Tourist attractions and things to do and see in Rochefort
Overshadowed by seaside neighbours La Rochelle to the north and Royan to the south, Rochefort is often neglected by visitors to the Atlantic coastline of Poitou-Charentes. This is a shame as this historic naval stronghold on the River Charente is a lovely town – in fact it has been named as one of France’s Top 10 stylish towns by the Lonely Planet guide. Here’s why…
Rochefort is an 18th century French version of what today we would call a ‘new town’. It was built by Jean-Baptiste Colbert as a place to supply and defend the French navy – partly on the not unreasonable grounds that nearby La Rochelle with its Protestant background (and hence close links to England) could hardly be trusted with such an important role.
It was Louis XIV who was especially keen to get a shipyard at Rochefort built – he was worried about the power of the English navy – and instructed Colbert: ‘Make it big, Make it beautiful – and make it fast.’
The result of all this military planning is that Rochefort today has rather a grand feel with its wide boulevards and straight streets. Walk around the waterfront and take in the maritime history including the astonishing Corderie Royal which was built as a rope factory. This was for a while Europe’s longest building and measures 473 metres from end to end.
What to see & do
Take coffee – or something stronger at the central place Colbert, surrounded by elegant buildings. There are two large cafés to choose from – take a table inside or go alfresco – where you can watch the world go by. There’s also good shopping to be had in the surrounding streets – including a daily market on avenue Charles de Gaulle.
Visit the Corderie Royale: surrounded by gardens, this elegant building is no longer for rope-making. Instead it houses a museum called the Centre International de la Mer, dedicated to the seafaring history of the town, and France.
Check out Hermione: this replica of the ship of the same name used by the French military officer the Marquis de Lafayette when he left for America in 1780 to resume his role in the American revolution against British rule – it has taken many years to build and is due to set sail for the Americas in 2015. You can also see the old ship building and repair yards dating from the 17th century and which are still in good condition (and populated by local wildlife!). These are the heart of what was called the Grand Arsenal de Rochefort, which was able to build, repair, equip and arm naval vessels.
Maritime Museum: part of France’s National Maritime Museum, with sites around the country, here see models boats, including the Dauphin Royal, an instructional model measuring 4.80 metres in length, as well as other naval memorabilia such as navigations instruments as well as art and sculpture.
Musée des Commerces d’autrefois: in this unusual, but fascinating museum, see 20 superb replicas of shops from the turn of the last century.
Pierre Loti’s house: an interesting character who was born in Rochefort in 1860. A military man born Julien Viaud, he wrote under the name Pierre Loti and became a novelist sufficiently celebrated to be accorded a state funeral after his death in 1923. Loti was also an avid collector – he travelled widely – and his house in Rochefort, the Maison Pierre Loti, is preserved as a fascinating museum (2014: closed for renovation).
The Transporter bridge: built in 1900, crossed the Charente river here and is the last of its kind in France (and Europe).
Attractions near Rochefort
Rochefort’s ‘beach resort’ can be found on the peninsula of Fouras, which is marketed as the ‘almost’ island’. There are plenty of things to see and do on Fouras and it’s well worth a visit in its own right.
Nature lovers will also enjoy the natural reserve on the marshes or marais at Yves, another one at Moeze and also the nature area at Breuil Magné known as La Cabane de Moins.
In recent years Rochefort has also become a tourist attraction, too, as a spa town; if you’re into that sort of thing Eurothermes is well worth a visit.
The main tourist office in Rochefort is at Avenue Sadi Carnot. Telephone: 05 46 99 08 60. It’s near the main town centre parking area, which is the best place to leave your car so you can explore the town on foot.
Words: Michael STREETER