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Ocean breeze - a day out in Rochefort

Ocean breeze - a day out in Rochefort

Rochefort was purpose built to become France’s greatest military port – today it’s an outward looking town just waiting to be rediscovered... 


There’s something about this not-quite-coastal town that gets inside you, particularly since you can’t help feeling that most of the outside world has yet to rediscover it. In fact, virtually none of what you see today existed until 1664, when French Naval Secretary Jean-Baptiste Colbert alerted Louis XIV to the vulnerability of the Atlantic coast to sea-borne attack. One year later the King sanctioned construction of a naval arsenal on a sheltered spot just inland from the mouth of the Charente, whose nearby promontories and islands already had some fortifications. By 1671 Rochefort had acquired a population of around 20,000, its naval dockyard had begun launching heavily armed warships and the vast construction site was still relentlessly expanding. Before long it would become France’s (and Europe’s) biggest military port.


Today the navy has long gone, but countless signs of Rochefort’s illustrious past remain. A glance at a street plan reveals a rigid geometrical pattern which clearly didn’t merely evolve, but was laid out with military precision, including wide boulevards designed to allow coastal breezes to disperse the smoke and dust generated by the dockyards. Everything, it seems, was done on a grand scale, and no expense was spared on the decorative embellishments specified by the town’s architects. The elegant square known as Place Colbert, for example, would not look out of place in long-wealthy Bordeaux, while the dimensions of Rochefort’s Italianate market hall are truly monumental.

The latter is still earning its keep; on market mornings you’ll see it full to bursting, while outdoors colourful stalls, many laden with local produce, make Avenue Charles de Gaulle the place to be. Rather less immediately obvious, however, is a modest shop front entitled Le Bégonia d’Or. The ‘Or’ in question refers to fine gold and other threads used in creating and restoring ceremonial regalia for the military and those in public office. The small team of embroiderers’ dazzling skills keep alive a centuries old Rochefort tradition, and are today also sought after by Parisian fashion houses including Chanel, Lacroix, Versace and Dior – plus others who must remain nameless. You never know what you might see being worked upon in the modest looking workshop, which welcomes interested visitors.


Countless other businesses, though, have either faded into memory or changed their style dramatically with the passage of time, but a couple of streets away lies a unique opportunity to revisit some you probably thought had gone forever. The Musée des Commerces d’Autrefois displays the unbelievable treasures saved from certain destruction by a dedicated couple whose spare time collecting turned into a race against time. Thanks to their vision and foresight you can now gaze in wonderment at such early 20th century survivors as a brasserie, a well-stocked épicerie, a pharmacie, a chapellerie (hat and glove boutique), an early photographer’s studio, a seed merchants, blacksmith’s forge and much more. Quite simply, it’s the bygone France of your dreams brought vividly back to life.

If you’re getting a taste for time travel and want to learn about Rochefort’s maritime history then the Musée National de la Marine is another essential visit. In the palatial setting of the early 17th century Hôtel de Cheusses, which became the Naval Commandant’s residence with the construction of the Arsenal, you’ll find, among other things, many beautiful scale models of important vessels created by naval architects. The complexity and attention to detail are astonishing, and the collection charts the evolution of naval warfare from the 17th century up to ironclad vessels (and even an early submarine) of the late 19th century. Also on show are carved figureheads, scale models of the windmills which powered cable-hauled dock gates, dredgers, etc., plus contemporary illustrations of the town and its arsenal, plus a model of nearby Fort Boyard. Interactive displays and free audio guides (with an excellent English narrative) bring it all to life, adding a human dimension to the town’s proud history.

The upper floor windows give museum visitors a privileged view of l’Hermione, a faithful recreation of the frigate in which the Marquis de La Fayette set sail for Boston in 1780 to offer George Washington French military and financial support, and which engaged in various battles during the War of Independence. Since 1997 a full size, oak hulled replica has been painstakingly replicated using traditional skills and materials, on the very spot from which the original emerged over 230 years ago. The hugely impressive operation, partly manned by dedicated volunteers, offers startling insights into techniques the arsenal would have employed in the 550 or so ships it constructed for the French navy. Virtually every component is fabricated on site, including 26 cast-iron cannon and a prancing lion figurehead, sculpted by English maritime wood-carver Andy Peters.

hermione-rochefort-charente-maritime-visitL’Hermoine was finally floated from her 17th century dry dock in July last year, and going aboard reveals the sheer scale of the undertaking. Once the three masts have received their topmost sections and rigging, a multitude of meticulous preparations begins prior to the planned re-enactment of La Fayette’s historic transatlantic voyage. Currently no-one is committing to dates, but you can bet it won’t happen without plenty of advance publicity.

