LA ROCHELLE, France -- Life in this city on the Atlantic coast plays out under the crooked eyes of gargoyles and across a landscape of medieval towers - even the motto in the glossy travel brochures is drawn from an event that happened more than 300 years ago.
But during the past week, this port town rich in history has done itself up like an MTV video. Illuminated in what looks like the light from an oversized disco ball, the harbor is made over with twirling strobes and speakers blasting rock music. For the past week, some French haven't even bothered speaking their own language, and the U.S. flag and others fly in the most quintessentially French part of town.
This 11th-century port has been struck by a two-word phenomenon: The Whitbread. The eighth stopover city in the nine-leg sailing race around the world is one where people know as much about 17th-century religious wars as they do about state-of-the-art Kevlar boat hulls.
The city, home to 3,500 sailboats, has never before been host to a Whitbread and usually is disregarded as a site for popular French regattas. Eager promoters of La Rochelle sold the town to Whitbread organizers in part on its sense of the past, a past that still informs this port.
"She is a rebel city," says Jean Francois Fountaine, a La Rochelle city alderman, referring to the port's character after the persecution of Protestants here into the 17th century. "She is independent."
Indeed, La Rochelle is still dubbed "Belle et rebelle" - beautiful and rebellious - because for years it resisted Catholicism, the national religion, and suffered a massacre in 1624 as a result.
For Whitbread's purposes, it helps that La Rochelle is also one of Europe's largest sailboat ports, drawing 1 million tourists a year.
Underneath the city lies a maze of catacombs where the occupying Nazis hid during Allied bombings - their drawings of swastikas still visible on the walls. On the outskirts of the town are crumbling submarine pens where the Germans kept their U-boats in World War II.
In the end, La Rochelle escaped the World War II bombings that destroyed old architecture in other coastal towns. Its original style - houses with burnt orange tile roofs and sun-drenched white limestone walls - are undisturbed, as are three medieval towers, a 14th-century retaining wall and several grand 17th-century mansions.
These days, 75,000 people live in this city five hours southwest of Paris - just outside the wine country of Bordeaux.
In countless outdoor cafes the regulars sip cognac mixed with grape juice - Pineau from Charentes - and eat "chaudree," a fish casserole that is to La Rochelle what crab cakes are to Baltimore.
Most of France's major boat builders are based around La Rochelle. And Isabelle Autissier, the first woman to sail single-handed around the world in a race, lives here. She, not Carole Bouquet - a former Bond girl who lives nearby - is considered the city's poster girl.
La Rochelle has tried to modernize. Its top industry is speed-train production and its big event is an annual electric car rally.
But the city's real self will always be found in its past. "She is a very old city," Fountaine said. "She is lucky that way."
Follow the finish
The Whitbread fleet completes its 31,600-nautical-mile Round the World Race Sunday in Southampton, England. The Sun will provide complete coverage from Southampton and wrap up the nine-month race beginning Monday. Meanwhile, today's installment of The Whitbread Watch is the last in the nine-month series.
Standings after Leg 8
Boat (Country), Pts.
EF Language (Sweden), 744
Swedish Match (Sweden), 629
Merit Cup (Monaco), 593
Chessie Racing (U.S.), 583
Silk Cut (Britain), 560
Innovation Kvaerner (Norway), 552
Toshiba (U.S.), 478
BrunelSunergy (Netherlands), 375
EF Education (Sweden), 255
America's Challenge (U.S.)**, 48
**Withdrew from race
Pub Date: 5/20/98