West Virginia University in Vendée, France
[Note: due to our heavy schedule of excursions, the trip to La Rochelle is not now on the official list of our outings. It is near enough to Les Sables, however, that it would make an ideal Sunday afternoon outing with the host family.]
The captital of la Charente-Maritime, just south of la Vendée, La Rochelle is a center of trade, fishing, and government. As a major port on the Atlantic, it has long been a center of commerce and communication with the world. Its strategic position has also made the town a major player in some of the most dramatic events of French history. Looking back on that history, it is surely the town's role in the religious struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that stands out in the memory of the French people. The towers and fortifications, seen above and around the city, often date however from the middle ages and the wars between the English and the French that predominated during that time.
The towers above, la Tour de la Chaîne and la Tour St-Nicolas have stood over this
port as army after army, navy after navy, tried to take possession of the town and its
resources. They served perhaps most effectively during the 1500's when the rulers
and inhabitants of the city turned it into a fortress of the newly born Protestant
religion. At the height of the wars that grew from the effort to squash the new
religion, the king Charles IX decided in 1673 to send his brother the future Henri III to
lay siege to the city. Aided by the Italian engineer who had actually helped the
Protestants fortify the town, Henri felt assured of success. His enemies held on,
though, and devised means of discouraging the most determined of agressors. The most
famous of their inventions was a machine that increased the accuracy and efficacy of the
boiling oil and hot pitch tar the poured down from the towers on to the king's
soldiers. At the end of six months and at a cost of 20,000 royal troops, Henri
abandoned the siege.
As much as any other monument of La Rochelle, La Tour de la Lanterne, tells a story
for every age it has witnessed. Although a relatively "new" structure
(not quite 500 years old), it is neverthess the oldest lighthouse in a fortress, the
building has as often as not served primarily as a prison. In 1570 in what must have
a gesture of pacification, the Protestants locked 13 priests in the tower before cutting
their throats and throwing into the sea below. In 1793, the new Republic captured
some 700 hundred royalist Vendéens (I can hardly believe my notes here!) and imprisoned
them under the most crowded and wretched of conditions. Awaiting the trial that
would send many to the guillotine, some 200 of the prisoners died of illness and
starvation before they could be judged. The most famous story surrounding the towers
is that of the "Four Seargeants" who were captured in 1822 and held there after
they tried unsuccessful to start an insurrection againts the newly restored
monarchy. Their hope was that this would set the ground for the return of their
great leader, who was soon to die on the far away island of Saint Helena. A walk
through this tower is indeed a walk through the ages, and it is worth the trip just to try
to decipher the different prisoners' graffiti that decorate nearly every stone of every
Below are a few more photos of La Rochelle:
--Two views from the towers out over the port and the sea: View one (9 Kb), View two (11 Kb).
-- Two views from the towers out over the city. Note here the grey slate roofs, typical of norther France, and the red clay tile roofs typical of the south. Here we are near the line that marks this frontier. View one (12 Kb), View two (14 Kb).
-- Here Allison, Alexander, Lucie and Michael Lastinger have lunch in a restaurant near the port (20 Kb).
-- Like all cities of the middle ages, La Rochelle was once surrounded by fortified
walls. The great doors were the only means of entering or exiting -- thus the
tradition of honoring guests of great stature and prestige with the keys to the
city. Here is la Porte de la Grosse Horloge, a famous door to the city of La Rochelle (8 Kb).