Rochefort in the department of Charente-Maritime, Nouvelle-Aquitaine (formerly Poitou-Charentes) is a naval town with lots for visitors to see and do.
The Arsenal Quarter
Louis XIV’s former Royal Dockyards along the River Charente are vast. Created in the 1660s, over the next three centuries, 550 ships were built, rigged and launched from these docks. The King commanded that he required it to be the “largest and most beautiful arsenal in the kingdom”. He got what he wanted. Today the area is an incredible heritage site with museums, mills and traces of historic shipbuilding activity. It’s a great place to cycle with lot of picturesque routes. You can hire a bike and pick up a circuits leaflet from Rochefort tourist office.
Hermione replica ship
The first Hermione was a frigate launched in 1779. She carried General Lafayette to America where he fought in the American Revolutionary War on the side of the Americans and became a hero. The ship was wrecked four years later, but in 1997 members of the Centre International de la Mer began a mammoth project to build a replica Hermione. 17 years in the making she was completed in 2015 and followed in the path of her namesake, undertaking a historic journey to America (above photo, setting off from the French shores). She is now docked in Rochefort and you can climb aboard to admire the incredible workmanship which brought a 17th century ship to life in the 21st century.
The centrepiece of Louis XIV’s Dockyards was the rope factory. It was absolutely critical for the production of rigging for warships. With the tall sails, ropes had to be very long and so the corderie, rope shop, was built to cope with the need. At 374m long, it’s an impressive sight to this day. It’s now a fascinating museum which explains hemp cultivation and shows how those fibres were twisted into 200-metre lengths of rigging for 200 years up to the introduction of steel cables. You can also have a go at making rope yourself – I did and loved the experience!
Musée des Commerces d’Autrefois
In a 19th-century former warehouse, you’ll find the Museum of trades of yesteryear. There are 22 galleries which recreate the the ateliers and shop floors of trades of the past. Step into an old bicycle repair shop, milliners and cognac distillery. There are lovely vintage posters, and original artefacts of everyday appliances from between 1900 and the Second World War. The old bistro is particularly fun…
Rochefort-Martrou Transporter Bridge
The only surviving bridge of its kind in France, the unique Pont Transbordeur du Martrou, built in 1900 and now listed as a Monument Historique is an incredible heritage site. To this day it carries foot passengers and cyclists across the river Charente or a platform suspended on cables attached to a metal framework over the river. There’s an interpretation centre, Maison du Transbordeur, open from April to November. There you can discover all about the history of the bridge.
Musée de l’Aeronautique Navale
The largest museum in France dedicated solely to naval aviation. On the site of the Air Force, the hangar is home to 33 aircraft, including a rare Dewoitine D.520 from the Second World War and the flying banana helicopter. You’ll also find 1500 models on show, from zeppelins to stealth jets and World War II-era rocket planes.
Jardin des Retours
In the grounds of the Corderie Royale, a 17th century park has been with maritime themes in a series of gardens. One of the most spectacular is the Jardin de la Galissonnière, named in honour of Jean de la Galissonnière who first brought magnolia tree seeds to Europe from the Americas in 1711.
Musée National de la Marine
Part of France’s National Maritime Museum, with sites around the country, discover model boats, including the Dauphin Royal, an instructional model measuring 4.80 metres in length, as well as other naval memorabilia including navigation instruments as well as art and sculpture.
This is the place to go to satisfy any curiosity for France’s naval history, this museum is a compendium of model ships, sketches, glorious figureheads, maps, navigation instruments and other maritime artefacts.
Musée National de l’Ancienne Ecole de Medecine Navale
Included in the ticket for the Naval Museum is entry to an exhibition medicine on the high seas the school of naval medicine in Rochefort was founded in 1722, the first in the world. It’s a fascinating and at times gory collection that includes 2,500 books and encyclopaedia’s, bottles of herbs gathered from around the world, antique medical instruments and specimens of human tissue.
The town of Rochefort
Take a wander through the town of Rochefort. It’s a 17th century version of a “new town” built by Louis XIV’s minister, Colbert. Grand avenues, elegant houses and plenty of charm. Head to the central Place Colbert which is charming as well as a great place to take a break and enjoy coffee with a spot of people watching. Nearby the Rue Courbet is little changed from the 17th century with its cobblestones brought from Canada as ships’ ballast.
Visit the house of the novelist Julian Viaud who wrote under the pen name of Pierre Loti. A naval officer, he wrote numerous best-selling romances set in Oriental locations. From outside the house looks fairly bourgeois. But inside, it’s rather more exotic including a medieval themed banqueting hall complete with a Gothic fireplace and Gobelin tapestries. The house is undergoing major renovation and visits may be restricted but you can see some of Loti’s collection from his travels at Musée Hèbre, avenue du General de Gaulle.
What to do near Rochefort
Rochefort Tourism: www.rochefort-ocean.com/en; Charente and Charente-Maritime tourism – what to do in Rochefort and its surroundings: www.infiniment-charentes.com/destination/que-faire-a-rochefort/