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.
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.
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
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.
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.