Developed in one go in the 17th century by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s right-hand man, Rochefort is an elegant former naval town full of history.
Next to the wide Charente is the Royal Arsenal, which, by decree of the king, must be the largest but also the most beautiful shipyard in the world.
The foundry, rope factory, dry dock and neoclassical hospital have all been preserved and restored, and you have to say Colbert was a success.
The outer islands at the mouth of the Charente proved the strategic importance of Rochefort, and were all laid with forts and fortresses to prevent enemy fleets from reaching the docks where hundreds of French ships were assembled.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Rochefort:
1. Arsenal District
In the 1660s, Louis XIV selected a once-empty marshland for his Royal Dockyard, which was ordered to be the best and largest of them all.
Over the next three centuries, 550 ships were built, assembled and launched from these docks, and many factories and academies now house fascinating museums about the golden age of the French navy.
It’s a great place to wander, full of stately old mills, foundries and other exciting traces of historic shipbuilding.
Check out the spacious drydock dug out in the muddy banks and equipped with a water pump to do the hard work on the hull.
2. La Frégate Hermione
The first Hermione was a frigate launched in 1779, famous for carrying General Lafayette to the United States to assist in the American Revolutionary War against Britain.
The ship ran aground and was wrecked four years later, but in 1997 members of the International Maritime Center began a massive project to build a replica.
It took 17 years, and in 2015 the new Hermione completed the same transatlantic crossing as the 18th century original.
The ship is docked in Rochefort, so get on board and visit the ship, which is made of 400,000 individual pieces of wood with 2,200 square meters of canvas for sailing.
3. National Maritime Museum
Satisfy your curiosity about French naval history with this museum, which brings together model ships, sketches, glorious figureheads, maps, navigational instruments and other maritime paraphernalia.
Everything is accompanied by in-depth descriptions, and the museum doesn’t shy away from the dark stories of “bagnes” where hundreds of revolutionary prisoners perished on these grim prison ships.
The setting of the museum, the palatial Hôtel de Cheusses, is fascinating, decades older than the rest of Rochefort, built in the early 1600s.
It was built by King Henry IV’s first “valet” Adrian Lauzeret to a U-shaped plan.
4. Corderie Royale
At the heart of Louis XIV’s plans for the Rochefort shipyard was the rope factory.
To be able to make rigging for warships, the building needs to be quite long, but you’ll still be surprised by the size of the Corderie.
Dating back to 1666, it stretches 374 meters and is quite an achievement as the ground below is swampy and the buildings rest on oak rafts.
The museum inside explains hemp cultivation and will show how the fibers were twisted into 200-meter-long rigging over 200 years, until the advent of metal cables.
5. Musée des Commerce d’Autrefois
In a 19th-century warehouse, there are 22 galleries, recreating the studios and workshops of what is now an industry of the past.
So you’ll walk into a blacksmith shop, an old pharmacy, a hat shop full of fedoras, a garage or a cognac distillery.
What makes the museum so immersive is the large collection of original artifacts from the early 20th century.
These include the largest collection of French propaganda materials in the country: beautiful vintage posters, advertisements and signs adorn the walls, complemented by containers, tools and everyday objects from 1900 to World War II.
6. Fort Boyard
You probably know the name of this sea fort on the Pertuis d’Antioche strait.
It’s the setting for an adventure-themed TV game show that’s been on the air in France for 27 years and on screens around the world in the ’90s.
Built between 1805 and 1857, the ovoid fort was stranded at sea and could hold 250 people, but advances in artillery meant it was outdated by the time it was completed.
Still, there’s something fascinating about this strange monolith, and from Foras, you’ll take a guided boat tour of the strait, circle the fort, and learn some of its secrets.
7. Musée National de l’Ancienne École de Médecine Navale
Tickets to the Naval Museum include this exhibit with a compelling but stomach-churning depiction of medicine on the high seas.
Like many of Rochefort’s attractions, the venue is outstanding, and this one is the neoclassical southwest pavilion of the Naval Hospital.
You’ll cut to the heart of 19th-century science, studying all the materials used to teach medicine at this world-leading institution.
With 2,500 volumes in the library, you can peruse herbal medicines collected from around the world, antique medical instruments, and real specimens of human tissue (including fetuses) in old vials (not for the faint of heart).
