There are so many spires, tall narrow structures and clocktowers in La Rochelle that I’m perpetually looking upward. Firstly, there are well-known clocks, such as the Grand Horlage at a major opening archway, the clock at Gare SNCF (Railway station), the clock tower at the Town Hall and the clock tower at the end of Eglise Notre Dame’s rambling buildings. Also, there is the magnificent ancient Belltower of Eglise St Saveur. There is a ‘lighthouse’ rising, not from a rocky outthrust high above treacherous coasts but rather within the stately order of townhouses on a main promenade of the Old Port. Other port features include the Tower of Chains, The Tower of St Nicholas and The Lantern Tower. I shall explore briefly, what I find interesting from the history of each of these.
The Grand Clock
My fascination with taking “towering” photos, was my first sight of the “Grosse Horlage” in the old Port of La Rochelle. Initially, the magnificent archway attracted me. This location started as a gateway to the fortified city in the 12th Century. However, the load-bearing masonry tower was not started until 1478 when an octagonal bell tower, including a campanile, was erected to shelter the bell of the clock. The main building was altered in 1746 to the form we see today. The clock rising high above the arch is still keeping time.
The clock at Gare SNCF (Railway Station)
The clock tower, facades and roof, the hall and its mosaics are all registered as historical monuments. Despite being started in 1909, due to the interruption of World War one, it was not completed until 1922. This makes it a relatively recent construction compared to the other buildings of La Rochelle. The 45 m clock tower rises so high above the rest of the building that it is often called a “Campanile” – a free-standing tower not attached to a building.
The clock at the City Hall
The City hall (Hotel de Ville) has been closed to the public since a fire ravaged the interior and roof in 2013. Artworks that were saved are entrusted to the Museum of fine arts, while the renovations continue. People can view the traditional craftspeople reworking the ceiling as I type this (April 2019), through peepholes deliberately made available for that purpose. The exterior of the building remains and is magnificent to view.
Started in 1298, the Ville d’hotel has had many renovations over the years. The main building remains renaissance style, with a gothic surrounding outer wall. Around the fifteenth century, towers, ramparts with battlements, gargoyles, and machicolations (holes through which stones or burning objects could be dropped on attackers) were added. The mix of architectural styles has occurred over time as the town hall grew with the city’s expansion.
The clock is housed in the belfry of the northern turret. Close by, a statue of King Henry the IV stands under a canopy within the compound. He appears to be peeping over the crenel of the battlement wall.
Eglise Notre Dame Clock tower
( Church of Notre Dame, Cougnes)
Origins: Early 11th Century
This building originally started as small chapel. Notre Dame de Cougnes, evolved over time into “a building of large proportion with ramparts “and a roof “entirely covered with lead”.
During the 16th century Reformation, the Protestant Huguenots destroyed many of the Catholic churches. They used the stones to fortify the city walls against the Catholic King and his forces. The massacres of thousands of protestants changed their views on Catholicism. Previously, they considered it a misguided church. Now they saw it as “the force of the devil itself”.
The Church building changes hands many times
The church (Eglise Notre-Dame) suffered. Only the bell tower and a few sections of the church walls remained. These remnants served as battlements, until the religious wars, when they collapsed. By the time King Louis XIII won the siege of 1628, the Catholics had taken over their property from the protestant Huguenots. All that remained of the church was a few sides of the wall of Notre-Dame, four buttresses with a large door in the middle, a staircase, the ramparts, casemates, an altar fragment, remains of columns and a central pillar behind the choir.
The church is rebuilt, but over time is transformed into a stable for the cavalry and artillery and so falls back into secular use.
The Church returns to the Catholics
Early in the 19th century, the building returns to the Catholics. The parishioners have to use their own money to restore it. To save costs, a small square bell tower extends over an existing tower.
To further save costs, instead of installing inlaid stones, ceiling plaster is painted to look like stones.
Around the mid 19th century, the tower is made taller by using an arrow-shaped polygonal. The clock is installed in the base of the top spire.
This approach to the building’s varied uses, explains why this landmark building in La Rochelle seems rambling. Its’ main front entry is not visible from the street. It is so lacking in the obvious lines typical of a freestanding construction.
The Belltower of Eglise St Sauver
This church suffered like others during the religious wars. The only original surviving part of the structure today is the belltower, initially erected in the 15th century.
At first, a fire demolished a smaller 12th century church. The belltower began as a belfry and became a watchtower during the religious wars. The rest of the church demolished and used to fortify the city walls. Then in the 18th century, the church fell into secular use. It became a Navy warehouse. Early in the 19th Century, it resumed its role as a house of worship again. Over the next 100 years, many features are added: side chapels, stained glass, an organ and sacristry (a vestry).
The church was closed between 1995 and 2008 for renovations. The only part of the building that was not restored to original use was the bell tower. It was assessed unsafe for working upon. As shown in the photos on the bottom row, the old line of an archway of the church was not removed. It is still attached to the belltower. Still, it rises magnificently on the La Rochelle skyline.
The leading lights
These elevated structures are not lighthouses. The short towers are “feu”. In 1952, a pair were erected to synchronise their lights. This enabled ships to be guided safely into the inner harbour. The front one is 46 feet tall and called “La Rochelle Feu Anterieur”. It is made of round cylindrical masonry and is painted with white and red stripes. It stands on the west side of the inner harbour on the Rue de l’Armide. The “Feu Posterieur” is much taller at 86 feet and rises above the story keeper’s house on the Quai Valin. It is at the east end of the inner harbour. It comprises hexagonal cylindrical masonry. The main part of the tower is painted white and the lanterns and gallery are in green.
Both remain in working order and continue to guide all sailing vessels into La Rochelle harbour. Users line up the lights and keep them in view, to ensure a safe path inward.
Tower St Nicholas and The Tower of the Chain and The tower of the Lantern
One cannot visit the Old Port without noticing the two main towers guarding its entrance. Perhaps the photos of these two are the most recognised. When I was there, I didn’t notice the Lantern tower from the main quay, in the same way as the first two.
The Tower of St Nicholas stands on the southern side of the port. The tower of the Chain stands on the north. These were built mid to late 14th Century. Tower of the lantern is further west and is the most proximal of the three to the harbour entrance.
The detailed history of these buildings is so tedious, that suffice to say, I don’t want to go there !!. In old times, these buildings held an important strategic function.
The Tower of St Nicholas is linked by chain, to the Tower of the Chain. This strategy prevents unwanted entry into the port. The Tower of the Lantern is built later. It appeared during the mid 15th century. This tower acts as a lighthouse and a navigation aid.
So, there you go! Plenty to see in La Rochelle. Hire a little Air BNB in the old port and you can walk to all of these places. ( Shelley Beer)