The area of La Rochelle was occupied in antiquity by the Gaul tribe of the Santones, who gave their name to the nearby region of Saintonge and the city of Saintes. The Romans then occupied the area, where they developed salt production along the coast as well as wine production, which was then reexported throughout the Empire. Roman villas were found at Saint-Éloi and at Les Minimes, as well as salt evaporation ponds dating to the same period.
The main activities of the city were in the areas of maritime commerce and trade, especially with England, the Netherlands and Spain. In 1196, wealthy bourgeois named Alexandre Auffredi sent a fleet of seven ships to Africa to tap the riches of the continent. He went bankrupt and went into poverty as he waited for the return of his ships, but they finally returned seven years later filled with riches.
Until the 15th century, La Rochelle was to be the largest French harbour on the Atlantic coast, dealing mainly in wine, salt and cheese.
The naval Battle of La Rochelle took place on 22 June 1372 during the Hundred Years War between a Castilian-French and an English fleet. The Spanish had 60 ships and the English 40. They also had more knights and men than the English. The French and Castilians decisively defeated the English, securing French control of the Channel for the first time since the Battle of Sluys in 1340.
During the Renaissance, La Rochelle adopted Protestant ideas, and from 1568 became a centre for the Huguenots. The city was besieged during the French Wars of Religion: Siege of La Rochelle (1572-1573). Under Henry IV the city enjoyed a certain freedom and prosperity until the 1620s, but the city entered in conflict with the central authority of the King Louis XIII, when cannon shots were exchanged on September 10 1627 with Royal troops. This resulted in the Siege of La Rochelle in which Cardinal Richelieu blockaded the city for 14 months, until the city surrendered and lost its mayor and its privileges. The growing persecution of the Huguenots culminated with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV. Many Huguenots emigrated, founding such cities as New Rochelle in the vicinity of today's New York in 1689. La Rochelle, and the siege of 1627 form much of the backdrop of the later chapters of Alexandre Dumas, père's classic novel, The Three Musketeers
The following period was a prosperous one, marked by intense exchanges with the New World (Nouvelle France in Canada, and the Antilles). La Rochelle became very active in triangular trade with the New World, dealing in the slave trade with Africa, sugar trade with plantations of the Antilles, and fur trade with Canada. This was a period of high artistic, cultural and architectural achievements for the city.
The city eventually lost its trade and prominence during the decades spanning the Seven Years' War, the French revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. During that period France lost many of the territorial possessions it had in the new World, and also saw a strong decrease in its sea power in the continuing conflicts with Britain, ultimately diminishing the role of such harbours as La Rochelle.
In 1864, the harbour of La Rochelle (area of the "Bassin à flot" behind the water locks), was the site for the maiden dive experiments of the first mechanically-powered submarine in the World, Plongeur, commanded by Marie-Joseph-Camille Doré, a native of La Rochelle.
A German stronghold, La Rochelle was the last French city to be freed at the end of the War. A siege took place between September 12, 1944, and May 7, 1945, in which the stronghold, including the islands of Ré and Oléron, was held by 20,000 German troops under a German vice-admiral Ernst Schirlitz. Following negotiations by the French Navy frigate captain Meyer, and the general German capitulation on May 7th, French troops entered La Rochelle on May 8th.
The bedrock of La Rochelle and surrounding areas is composed of layers of limestone dating back to the Sequanian stage (upper Oxfordian stage) of the Jurassic period (circa 160 million years ago), when a large part of France was submerged. These rocks were formed by the accumulation of organisms falling on the seabed, where they solidified. This happened at the time dinosaurs were roaming the earth.
Many of these layers are visible in the white cliffs that border the sea, which encapsulate many small marine fossils. Layers of thick white rocks, formed during period of relatively warm seas, alternate with highly friable layers containing sands and remains of mud, formed during colder periods, and with layers containing various corals, that were formed during warmer, tropical times.
The limestone thus formed is traditionally used as the main building material throughout the region.
The area of La Pointe du Chay, about 5 kilometers from La Rochelle is a popular cliff area for leisurely archaeological surveys.
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The city has beautifully maintained its past architecture, making it one of the most picturesque and historically rich cities on the Atlantic coast. This helped develop a strong tourism industry.
La Rochelle possesses a commercial harbour in deep water, named La Pallice. The large submarine bunker built during World War II still stands there, although it is not being used. La Pallice is equipped with oil unloading equipment, and mainly handles tropical wood. It is also the location of the fishing fleet, which was moved from the old harbour at the center of the city during the 1980s.
La Rochelle also maintains strong links with the sea by harbouring the largest marina for pleasure boats in Europe at Les Minimes, and a rather rich boat-building industry.
La Rochelle has a very big aquarium.
The Calypso, the ship used by Jacques-Yves Cousteau as a mobile laboratory for oceanography, and which was sunk after a collision in the port of Singapore (1996) is now displayed (sadly rotting) at the Maritime Museum of La Rochelle.
One of the biggest music festivals in France, "FrancoFolies," takes place each summer in La Rochelle, where Francophone musicians come together for a week of concerts and celebration. 2004 marked the 20th anniversary of this event.
La Rochelle is the setting for the best-selling series of French language textbooks in the UK, titled Tricolore. The central character, Martine Domme, lives with her family at the fictional address of 12, Rue de la République.
La Rochelle's main feature is the "Vieux Port" ("Old Harbour"), which is at the heart of the city, picturesque and lined with seafood restaurants. The city walls are open to an evening promenade. The old town has been well-preserved. From the harbour, boating trips can be taken to the Île d'Aix and Fort Boyard (home to the internationally famous tv show of the same name). Nearby Île de Ré is a short drive to the North. The countryside of the surrounding Charente-Maritime is very rural and full of history (Saintes). To the North is Venise Verte, a marshy area of country, criss-crossed with tiny canals and a popular resort for inland boating. Inland is the country of Cognac and Pineau.