If you’re looking for a sweet French vacation spot that overflows with culture, not tourists, then Rochefort-sur-Mer may be your kind of place. Built between 1666 and 1710, this off-the-beaten-path historic port has all the charm and culinary delight of any small French city, with a rich naval history as its star attraction.
When Louis XIV was in need of modern shipyards on the Atlantic to combat the bellicose English and Dutch, he asked his chief minister, the Great Colbert, to find a safe site. Colbert chose the secluded northern curve of the river Charente, south of La Rochelle. Picture a seventeenth-century city with a gridiron street plan, and you’ve got a feel for Rochefort. If the city’s layout uncannily resembles that of New Orleans’ French Quarter, this is hardly surprising. Louis XIV’s “new town” model was exported all over New France.
Today, the naval associations are over, but the splendid heritage has been carefully preserved and, thanks to an excellent network of cycling paths and pedestrian areas, Rochefort is a pleasure to visit. There’s no better place to start than by walking along the quiet banks of the Charente, past the shining white walls of the town’s unique Corderie Royale, the Royal Rope Factory. This is where the miles of massive rope needed in the days of sail were once made. Inside you can learn about the fascinating history of the factory and even take a turn at twisting the rope.
Downriver, next to the Naval Musuem, with its treasure of Louis XIV’s model ships, rise the slender masts and intricate rigging of the frigate Hermione, a must-see for any visitor. For years, Rochefort’s seventeenth-century stone dry docks lay abandoned. Then, in 1992, local residents came together to build a replica of the 1779 frigate that took the Marquis from Rochefort to Boston, to tell Washington of the imminent arrival of French military support.
Painted brilliant red, yellow and blue, the three-masted ship is now open to visitors while work continues. Stand on Hermione’s deck and you are back in the days of sail, fresh tar wafting in the air. Hold your breath as a volunteer climbs fearlessly up the mast or sits astride the yard to varnish the fresh timber. Or don a hard hat and go below deck to witness the cramped sailing conditions of two hundred years ago.
In April 2015, Hermione will sail to Boston, where the frigate USS Constitution will be ready to greet her, then hug the coast to Yorktown. American and French associations are scrambling to obtain funding and sponsorship to meet the deadline, and recruit the two hundred volunteer crew.
If time allows, there’s plenty more to see and do in Rochefort. Other attractions include an 18th century theatre, the Naval Medicine Museum, full of terrifying surgical instruments, and the city’s 1900 transporter bridge. For a unique nature experience, the surrounding area is ideal for birding. In summer, the wetlands are home to France’s second-largest stork nesting population. In winter, the coast and estuary shelter thousands of migrating geese and waders.
It would be a crime to leave this seaside town without trying the local cuisine. You couldn’t go wrong with oysters, scallops, or mussels, followed by sea bass grilled on a bed of fragrant fennel — and while you’re in the Charentes area, be sure to sample those famous, fragrant orange-fleshed Charentais melons!
Recommended restaurants in Rochefort: Hotel de la Corderie, Le Cap Nell, La Belle Poule (near the transporter bridge). At the estuary mouth: La Chaloupe, Port des Barques.
Curious? Visit the city’s website, and the homepage of the magnificent Hermione.