Talking of rigging, on the banks of the Charente and within sight of l’Hermione is Rochefort’s celebrated 17th century Corderie Royale. An astonishing 373m long, it was designed to fabricate the lengths of rope needed to rig tall ships, and has been faithfully restored to serve as the Centre International de la Mer, with permanent displays of rope-making skills, maritime themed exhibitions plus a bookshop. Nearby is another potent symbol of Rochefort’s naval importance – the Ecole de Médecine Navale, established in 1722 as a pioneering teaching academy for naval surgeons, and whose collections and scientific libraries have been lovingly preserved as a remarkable museum.

The former arsenal site is the departure point for agreeable 20-min Fluviobus boat trips down the Charente to another of Rochefort’s unique attractions: Le Pont-Transbordeur. At the turn of the 20th century great ports like Brest, Marseille, Nantes, Rouen and Rochefort built transporter bridges to cross broad watercourses without impeding the passage of tall ships. Rochefort’s (opened in July 1900) is the sole survivor in all France, and a Monument Historique. Now fully restored, it carries pedestrians and cyclists across the river on a Belle Epoque nacelle suspended on cables from the giant skeletal structure. On the far bank is a visitor centre in a former ferry building, while the Rochefort side has a café beside the machine room. There’s no more spectacular way to cross the Charente.

As we’ve seen, the continuing presence of Rochefort’s illustrious past makes it a place well worth getting to know – and since we’ve barely scratched the surface of all there is to see, we’ll be returning from time to time to find out more.

We look forward to that.




Worth knowing...

Carte Sésame

Available from any of the Rochefort-Océan Tourist Offices, the card gives up to 30% reduction in admission to sites and museums, plus a free drink at participating restaurants. for details.

Mobile Apps

Two free apps will help you discover and enjoy Rochefort-Océan. See



Musée National de la Marine 
1 Place de la Galissonnière.
Open daily Feb–Dec (closed May 1 & Dec 25). €6, under-26s free.

Ancienne Ecole de Médicine
Navale, 25 Rue Amiral Meyer.
Open daily except Jan, May 1 & Dec 25. Guided visits only, €5.50 (€9 joint ticket with Musée National de la Marine), under-26s free.

Le Musée des Commerces d’Autrefois 
12 Rue Lesson.
Has an excellent audio guide in English (€2 per handset). Open daily Feb–Dec (closed Sun mornings in winter), €6.50, under–8s free.

La Corderie Royale Centre International de la Mer, Rue Audebert.
Open daily except Dec 25 & Jan 1–Feb 10, times vary. €9 (€16 joint ticket incl. Chantier de l’Hermione), 6-15yrs €5 (€9), reductions for disabled visitors. Audio guides available in English for hearing-impaired & partially-sighted.



Chantier de l’Hermione, €9 (€16 joint ticket incl. La Corderie Royale), 6-15yrs €5 (€9), family €25 (€45).
Guided visits (French) include below-deck areas (adult €15, book in advance).
On-board visits require good physical mobility.

Broderie Le Bégonia d’Or, 67 Ave Charles de Gaulle.

Le Pont Transbordeur, Rue Jacques Demy.
Operates Apr– end Oct (see website for exceptions). Adult return €2.40.


Boat Trips:

Fluviobus Rochefort–Echillais. River shuttle, Apr–end Sept. €4 single, €6 return, present your ticket for reduced rate on the transporter bridge. Departures according to the tide.

L’Île d’Aix & Fort Boyard
Leaving from the Corderie Royale, trips pass Fort Boyard then land on Île d’Aix (5-6 hour stop, returning to Rochefort early evening). Operates Sun Apr – end Sept. €25, 4-12yrs €19. Book: Rochefort Tourist Office 05 46 99 08 60


First published in Living Poitou-Charentes June 2013 © All rights reserved

Location (Map)

Rochefort, France