Rochelle and back | 

For a touch of class, head to France’s west coast for stunning views, local food and delicious Cognac

Stunning La Rochelle

Jim on board La Demoiselle

An unforgettable sunset cruise on the Kelone boat

The incredible Hotel St Gelais

Jim Gallagher La Rochelle in France Travel March 26

Jim GallagherSunday World

What’s the best region in France for a fun-packed holiday? To many Francophiles, it will always be the Riviera with its promise of sun, sea and glamour. Others won’t go beyond Paris, with its romance, history and stunning architecture.

But there is another lesser-known region in the west that has it all — the departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime on the Atlantic.

La Rochelle, the capital of the latter coastal department, is one of France’s most beautiful cities and the old harbour with its three medieval towers will take your breath away at first sight.

The town of Cognac a short drive inland, where Irishman Richard Hennessy opened his world-famous distillery way back in 1765, is a mecca for drink connoisseurs.

And the quaint city of Angouleme has a vibrant cultural life, with its renowned comics festival — many buildings are decorated with vast murals of favourite characters like Asterix — and its music and film festivals.

The city was the location for Wes Anderson’s movie, The French Dispatch, starring our own Saoirse Ronan along with a host of other Hollywood stars. It’s also home to Dominique Besnehard, producer of the cult French TV show Call My Agent.

It was in Angouleme that we began our tour, after catching the speedy TGV train direct from Paris.

Jim on board La Demoiselle

We were lucky to be booked into the lovely four-star Hotel Saint Gelais, where the stars of Anderson’s 2021 flick stayed during filming.

Signed photos of A-listers like Willam Dafoe, Benicio del Toro and Bill Murray lined the walls. And it was a hoot knowing I could have been in the same bed as Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Adrien Brody or Timothée Chalamet. Needless to say, the large rooms were gorgeous, some with their own balcony.

An uphill walk from the hotel and its outdoor swimming pool is the beautiful Romanesque cathedral of Saint-Pierre. Built in the first half of the 12th century, the cathedral has a magnificent treasury, housing a stunning art installation with 9,000 pieces of coloured glass by the visual artist Jean-Michel Othoniel.

Angouleme has a population of just 41,000 and yet pulls in 200,000 visitors every January for its four-day International Comics Festival, the second largest in Europe, which will celebrate its 50th birthday next year.

The murals and street art are a must-see while strolling around this attractive, hilly city along with its lively market, where you can try out a local beer.

And if you like Michelin-star restaurants, find your way to Les Sources de Fontbelle, which has a gorgeous guest house nearby (rooms from €95).

On our visit, chef Guillaume Veyssiere served up a tantalising tasting menu: snails Comiskey; soufflé bread and herbs; cones with haddock and tuna slivers; mushroom tartlet; roasted mushrooms with tapioca froth, herbs and gold flake in jelly; sea bass with coriander and parsley; beetroot, apple and butternut squash; a cauliflower dessert on a biscuit with chervil pesto and a second dessert of grape, Cognac and vanilla ice cream balls with blueberries and smoked vine. Phew!

The incredible Hotel St Gelais

Just half an hour’s drive west of Angouleme is the lovely town of Cognac, with its renowned distillery sitting on the picturesque Charente river.

We visited the huge cellars, sampled some of its fine products — it was invented by an Irishman, after all — and marvelled at the stratospheric €5,800 price tag for a bottle in Baccarat crystal, Carafe Richard Hennessy.

If that’s a little steep, you can snap up a bottle of Hennessy Paradis for €2,400 or just settle for a Master Blender’s selection for €145. Hennessy last year sold a staggering 100 million bottles worldwide.

We followed the tour with an enjoyable cruise on a modern canal boat, La Demoiselle, taking in the lovely views from the Charente.

The next stop was the 105km drive to the coast and the gorgeous city of La Rochelle, where we were booked into the three-star Hotel Saint Nicolas, right in the heart of the city and just a short walk from the waterfront.

The old harbour with its magnificent towers — the Chain Tower, St Nicolas Tower and the Lantern Tower — is the main attraction, and is steeped in history dating back centuries.

There are actually three ports: for fishing, trade and yachting, the latter having berths for 5,000 boats, the biggest marina in France.

As the only deep water port on the French Atlantic, La Rochelle was used as a submarine base by the Nazis during World War II and was the last city in France to be liberated.

An unforgettable sunset cruise on the Kelone boat

The redundant submarine pens still stand today and were used in the famous German war film Das Boot and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The city harbour is lined with restaurants and the 10,000-strong university means the nightlife and bar scene is very lively.

The harbour is beautifully lit up at night, and the memory still lingers from our walk along the waterfront to La Yole de Chris restaurant on our first evening.

The next day, we climbed the towers for great views over the harbour and marina before pounding the pretty cobbled streets and the city’s 2.5km of arcades.

With a population of just 76,000, La Rochelle is an easy city to get around. Keep an eye out for the 200 gargoyles staring down at you, and don’t forget to try some Pinot Charente in the 19th-century market.

We topped off the day with an unforgettable sunset cruise on the sailboat Kelone, enjoying aperitifs and an informal dinner while watching the sun go down — definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

The next day, we stopped off at a private Cognac estate 8km away — Cognac Normandin-Mercier in Dompierre sur Mer — for a last taste of France, straight from a barrel. The estate is still a private home, and well worth a visit.

Then it was time for the drive to Bordeaux and our Aer Lingus flight home.


LA ROCHELLE, FRANCE See ■ Stay at Le Saint Gelais ( and Hotel Saint Nicolas ( ■ For the Hennessy tour and river boat tour, see ■ Book a sunset cruise on ■ For a tour of a private Cognac estate, see

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