Rochefort: A place tied up in history

Rochefort’s past and present are roped together, says Cathy Packe

In the 17th century, the attractive two-storey stone building that runs along the banks of the Charente river in Rochefort was the longest industrial structure in Europe. It was the Royal Rope Factory, a symbol that France was fighting back against the naval power of the English, and an edifice so elegant that it was described as the Versailles of the Sea. The building was designed to impress.

Visitors back in the 17th century would have arrived by sea, so, appropriately, the riverside façade is the most ornate, with pediments, alternately semicircular and triangular, above the first floor windows. On the other side, out of sight of the river, the windows are unadorned.

Before the time of Louis XIV, Rochefort barely existed. But the French king needed an arsenal on the west coast, and the location proved ideal. The river provided access to the sea, but its mouth was protected by two natural headlands and a collection of offshore islands. The marshy terrain was both an asset and a problem: a challenge to any attacking army, it was also difficult to build on. In the end a raft was created on which to float the structure and anchor it in the ground.

The Rope Factory, which now contains an interesting exhibition on ropes and rigging, was the first building in a complex that also included the Hôtel de Cheusses, an imposing home for the town’s naval commanders and now the Naval Museum.

A triumphal arch, the Porte du Soleil, was added later, and there were shipyards and workshops, including a building separate from the main rope factory where the rope was tarred to make it waterproof. It has been restored and is now the town library.

Nearby, the former naval artillery is now a comfortable three-star hotel that overlooks the river. When the arsenal was completed, a town was needed to provide accommodation for the officers and traders associated with the navy. Modern Rochefort has spread well beyond its original boundaries, but the 17th-century town is still intact: an attractive grid of streets some eight blocks wide and six deep, the façades of the well-preserved buildings all neatly aligned with each other. In the centre is Place Colbert, named for Louis XIV’s prime minister, its shops and restaurants providing a focal point for the 21st-century community.

German bombing raid during the Second World War left the Rope Factory in ruins; but it has since been restored to something like its former glory. Some 550 ships were built in Rochefort, including the Hermione, the frigate on which General Lafayette sailed to America to fight in the War of Independence.

The Hermione is now being reconstructed under a marquee in one of the original dry docks and is already competing with the nearby Rope Factory as the town’s most fascinating attraction. Visitors can watch from the scaffolding as 400,000 pieces are put into place, and it is hard not to be impressed. Everything, from the rigging to the sails, is prepared on site and every aspect of the construction is authentic.

No one knows whether the new Hermione will ever recreate Lafayette’s journey, although that is certainly the plan. For now, though, in her dry dock, she is a fitting addition to the arsenal complex, and a fascinating complement to the Versailles of the Sea.

Travel essentials

Staying there

La Corderie Royale Hôtel, rue Audebert (00 33 5 46 99 35 35; corderieroyale.com) has double rooms available from €82.20; breakfast is an extra €12.

Visiting there

The Royal Rope Factory (00 33 5 46 87 01 90; corderie-royale.com)

Hermione (00 33 5 46 8207 07; hermione.com)

Both the Rope Factory and the Hermione are open daily 10am-7pm, April-June and September; 9am-7pm, July and August; 10am-12.30pm and 2-6pm, October-March. Admission €8 for each, or €14 for a combined ticket. Tickets to visit the interior of Hermione must be booked in advance by phone.

Naval Museum, 1 place de la Galissonnière (00 33 5 46 99 86 57; museemarine.fr) opens 10am-6.30pm in May and June; until 8pm, July-September; 1.30-6.30pm, October-April. Admission €5.50.

Getting there and getting around

Getting there

By rail, Poitiers is the main gateway to Poitou-Charentes. The city is 90 minutes by TGV train from Paris Montparnasse. That makes the overall journey from London St Pancras around five hours, allowing an hour for the transit on Metro Line 4 from Gare du Nord to Montparnasse; alternative connections are available at Lille.

Express trains from Paris either branch off towards Niort and La Rochelle or continue to Angoulême and beyond. Fares on Eurostar to any of these destinations begin at £99 return, although on popular trains - or if you fail to book early - you can expect to pay more.

Car drivers can choose, of course, from the entire range of Channel crossings. The furthest is Dunkirk (served from Dover by Norfolkline), but even that port - the northernmost point in France - is only around 450 miles from La Rochelle, taking as little as six hours with a clear run. Calais, with links on P&O Ferries and SeaFrance, as well as Eurotunnel, is a little closer.

LD Lines sails from Newhaven to Dieppe and from Portsmouth to Le Havre (operated this summer by a new fast ferry); from either port the journey is around 300 miles. Brittany Ferries serves Caen from Portsmouth and Cherbourg from both Portsmouth and Poole, reducing the journey to around 250 miles. Best of all is the Brittany Ferries link from Portsmouth to St Malo, barely 200 miles from La Rochelle.

The main air gateway to the region is the airport of La Rochelle - Ile de Ré, served from Stansted by Ryanair, from Gatwick and Bristol by easyJet, from Leeds/Bradford and Edinburgh on Jet2, and from Birmingham, Manchester and Southampton on FlyBe. The airport is only 4km north-west of the centre of La Rochelle (bus 7, half-hourly except Sundays) and close to the eastern end of the bridge to Ile de Ré. Ryanair also flies from Stansted and Edinburgh to Poitiers, whose airport is barely 3km from the city centre.

From other UK airports, the easy way to get to Poitou-Charentes is by train from Charles de Gaulle airport: several daily direct TGV services (left) take around two-and-a-half hours to reach Poitiers.

Getting around

Few maps are as enticing as Michelin 521, the regional map for Poitou-Charentes (widely available in the UK for £5.99). The diagram on the cover shows how this compact-yet-diverse region occupies the west-central portion of France. And it also hints at how easy Poitou-Charentes is to reach, and to travel around.

A car is valuable, but not essential, for exploring. The road network is good, with fast autoroute connections between the main cities; note that you must pay a toll for most stretches.

The train links between the main places of interest are good; in particular the lines from Poitiers to Angoulême and La Rochelle, with another link along the coast from La Rochelle south to Rochefort and beyond. See raileurope.co.uk for more information. Gaps in the rail network are filled by buses, although in rural areas there may be only a couple of services each day. The Ile de Ré has an excellent range of links from La Rochelle, with buses to and from St-Martin every hour or so.

Bike rental is widely available in La Rochelle, Poitiers, Rochefort and the islands.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Johnny Handle, Northumberland, Ted Relph, President of Lakeland Dialect Society, and Sid Calderbank, Lancashire, founder of the National Dialect Day
newsMeet the enthusiasts determined to stop them dying out
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross. Argyll, has remained derelict for more than 25 years
arts + ents
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager - Bristol

    £31000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the UK, the major project fo...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Executive - Meetings & Events (MICE) - £40,000 OTE

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achieving...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Account Executive - Hotel Reservation Software - £40,000 OTE

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: A rapidly growing Hotel ...

    Recruitment Genius: Tyre Technician / Mechanic

    £15000 - £16800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Tyre Technician / Mechanic is...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game