8. Rochefort-Martrou transfer bridge
A true achievement of 19th-century design and engineering, this 66-meter-tall steel behemoth spans the Charente River just downstream from the shipyard.
Conceived by engineer Ferdinand Arnodin, it was one of the world’s first transport bridges when it opened to traffic in 1900. Cables suspended from trams 50 meters above the water pull the gondolas across the river for pedestrians and cyclists.
The bridge was replaced by a newer version in the 60’s and then obsoleted by a road crossing, but since the 1980’s it has been back to work and has become a treasured part of the skyline.
9. Musée de l’Aéronautique Navale
Retired fighter pilots are ready to take you on a tour of Rochefort’s Old Naval Air Force Base on Tuesdays and Saturdays, an opportunity no enthusiast will want to miss.
The hangar has 33 aircraft, some of which you can find in many aviation museums, but others, such as the World War II Dewoitine D.520 and the “Flying Banana” helicopter, are more rare.
There are also 1,500 models on display, ranging from zeppelins to stealth jets and World War II-era rocket planes.
10. Begonia Conservatory of Music
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Rochefort played an important role in importing various exotic plants to Europe.
One of those responsible was the botanist Charles Plumier, who discovered the begonias and named them after the head of Rochefort, Michel Begon.
Inside a long greenhouse, the Begonia Greenhouse is a lingering vestige of the past, with over 1,500 species and hybrids of this flowering plant, the largest in Europe.
Come on a guided tour between spring and fall.
11. Jardin des Retours
Just above the shipyard next to the Charente is a park that was first landscaped in the 17th century but was neglected until the 1980s when the rope factory inside was refurbished.
The park has separate marine-themed gardens and is named after a ship with exotic plants returning from the New World.
Jardin de la Galissonnière is a paradise magnolia garden named in honor of the man who first brought these seeds from the Americas to Europe in 1711. Jardin des Amériques is a labyrinth of yew trees commemorating the legendary French naval battle.
12. Madame L’Île
The first of two islands at the mouth of the Charente estuary, the uninhabited ‘Île Madame is connected to the mainland by a kilometer-long causeway of cobblestone and sand.
The easiest way to get across is by bike, so you can also speed around the island’s interesting sights.
You’ll need to check the tide times to avoid getting trapped, though! Before you cross the border, there is a plaque commemorating the many priests who died on prison ships in the southeast of the island during the revolution.
Their mass grave has a cobblestone cross, and you can hang out around a small 18th-century fort on ‘Île Madame to prevent British raids.
13. L’Île d’Aix
A 30-minute ferry ride from Fouras is the larger island of Aix, which is still small by any standards, with no more than 200 inhabitants.
The delights of this island lie in its forests, vineyards, long beaches and secluded sandy coves.
The village is also lovely, with the single-storey houses almost occupied in summer by the colorful hollyhocks in their front gardens.
These are protected by treacherous fortifications, reminding you that the important Rochefort arsenal is not far upstream.
The island was also Napoleon’s last refuge at the end of 100 days in 1815. He had hoped to escape to the United States from here, but surrendered to Britain on the HMS Bellerophon on 15 July.
14. Bruges Castle
In the 16th and 17th centuries, La Rochelle in the north was a Huguenot stronghold.
Thus, at this time the village of Bruges was turned into a large fortification by Cardinal Richelieu as a Catholic fortress.
It is now an acclaimed ‘Grande French Site’, a label shared by only 32 other places in the country.
Wander through the sprawling system of forts, watchtowers and walls that were home to 4,000 people at the time.
The village inside, on a grid of cobblestone streets, is unlike anywhere else in France.
Bike from Rochefort and stop to see egrets and herons in the salt pans and roadside oyster farms.
The low-lying area around the mouth of the Charente is where fresh water meets the ocean and is ideal for oysters and other shellfish.
Seafood lovers will be in heaven as scallops, mussels, conch, conch and clams couldn’t be more fresh.
They’re cooked in a Charentaise sauce, made up of whipped cream, curry powder, cognac and garlic, and pair perfectly with Miscad wines.
As for oysters, there is an entire culture surrounding this delicacy, with more than 100 farms on both sides of the Charente.
If you want to learn more, you can visit some of these farms, see how long it takes to raise the perfect oyster (four years!), and sample straight from the water with a glass of crisp white wine.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Rochefort, France
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