Developed in one go in the 17th century by Louis XIV’s right-hand man Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Rochefort is a genteel former naval town overflowing with history.
Next to the broad Charente river is the Royal Arsenal, which by the King’s decree had to be the largest but also most beautiful dockyard in the world.
With foundries, a rope factory, dry docks and a neoclassical hospital all preserved and restored, you have to say that Colbert was successful.
The outlying islands in the Charente Estuary attest to Rochefort’s strategic importance and are all laid with batteries and forts to prevent enemy fleets reaching the docks where hundreds of French ships were assembled.
Lets explore the best things to do in Rochefort:
1. The Arsenal Quarter
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In the 1660s Louis XIV picked a swathe of once empty marshland for his Royal Dockyard, which was under orders to be the finest and largest of the them all.
For the next three centuries, 550 ships were built, rigged and launched from these docks, and many of the factories and colleges now hold enthralling museums about the French Navy’s golden age.
It’s a fabulous area just to wander, strewn with stately old mills, foundries and other exciting traces of historic shipbuilding activity.
Take a look at the capacious dry docks dug into the muddy banks and equipped with water pumps to allow painstaking work to be done to ships’ hulls.
2. La Frégate Hermione
The first Hermione was a frigate launched in 1779 and best-known for carrying General Lafayette to America to assist in the American Revolutionary War against Great Britain.
The ship ran aground and was wrecked four years later, but in 1997 members of the Centre International de la Mer began what would be a mammoth project to build a replica.
This took 17 years and in 2015 the new Hermione completed the same Atlantic crossing as the original in the 18th century.
The ship is docked in Rochefort, so step aboard for a tour of this vessel, made from 400,000 individual pieces of wood and with 2,200 square metres of canvas for its sails.
3. Musée National de la Marine
The place to satisfy your curiosity for France’s naval history, this museum is a compendium of model ships, sketches, glorious figureheads, maps, navigation instruments and other maritime paraphernalia.
Everything is accompanied by in-depth descriptions, and the museum doesn’t shy away from the darker story of the “bagnes”, grim prison ships where many hundreds of Revolution prisoners lost their lives.
The museum’s setting, the regal Hôtel de Cheusses, is beguiling and is a few decades older than the rest of Rochefort having been built in the early 1600s.
It was constructed on a U-plan by Adrien Lauzeré, the first “valet de chambre” to King Henri IV.
4. Corderie Royale
A centrepiece of Louis XIV’s plans for the Rochefort Dockyards was the rope factory.
To be able to manufacture rigging for warships this building needed to be very long, but you’ll still be taken aback by the dimensions of the Corderie.
Dating to 1666 it stretches out for 374 metres and was quite an achievement as the ground underneath was marshy and the building rests on oak rafts.
The museum inside explains hemp cultivation and will show how those fibres were twisted into 200-metre lengths of rigging for 200 years up to the advent of metal cables.
5. Musée des Commerces d’Autrefois
In a 19th-century warehouse are 22 galleries recreating the ateliers and shop floors of trades that are now consigned to the past.
So you’ll step into the blacksmith’s, an old pharmacy, a hat shop stocked with fedoras, car garage or cognac distillery.
What makes the museum so immersive is the ton of original artefacts from the early 20th-century.
Included in this is the largest collection of French promotional materials in the country: Beautiful vintage posters, ads and signs adorn the walls, complemented by containers, tools and everyday appliances from between 1900 and the Second World War.
6. Fort Boyard
You may know the name of this sea fort in the Pertuis d’ Antioche straits.
It’s the set for an adventure-themed TV gameshow that has been airing for 27 years in France and appeared on screens around the world for a spell in the 90s.
Stranded in the sea and built between 1805 and 1857, the ovular fort could support 250 men, but advances in artillery meant it was already obsolete by the time it was finished.
Still, there’s something beguiling about this strange monolith, and from Fouras you’ll journey out into the straits on a guided boat tour to circle the fort and learn some of its secrets.
7. Musée National de l’Ancienne École de Médecine Navale
The ticket for the Naval Museum includes this exhibition about the compelling if stomach-churning account 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 core of 19th-century science, studying all of the materials that were used to teach medicine at this world-leading institution.
The library has 2,500 volumes, and you can peruse herbs gathered from around the world, antique medical instruments and, not for the faint of heart, real specimens of human tissue in old vials, including foetuses.
