Rochefort, the pearl of the French Atlantic coast – Meanderings through France n° 137
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
If 1666’s key event in Great Britain was the terrible fire that engulfed over 100,000 houses in London, it was on the contrary the birth of a new city, Rochefort, who hit the headlines in France. Initiated by Louis XIV, the Sun King, this construction was meant to provide shelter to French boats from their British and Dutch enemies of the time. This unique architectural heritage is not to be missed while travelling in South Western France.
The site was not chosen at random. Rochefort was purposefully built inland in a loop of the River Charente, 10 km away from the coast south of La Rochelle. Then several bastions were quickly erected on three different islands surrounding the river mouth making it difficult for unfriendly boats to get access to this strategic site. And even if an unwanted boat had been able to pass through it wouldn’t have had time enough to sail all the way to Rochefort before being aground by low tide. A pretty tricky trap!
However there was a major problem to be solved to build a city in this very location. The whole area was an immense swamp! But the king’s engineers used their imagination and did wonders. They had hundreds of thousands tree trunks pushed into the ground thus creating strong foundations for the future arsenal and the houses surrounding it. Nothing seemed impossible to build the king’s dream and soon the largest and most beautiful “new town” of the 17th century was completed. Today Rochefort looks pretty much the same as it did 250 years ago with a remarkable architectural unity and impressive arsenal buildings that now are museums.
Today Rochefort is known worldwide for being the port from where Marquis de La Fayette embarked aboard the frigate Hermione in 1780 to provide military support to the American insurgents during the war for independence. An authentic replica of this famous ship built by a group of passionate people was able to do that same crossing in 2015 and it was given a rapturous reception in the USA to celebrate Independence Day. The Hermione is now back in Rochefort and the Hermione is open to the public but this year you will have to wait until June 16th to visit her when she will be back from the Sète Sea Fastival in the Mediterranean Sea. https://www.hermione.com/accueil/
If making the original Hermione took only 6 months to the 18th century’s marine engineers it took almost 17 years to build its replica! However it was built in the very same arsenal in Rochefort. Five hundreds and fifty other ships were built in this huge arsenal from 1666 and its final closure in 1927. The most impressive building of the arsenal known as the “Versailles of the Sea”, undoubtedly is the rope factory. This 374 metres long edifice now hosts a museum dedicated to ropes and sailor’s knots and you will discover how 17th century’s workers made hundreds of metres long ropes. https://www.corderie-royale.com
Close to the rope factory the former “Naval Commanders’ House” has been turned into a museum, the “French Navy Museum” where ships’ lovers can admire a wide range of boat models of different periods including a full-sized replica of the “Raft of the Medusa” immortalized by Theodore Gericault’s painting that can be seen in the Louvre Museum. http://en.musee-marine.fr/rochefort
The new town of Rochefort was built around the arsenal with wide straight streets crossing at right angles and line with typical white terraced houses that are today very sought-after by locals. Large squares and quiet streets offer to the visitor the opportunity of an unstressed journey to discover the various charms of a bright city full of surprises.
Walking is the best option to discover Rochefort, no way to be lost and everywhere tempting cafés with nice terraces await you for a welcoming pause. You are in France, so do as any French does, take time to look at outside menus of any restaurant you pass by before choosing where you want to enjoy a fresh and delicate French cuisine.
Since almost three centuries, the open-air food market is the place to be for all inhabitants looking for fresh fruits, vegetables and tempting daily catch seafood (every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning, 7.30-12.30, Charles de Gaulle Avenue).
Pierre Loti (1850-1923) certainly is the most famous son of the city. Travelling the world as a French Navy officer he soon became a world known author whom books partially autobiographic were always linked to his journeys to faraway countries, North Africa, Turkey or Japan. Eccentric character, he transformed the interior design of his Rochefort home, creating a Renaissance room, a Gothic room, a mosque with authentic elements from an ancient Umayyad mosque of Damas, a Turkish living room, a Chinese room and an Arab one. Sarah Bernhardt was one of the numerous celebrities who often came to Pierre Loti’s home for some of the foolish theme parties he organized there.
His home that is now a museum is currently closed to the public for huge restoration works.
But in the close-by Hébre de Saint-Clément Museum, a special section has been opened to show some of the main pieces of Pierre Loti’s collections. The museum also offers a very large and interesting presentation of the history of the city.
Another museum not to be missed, the Musée des Commerces d’Autrefois (Shops of day gone by Museum) where thousands ancient artefacts are displayed into many shops that are an exact historical re-enactment of the life in the first quarter of the last century.
This amazing white city was chosen in by Jacques Demy as the movie-set of his famous film “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort – The Young Girls of Tochefort” (1967) starring Catherine Deneuve and her real-life sister Françoise Dorléac. This musical gave an international recognition to Rochefort which in the 60’s was a sleepy city. It was like the kiss of the Prince Charming waking up the Sleeping Beauty from a long sleep.
Where to stay:
The Roca Fortis is ideally set in the city centre. It’s only a 2-star hotel but its rooms, each one different from the other, are nice and very clean with modern en-suite bathrooms (shower). The staff is very kind and helpful. After 8.00 pm you have to use a code to get in. It’s a real value for money hotel. http://www.hotel-rochefort.fr/
For those who would like to discover the real interior of a beautiful 18th century house, don’t hesitate. Book a room at the “Villa des Demoiselles” a unique typical Rochefort house fully restored as a guesthouse of charm and prestige, right in the city centre, with a nice private courtyard at the back. Delicious breakfasts are served at the elegant table d’hôtes https://www.villadesdemoiselles.com/
Where to eat:
Among the various restaurants of Rochefort offering a large choice of good cuisine, the gastronomic table of chef Patrick Bonnaud, the “Quatre SaisonsI” is the place to visit for a wonderful meal. Behind a very simple facade, a great and delicate cuisine awaits guests. The seaweed and butter oysters are one of the favourite choices of regular guests. With a capacity of around twenty guests, a reservation request is highly recommended.
76 rue Edouard Grimaux, Rochefort – tel: 05 46 83 95 12
More classical, the “Cap Nell ” wit its large outside terrace set on the quay of the yacht harbour offers generous and tasty plates. In season don’t miss its whole melon stuffed with a large cup of vanilla ice cream, a so refreshing delicacy when the sun is so hot. http://capnell.com/
All info at: https://www.rochefort-ocean.com/
Text © Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny