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 has plenty of tourist attractions to offer.
Rochefort is an 18th century French version of what today we would call a ‘new town’. It was built by Jean-Baptiste Colbert in the 1660’s 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.’
Today that military heritage is still visible in the town, nowhere more spectacularly so than in the form of 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. Sadly this tourist attraction is no longer the Royal rope factory but is an interesting museum – rope making can be more interesting than you might think, honest – and is also home to France’s equivalent of the RSPB. This is the LPO or Ligue Pour la Protection des Oiseaux.
The result of all this military planning is that Rochefort today has rather a grand feel with its boulevards and straight streets, perhaps slightly out of proportion to its modest size, but very impressive nonetheless. Many of the streets are now planted with hollyhocks, which slightly softens the visual impact.
ROCHEFORT’S TOURIST ATTRACTIONS
Stand in the sizeable central place Colbert and look up and down the long rue Pierre Loti and you’ll get a good feel for the spaciousness of this town. Pierre Loti himself was 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. Incidentally place Colbert is also a good place to sit and have a beer or coffee; there are two large cafés to choose from where you can watch the world go by. There's also good shopping to be had in the surrounding streets.
Among other things to do and see in Rochefort is the chance to see the construction of Hermione, a 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. ). 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.
The Transporter bridge, built in 1900, crossed the Charente river here and is the last of its kind in France (and Europe).
THINGS TO DO AND SEE NEAR ROCHEFORT
Other places to visit include the old naval medical school the l'Ecole de Médecine Navale, the Begonia Conservatory and the ‘sea farm’ or Ferme Aquacole on nearby Île Madame. 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
Words: Michael STREETER