The Tour St Nicolas, the Tour de la Chaîne, and the Tour de la Lanterne act as remnants of old-world La Rochelle. Facing the Atlantic and true guardians of the city, these towers are a testimony to the power of La Rochelle through the centuries. They have been classed as “Monuments Historiques” since 1879.
The Tour Saint-Nicolas
Legend has it that this tower was built by the sprite Melusine. As she flew above La Rochelle with the stones of a destroyed castle, her smock tore. The stones fell from it one by one, and they came to form the Tour Saint-Nicolas.
This tower, whose date of construction does not appear on any historic document, acts as the gateway to La Rochelle's Vieux Port, alongside the Tour de la Chaîne. Through the centuries, it acted as the defensive lock of the city’s seafront. Like a castle in the city and a palatial residence facing the sea, this military building symbolises the power and wealth of La Rochelle.
Completed in 1376 and standing 38 metres tall, the tower is built on long oak piles driven into the mud and wedged with stones. Yet during construction, the tower began to subside in the unstable ground and leant north-eastward. It was thus reinforced, and from the second floor, it regained its poise. To this day you can still notice this slight imbalance.
The Tour de la Chaîne
After the completion of the Tour Saint-Nicolas, the municipality had the Tour de la Chaîne built between 1382 and 1390. Its name derives from the large iron chain that had to be moved with a hoist to allow boats to enter and leave the Vieux Port. The Capitaine de la Tour (Captain of the Tower) would monitor the movement of boats and collect the duties and tolls.
In 1472, the tower was visited by King Louis XI. Legend has it that he engraved an inscription on a windowpane in the tower with the diamond he was wearing on his finger.
When it was used as a store for gunpowder during the Fronde (an uprising against the monarchy while Louis XIV was still in his minority), the tower exploded and for 300 years remained open to the elements. Important restoration works took place in the 20th and 21st centuries with the reconstruction of a castellated rampart walk, the creation of a new roof, and the rebuilding of two floors inside.
The Tour de la Lanterne
At the very end of the ramparts, its Gothic spire that rises 70 m could be mistaken for a church. It’s actually a daymark and lighthouse, the oldest along the entire Atlantic coast. Since two of the four sergeants involved in the Carbonari plot against the Bourbon Restoration were incarcerated here in 1818, the citizens of La Rochelle, who have long resisted central power, often call it the Tour des Quatre-Sergents. Indeed, as well as being a lighthouse, it has acted as a prison. Hundreds of pieces of graffiti dot its walls, memories of the generations of prisoners incarcerated there. There are testimonies from English, Spanish and Dutch pirates, soldiers, refractory priests during the Revolution, as well as common-law prisoners. Alongside this are the marks of the men who built the tower.