(Did a slightly shorter version of this for The Hindu)
Facing me is a white wooden door with graffiti sprayed across it. As I pass through it and walk down a flight of cemented stairs, the light fades and the temperature drops sharply. My phone beeps that it has no signal.
I am several meters underground in a bunker that was a German air raid shelter during World War II. And for a moment, the world I know seems very distant.
Then lights flicker on, lighting up the concrete- and metal-lined corridors of the Musée Rochelais de la Dernière Guerre or the La Rochelle Museum of the Last War. Almost simultaneously, Jean-Luc Labour’s vibrant voice fills the space, as he starts talking about how he acquired the bunker in the early 1980s and turned it into a museum that tells the story of La Rochelle and France during World War II.
A beautiful town of 80,000 on France’s Atlantic coast, about 450 kilometres South West of Paris, La Rochelle was one of five German submarine bases in occupied-France during the Second World War. During the War, the Germans constructed several air raid shelters in the town, including one for the commander of the submarine base. And it is this underground bunker, on a quiet street off La Rochelle’s main market, that houses the museum. What makes the privately-owned museum special is that it has been painstakingly put together by Labour, a history buff and former tourism director of the town.
A good part of the museum’s motley collection of guns, uniforms, clothes, photographs, flags, maps, documents and other memorabilia has been acquired either in or from around La Rochelle. Opening a rather battered suitcase, Labour shows how its false bottom concealed a wireless transmitter and weapons. The case belonged to a British secret agent smuggled into France to help the French resistance movement, he says.
Labour is such a smashing storyteller that for a little over an hour I am transported to wartime France. I guess it also helps that he allows me to handle several vintage guns including a Luger pistol and a Schmeisser MP-41 sub-machine gun.
Equally adept time machines are the three towers that stand watch over the entry to La Rochelle’s old port. Perhaps the most recognised and photographed features of the town, the Saint Nicholas, ‘Chaine’ and ‘Lanterne’ towers once regulated entry into the town’s port and also served as watch towers, military barracks, prisons and navigational aids. Today, they are tourist magnets that offer visitors glimpses of La Rochelle’s past and also its celebrated ‘rebel spirit’.
For being different is, it seems, a part of La Rochelle’s DNA. By the middle of the 12th Century, the town was granted a ‘Charter of commune’ by the Duke of Aquitaine, who ruled the area. The charter allowed the town a degree of political and economic freedom available to few of its contemporaries. It was, for instance, allowed several tax and customs privileges including exemption from some taxes levied by the Crown. And in 1199, La Rochelle firmly signalled its autonomy by electing its first mayor, perhaps the first French town to do so.
Over the next few centuries it flourished as an important port on the Atlantic, especially for the trade in salt and wine. In keeping with its penchant for being different, the town embraced the values of the Reformation — the movement for reform that split Christianity in Western Europe into the Catholic and Protestant churches. And by the middle of the 16th Century La Rochelle was a Protestant stronghold in Catholic France.
However, the town’s privileged existence came to a rather sorry end in the 17th Century after the Great Siege of 1627-28. France, under Louis XIII and his Chief Minister Cardinal Richelieu, brought La Rochelle firmly under royal control. The ‘rebel town’ was forced to surrender and was stripped of the economic and political privileges it enjoyed.
By the end of the 17th Century though, La Rochelle bounced back, becoming the nucleus of trade between France, Africa and the West Indies and Canada in the ‘new world’. Much of La Rochelle’s past lives on in some of its museums including the Orbigny Bernon Museum, the Museum of the New World and the Museum of Protestant History.
However, La Rochelle is not only about the past, but also has its eyes firmly set on the present and the future. Not very surprising for a town that celebrates its difference with the slogan ‘La Rochelle, belle et rebelle’ translated as ‘La Rochelle, beautiful and rebellious’. As Christophe Marchais, Director, Office of Tourism, La Rochelle tells me: “La Rochelle is not just a historic city, but also a very contemporary city.”
Among the more important of La Rochelle’s relatively contemporary attractions is its International Film Festival. Though not as well known as the one in Cannes, La Rochelle’s International Film Festival is France’s second largest film event and is celebrating its 40th edition this year, says Marchais. Other interesting events on the town’s cultural calendar include the annual Francofolies music festival and two smaller jazz festivals, besides theatre, documentary and dance festivals.
As a town whose fortunes have been shaped by the sea, La Rochelle is big on water sports. Its marina, located in the Minimes neighbourhood is so packed with yachts and boats that at times it seems I’m trapped in a forest of masts. The marina is currently being expanded and will soon be able to accommodate 4,500-plus pleasure craft, making it the biggest in Europe, Marchais declares.
The best part of the La Rochelle experience though, especially on a fine evening, is to do what many of its residents do — head to the old port. As I stroll along the waterfront and then linger over a drink at one of the many cafes that flank the old port, it’s hard to escape the incessant clanking of halyards whipping against yacht masts in the wind. An aural reminder, perhaps, that La Rochelle is still a bit of a rebel.
(The pic used here is a low-res version of one that appears with the piece in The Hindu)