There’s a scene in the 1975 comedy film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where the king explains to his effeminate son in a north-of-England accent how he built his castle on a swamp.
“It sunk!” he exclaims, before going on to explain that he built a second and a third, all of which sunk too, until the one that they are now standing in stayed up.
If nothing else, it illustrates the fact that it’s never a good idea to build your stronghold in a swamp, for such a venture presents all kinds of problems in terms of wobbly foundations and hostile insects.
Yet King Louis XIV – the Sun King himself – embarked on such a course of action back in the 17th century. Advised by his right-hand-man Colbert, they selected a swampy inland area in the tidal estuary of the serpentine Charente River in the south-west of France to build a city and a shipyard that would turn out an enormous fleet to rival the ruthless British on the seas.Having your principal shipyard inland at the crook of a bend in the river (as opposed to having it on the coast) may not have been as crazy as it might first appear: the inland location offers a level of protection against coastal attack that was always a danger with the marauding British ruling the seas. By the time anyone intent on sailing into Rochefort had (a) figured out the tides and (b) meandered up the Charente to Rochefort, there would have plenty of time to defend.
The other huge advantage of building Rochefort on that swamp is that it was close to La Rochelle – a Protestant stronghold that Louis XIV wanted to keep a close eye on. In fact, the only building of note that was already standing in Rochefort was the house/castle of another Protestant political enemy and the plan to build the shipyard and town very conveniently involved commandeering that very house in the name of Royal France.
The French never did manage to really challenge the British for superiority on the waves, but they did manage to build a city – and a very nice one at that – that devoted itself entirely to building ships and everything that goes with them. The maritime heritage of this fascinating place is exemplified in spectacular fashion in the form of the re-built 18th-century frigate l’Hermione.
We were staying only a half-an-hour’s drive away near La Palmyre at Castell‘s superb Séquoia Parc campsite. On arriving into Rochefort, first impressions are positive: you see the masts and rigging of the Hermione peeping its head and shoulders above most of the rest of the town.The streets of Rochefort are neat – all of white stone and arranged in grid-patterned style. It’s not a large town and finding the Porte de l’Arsenal is no problem. This is the entrance to the former Royal Arsenal and naval shipyard. Today, a tourist office stands beside the Romanesque archway and the former residence of the hapless Jacques-Henri de Cheusses is now the Musée National de la Marine.
But we were here to see the Hermione and how it was all getting along in advance of its maiden voyage to America (scheduled for the 18th of April 2015).
Myriam Bierjon was our guide and took us around the museum part of the shipyard, which includes a large mock-up of the Hermione, as well as some detail on what was involved in the project to build the ship.
It’s a community-based project that simply began at the start and kept on collecting until the masts were finally put up only a couple of years ago. The vast majority of the money was raised locally and as soon as work began, the place turned into a charging, living, building museum. Plans for the ship were drafted based on plans of sister ships that were captured by the English, as well as images of paintings of the era and written accounts. This entire process has taken 17 years and €25 million.
The Hermione was a significant product of the Royal Naval Shipyards, having carried General Lafayette to America to help the fledgling United States fight for its independence from Britain. It was known as a frégate de douze; the douze referring to the fact that the shot fired from its cannons were balls that weighed 12 pounds (this was pre-metric France). Incidentally, the remains of another frégate de douze is to be found lying at the bottom of Bantry Bay, having been scuttled during the abortive attempted landing by 17,000 French troops under General Hoche in 1796.Visitors are taken through the workshops of the Hermione, where a mixture of professionals and local volunteers (more than than they can take on, at times) keep alive and/or revive the skills needed to make the myriad components of an 18th-century ship.
One skill that has been lost entirely to France since is that of making rigging for the boat. They had to import the skills and the manpower from Sweden.
The ship is not an enormous one. It was designed more for speed and manoeuvrability rather than for bulk, but it’s an impressive piece of seamanship nonetheless. It’s interestingly also that the design had to conform to modern norms. Thus, there are lifeboats, flotation devices and, most importantly, an engine, which neatly occupies the ballast room – hidden away underneath.
Walking around the vessel felt like a very privileged experience. Everywhere, the smell of oil is the dominant feature, with the several hundred kilometres of rope used in the ship covered in the stuff. They were putting the finishing touches to the captain’s cabin when we were there and it was astounding to find how short people were back then, with today’s adults having to stoop everywhere.
As part of the rest of this complex, the other building well worth visiting is the Corderie Royale. Like the rest of this entire zone, it was a derelict wasteland in the 1970s, before the town began to revive its treasures once more through the gradual accumulation of communal energy and funds.The Corderie Royale is the longest building in France and it was used for making rope for the French Royal Navy. The 14,000m2 building had to be over 374 metres long in order to allow the construction of 200m ropes for the constant assembly-line of ships next door.
Today, the visit to the beautifully restored Corderie Royale is an unusual and entertaining diversion in what is a really unique building. You can even make your own rope using the hand-wound machines of the era when this was a working rope factory; which is a lot more fun than it sounds.
Finally, the town itself is a marvel of civil and social engineering in a swampy world. The first military hospital in France started a centuries-long tradition of cutting-edge medicine in the face of difficult conditions.
Finally, a stroll around the streets of Rochefort is a real treat. There’s something disarmingly elegant about its neat structure of pale sandstone – as if the whole town were part of the grounds of a chateau. The grid pattern and the architectural design are the result of one man: architect Michel Bégon (after whom the flower the Begonia was named). It was he who decided to turn what was a flimsy shanty town into a white-stoned town of elegance and form, opting for taller buildings at every corner to reduce the effects of the strong marsh winds.The showpiece square is Place Colbert, where you can easily picture the ladies-that-lunch from Rochefort’s golden era of the 19th century sipping refreshments in one of the café terraces. It was on one such terrace in September 1843, in fact, that the writer Victor Hugo first read the sad news in the newspaper that his daughter had died in Normandy.
The town hall (Hôtel de Ville) on Place Colbert played a starring role (along with the entire town, Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac and Gene Kelly) as the heroines’ house in Jacques Demy’s 1967 film “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort” (see clip below). In fact many people – including our ever-smiling guide Myriam – put the revival of Rochefort’s fortunes down to the advent of that hit film. It was all cleaned up for the cameras and it has remained in a cleaned-up state ever since.
Around the corner on Rue de la République, stands another monument to Rochefort’s heyday which has been beautifully restored and still used for entertaining the locals – the Coupe d’Or Theatre. Across the street from here, a private wealthy home was built around the same time: It’s the Hôtel MacNemara – a mansion that belonged to 18th-century naval officer Jean-Baptiste MacNemara, son of Irish Jacobite John MacNemara and member of a prominent and influential Irish family based in Nantes.
“Les Demoiselles de Rochefort” (The Young Ladies of Rochefort) – 1967
Get Yourself There:
Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) operates direct flights from Dublin to Bordeaux, while Ryanair fly from Cork (summer only), from where Rochefort is a 1½-hour drive. Ryanair also fly direct to La Rochelle, which is 30 minute by car from Rochefort. From the ferry ports of either Roscoff or Cherbourg, Rochefort is approximately 5 hours by car.
Rochefort Tourism Authority (www.rochefort-ocean.com) is a great site with all the information you’ll need on the area, including accommodation.
The Charente-Maritime website has everything you need to know about the region.