Tropez of the Atlantic Coast’. Like its Mediterranean counterpart, the elegant town started life as a fishing port, and in a quiet corner of the celebrated Vieux Port the Musée Maritime de La Rochelle recently reopened to visitors after a lengthy period of redevelopment. Now the quayside of the former Bassin des Chalutiers is home to a line of brand new, purpose built display halls set beneath vividly coloured canvas panels, an assertive nautical reference to wind filled spinnakers. It’s a striking contrast with the museum’s former life, when its land based exhibits were displayed in the less than ideal setting of a concrete former fish market building.

Step inside today and beyond the welcoming reception area you’ll discover just how far museum design has progressed in recent years (not least to reach visitors who have grown accustomed to browsing multimedia web sites). Muted colours and sensitive lighting ensure that the setting never upstages the exhibits, which include traditional touches like glass display cases with large and lovingly hand-crafted scale models of assorted ships and boats. Some are creations of considerable beauty, but their collective role is to help to tell the story of the ports, the lives of the people who worked in them and the crews who routinely braved the storm-tossed Atlantic. Over the years the importance of La Rochelle’s fishing industry meant that it attracted great media attention, providing the museum with a rich legacy of archive material to draw upon. The large information panels are currently in French only but visual imagery including remarkable and often moving documentary film footage is largely self-explanatory, and reveals a long-lost way of life in and around the Vieux Port. With no windows to distract you, the experience becomes increasingly removed from the world outside, and as you move among the exhibits from one hall to the next you’ll find yourself gradually being drawn back in time.

By the time you finally emerge into dazzling daylight beside the Bassin’s historic slipway you’ll be armed with a good grounding in La Rochelle’s long nautical history, along with some worthwhile practical insight into local activities linked to the sea. It’s a perfect preparation for what comes next.

The museum’s main attraction is an opportunity to step aboard its unique collection of historic vessels, several of which have Monument Historique status. These include the collection’s centrepiece, the very last ocean-going meteorological frigate. Launched in 1958, France 1 provided vital weather observations and scientific research until her retirement almost 30 years later, when satellites took over. In 1988 she was acquired by the Mairie de La Rochelle and gifted to Les Amis du Musée Maritime de La Rochelle (AAMMLR), who have since restored her faithfully down to the very last detail to give visitors a taste of life aboard during her working days. In fact the only subsequent addition is a bar/restaurant added to the upper deck.

Other historic vessels preserved in the Bassin include the Manuel-Joël, a trawler built here in 1954, the Angoumois, a 38m ocean-going stern-trawler from 1969, the Saint-Gilles, a powerful La Rochelle built tugboat from 1958 plus the Capitaine de Frégate Leverger, a Normandy built lifeboat based at Cap Ferret from 1955-1991. One truly unique vessel which isn’t yet on display is the last surviving steam-powered bucket dredger, which worked in the Vieux Port until 1988. Dating from 1906, the 28.5m monster is currently awaiting restoration in the former WWII submarine complex in the nearby port of La Pallice but in the museum there’s a display area dedicated to its work.

The impressive scale of these survivors makes quite an impact when you’re able to get this close, but equally fascinating for their very different qualities are the 40 or so graceful classic sailing vessels lining the opposite quay. Among them are ocean racers sailed by world famous yachtsmen plus one or two classic motor cruisers, all of which have been lovingly restored to impeccable levels of presentation and seaworthiness. Ensuring that they remain that way takes constant attention, so visitors are likely to see lots of activity taking place in the Bassin, which has become an important centre for the restoration of classic vessels from a bygone era. In every sense, then, this really is a living museum.

QUAY FACTS

Origins: the Port(s) of La Rochelle

Early documents mention the port of ‘Rupella’ (961), which by 1023 had become ‘Roscella’. This mutated to ‘Rochella’ before finally being referred to as ‘La Rochelle’ around 1199 by Henri II Plantagenêt and Aliénor d’Aquitaine, who resolved to reverse a steady decline caused by silting up of the harbour. At that time it enjoyed the protection of the town’s formidable defensive ramparts, most of which would later be demolished by order of Louis XIII.

Those on the more vulnerable seaward side were spared, however, including the 14th century Tour Saint-Nicolas and the Tour de la Chaîne sited strategically on opposite sides of the harbour entrance. Charged with maintaining a constant vigil over water-borne traffic movements, the fortress-like towers could at any moment prevent vessels entering or leaving the harbour by raising from the seabed a heavy forged iron chain strung between them. It was simple but highly effective, and on the quayside beside the Tour de la Chaîne you’ll find a time-worn section of the original chain.

In 1862 a second harbour known as le Bassin des Chalutiers was created beside the Vieux Port specifically to accommodate the fishing fleet. Things moved a significant stage further in 1890 when French President Sadi Carnot inaugurated the Port de la Pallice, on a largely undeveloped spur of land facing the Ile de Ré. The new port established extensive trading routes (including importing timber from Africa) and played an important military role during WWII. In 1939 it witnessed around 6,000 exiled Polish troops being shipped to safety in the UK by the Royal Navy immediately before the fall of France. Under German occupation, La Pallice became a U-boat base and constructed a colossal submarine pen complex (which was used by Steven Spielberg to shoot scenes for Raiders of The Lost Ark in 1980) and which still survives, although with no sense of purpose.

In 1994 La Rochelle’s fishing fleet was transferred to La Pallice (now known as le Grand Port Maritime de La Rochelle) from le Bassin des Chalutiers, which has been rescued from abandonment as the home of the Musée Maritime de La Rochelle.

FIND OUT MORE

The official website has opening times, entry prices, etc., plus details of classic yachts currently berthed in the Bassin:
www.museemaritimelarochelle.fr 

Immerse yourself in the world of classic yacht racing: www.yachtclubclassique.com 

Visit in Sept to see La Rochelle’s international boat show: www.grand-pavois.com 

You can enjoy a sailing experience aboard the Sainte Anne III, an elegant 15.3m yawl built in the Bassin d’Arcachon in 1933 and now a listed Monument Historique: www.sainteanne3.wix.com/enpleindanslemille .

 

© LIVING MAGAZINE / ROGER MOSS

Originally published August 2015