La Rochelle is a city or commune of western France, and a seaport on the Atlantic Ocean (population 76,584 in 1999). It is the préfecture (capital) of the Charente-Maritime département(17). The city is connected to the Île de Ré (island) by a 2.9 km bridge, completed in 1988. Its harbour opens into a protected strait, the Pertuis d'Antioche.
La Rochelle was founded during the 10th century, and became an important harbour from the 12th century. In 1137, Guillaume X, Duke of Aquitaine essentially made La Rochelle a free port. Fifty years later, and for the first time in France, a city mayor was named for La Rochelle, Guillaume de Montmirail . Until the 15th century, La Rochelle was to be the largest French harbour on the Atlantic coast, dealing mainly in wine and salt.
During the Renaissance, La Rochelle adopted reformist ideas, and from 1568 became a center for the Huguenots, initiating a period of freedom and prosperity until the 1620s. The city finally entered in conflict with the central authority of the King Louis XIII, when cannon shots were exchanged on September 10th 1627 with Royal troops. This resulted into 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.
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 artistical, 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.
During the Second World War, Germany established a submarine naval base at La Rochelle, which became the setting for the movie Das Boot. A German stronghold, La Rochelle was the last French city to be freed at the end of the War.
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.
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 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.
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 at the Maritime Museum of La Rochelle.
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 Republique.
Although at the same latitude as Montreal in Canada or the Kuril islands in Russia, the area is quite warm throughout the year due to the influence of the Gulf Stream waters, and insolation is remarkably high, on a par with the French Riviera on the Mediterranean Southern coast of France.