The pale stone slabs of the exterior housed large halls lined in oak and hung with valuable oil paintings, massive, ornately-carved fireplaces, rows of chandeliers, antique furniture, glossy parquet floors, and hand-decorated ceilings.
It was an architectural treasure, but in June 2013 it burned down.
The fire started in a store room in the early afternoon but despite the heroic efforts of 80 fire fighters, it spread to the Renaissance wooden roof, which collapsed, and the building was in danger of being completely consumed by the fire.
Finally, however, the inferno was extinguished, and many of the treasures it contained (including the local archives) were saved.
Luckily the fire brigade had done a detailed inventory of the building and its contents only two years previously so knew exactly what was on display and what should be removed from the building first.
There was never any question about the future; the building would be restored to its former glory, the roof reconstructed, the walls cleaned, the interior restored to all its former glory.
After six years of hard work, the Hôtel de Ville was reopened to the public last December to wide public acclaim.
“Thousands of people came to the reopening ceremony,” said maire Jean François Fountaine, “which just shows how beloved it is by the people here. It’s a unique building, with its fairytale medieval styling.
“La Rochelle was the first city in France to have its own mayor, don’t forget; so it is a symbol of the city.
“But the Hôtel de Ville isn’t a museum; it’s a working place, a place for organising things, meeting people and discovering things. A place where democracy is in action every day.
“But it is also open to the public. Because so many people want to visit, we have set up a reservations system on the website hoteldevillelarochelle.com, so that no-one will be disappointed.”
He is also proud of the city’s cultural life, which he says is buzzing all day long, all year round. Le Carré Amelot is a good taster of what’s happening.
The centre runs a wide range of art workshops and classes for children and adults.
It also hosts photography exhibitions, and festivals including ‘Escales Documentaires’ and ‘Cinéma Japonais’. The idea is to be an art factory which not only produces artworks, but also artists and audiences.
The ‘Climat-Océan’ exhibition at the Maritime Museum is set to run until 31 March 2021, and looks sure to be a big draw. “The main aim is to raise awareness of the world’s oceans, the climate changes that threaten them, the consequences for us, and what we can do to halt it,” said the maire.
“It is very scientific, based on solid research but the information is presented in a fun, accessible way – like finding out how a tornado is born.”
There is also the city’s most famous festival, Francofolies, which runs from July 10-14 2020, showcasing musical stars from France and abroad.
Attracting more than 150,000 visitors a year, it is a chance to discover the full range of contemporary French music whilst enjoying sea breezes.
“Connexion readers should come and visit La Rochelle,” said the maire. It’s easy to get to, we have an international airport and by train Paris is only two-and-a-half hours away, making it ideal for a weekend, as well as for longer breaks.
“The network of cycle paths stretches out into the countryside around, and because the city is built on the flat, everyone cycles here. In fact, why not just come and live in La Rochelle!”
See also: Where to visit in laid-back La Rochelle