8. Rochefort-Martrou Transporter Bridge
A real accomplishment of 19th-century design and engineering, this 66-metre-high steel behemoth spans the Charente a short way downriver from the dockyards.
It was conceived by the engineer Ferdinand Arnodin, and was one of the world’s first transporter bridges when it opened to traffic in 1900. Cables suspended from a trolley 50 metres above the water pull a gondola for pedestrians and cyclists across the river.
The bridge was replaced by a newer version in the 60s, and then made obsolete by a road crossing, but since the 1980s it has been restored to working order and has become a cherished part of the skyline.
9. Musée de l’Aéronautique Navale
Retired fighter pilots are ready to show you around Rochefort’s old naval air base on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and it’s an opportunity that no enthusiast will want to miss.
The hangar has 33 aircraft, some of which you’ll find in many air museums, but others, like the Dewoitine D.520 from the Second World War and the “flying banana” helicopter, are far rarer.
There are also 1,500 models on show, from zeppelins to stealth jets and World War II-era rocket planes.
10. Conservatoire du Bégonia
Rochefort had a big role in importing all kinds of exotic plants to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.
One man responsible for this was the botanist Charles Plumier, who discovered the begonia and named it after Rochefort’s Intendant, Michel Bégon.
Within a long greenhouse the Begonia Conservatory is a lingering trace of this past, with more than 1,500 species and hybrids of this flowering plant, the largest assortment in Europe.
Come for guided tours between spring and autumn.
11. Jardin des Retours
Just up from the dockyards beside the Charente is a park that was first landscaped in the 17th century but was neglected until the rope factory inside it was renovated in the 1980s.
The park has individual gardens with maritime themes, and is named for the ships that would return from the New World with exotic plants.
The Jardin de la Galissonnière is a heavenly magnolia garden named in honour of the man who first brought these seeds to Europe from the Americas in 1711. In the Jardin des Amériques is a yew-tree maze commemorating legendary French naval battles.
12. L’Île Madame
The first of two islands in the Charente Estuary, the uninhabited ‘Île Madame is joined to the mainland by a kilometre-long causeway of pebbles and sand.
The easiest way to make the crossing is by bike, and that way you can also dart around the island’s interesting sights.
You’ll need to check the tide times to avoid getting stranded though! Before you make the crossing there’s a plaque commemorating the many priests who died aboard prison ships off the southeast of the island during the Revolution.
There’s a cross of pebbles marking their mass grave, and you can potter around a small 18th-century fort put up on ‘Île Madame to prevent British raids.
13. L’Île d’Aix
Catch the ferry from Fouras for a 30-minute voyage to the larger Île d’Aix, which is still small by any measure and has no more than 200 inhabitants.
The joy of this island lies in its forest, vineyards, long beaches and secluded sandy coves.
The village is adorable too, with single-storey houses that are almost overrun in summer by the colourful hollyhocks in their front gardens.
These are defended by menacing fortifications, reminding you that the vital Rochefort Arsenal is only short way upriver.
The island was also Napoleon’s last refuge at the end of the 100 Days in 1815. He had hoped to escape to America from here, but surrendered to the British aboard HMS Bellerophon on 15 July.
14. Brouage Citadel
In the 16th and 17th century La Rochelle to the north was a stronghold for the Huguenots.
So at this time the village of Brouage was turned into one large fortification by Cardinal Richelieu as a bastion of Catholicism.
It is now a feted “Grand Site de France”, a label shared by only 32 other places around the country.
Wander along the huge system of bastions, watchtowers and walls that was a base for 4,000 men in its day.
The village within, on a grid of cobblestone streets doesn’t resemble anywhere else in France.
Make the trip from Rochefort by bike so you stop to watch the egrets and herons among the salt farms and oyster beds beside the road.
The low-lying land around the Charente estuary is where freshwater mingles with the sea, ideal for oysters and other shellfish.
Seafood lovers will be in heaven, because the scallops, mussels, whelks, winkles and clams could not be fresher.
They’re cooked in Charentaise sauce, consisting of crème fraîche, a sprinkle of curry powder, cognac and garlic and are amazing paired with muscadet wine.
And as for oysters, there’s a whole culture around this delicacy, and more than 100 farms can be found on either side of the Charente.
If you’re keen to know more you can tour some of these farms, learning how long it takes to raise the perfect oyster (four years!), and sampling one straight from the water with a crisp glass of white wine.