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Rochefort (Municipality, Charente-Maritime, France)

Last modified: 2024-01-06 by olivier touzeau
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Flag of Rochefort, two versions - Images by Ivan Sache, 4 December 2019, after "Ec.Domnowall", Wikimedia Commons

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Presentation of Rochefort

The municipality of Rochefort (24,047 inhabitants in 2016; 2,196 ha; municipal website ) is located 40 km south-east of La Rochelle.

Rochefort was known in the 11th century as Roccafortis ("Strong Rock"), a castle erected on a height overlooking river Charente and the surrounding marshy areas. At the end of the 17th century, King Louis XIV ordered the establishment of an arsenal, with two aims: building a war fleet to re-establish the French maritime domination, and favoring trade with the colonies. Rochefort, protected from oceanic raids by coastal islands and connected to the hinterland by river Charente, was selected as a strategic site.
Colbert de Terron, nephew of the most famous Colbert and Governor of the province, commissioned Blondel, the Naval King's Engineer, and Clerville, the General Commissioner of Fortifications, to design a new town. Rochefort was designed from scratch, using a grid plan. The building of the arsenal was completed in 1666. The emerging town was protected by walls erected in 1689. Michel Bégon (1688-1710), Intendant of the Navy, ordered to rebuild most of the town with stone houses. He also introduced in Rochefort - and, therefore, in Europe - the begonia, named for him. Rochefort still maintains the word's richest collection of begonia, keeping 1,500 wild species and 12,000 hybrid varieties.

Suppplying the Rochefort garrison with freshwater was once a challenge. A water table was found in 1866 at a depth of 816 m in the premises of the Navy Hospital. The Navy established a small spa to use the warm (40 °C) healing water. Obstructed in 1888, the Emperor Source was re-established in the 1950s. The Rochefort spa was inaugurated in 1956. Rochefort is now France's 6th biggest spa, welcoming every year 25,000 customers.

The arsenal boosted the development of Rochefort, which was in 1860 the most populous town in the department. Urbanization was continued out of the town walls. The inauguration of the railway station and of the river port favored trade.
The arsenal declined in the beginning of the 20th century because modern war vessels could no longer access it, because of the progressive silting up of shallow river Charente, to be eventually closed in 1927. The Rochefort Air Force Base, established in 1916, is now the site of the training school for NCOs (École de formation des sous-officiers de l'Armée de l'air - EFSOAA).

Rochefort is the birth town of Pierre Loti (1850-1923), a naval officer and prolific writer. Loti wrote "exotic" novels, mostly based on his personal experiences in Tahiti, Senegal and Turkey. His most famous works, written in a very personal "regional exotic" style, are located in Brittany (Mon frère Yves, Pêcheur d'Islande) and Pays Basque (Ramuntcho). Elected at the French Academy in 1891, Loti was offered national funeral in 1923.
Loti's house in Rochefort, now a municipal museum under complete restoration, was for him a kind of theater where he could remember every day his voyages and were he invited the celebrities of the time in famous parties - for instance, in 1881, the Louis XI dinner, where the guests were costumed and had to speak in old French. The house includes a mosque, a Turkish lounge, an Arab room and a Chinese hall.

Ivan Sache, 4 December 2019

The Musée national de la Marine (National Navy Museum) has an annex in Rochefort.

Olivier Touzeau, 2 March 2022

Flag of Rochefort

The flag of Rochefort is green, quartered by a white cross charged with five yellow fleurs-de-lis in each arm, and a yellow anchor in each quarter. The flag in used is either square (Town Hall; photo, photo photo) or rectangular (Sun Gate, entrance of the former arsenal; photo, photo, photo, photo, photo, photo).

The square design is said to match the color of the Rochefort Port Regiment. The eight Port Regiments of Brest, Toulon, Rochefort, Marseilles, Bayonne, Saint-Malo, Bordeaux, and Le Havre formed the Royal Corps of the Navy, established on 18 June 1772 to replace the Royal Corps of Naval Infantry and Artillery, which had been established on 24 September 1769. The short-lived regiments were disbanded on 26 December 1774, to be replaced by the Royal Corps of Naval Infantry.
The Port Regiments were the first units to feature a naval anchor on their color.
[Les vieilles troupes de marine]

Ivan Sache, 4 December 2019

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort


Street flag in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort - Image by Ivan Sache, 4 December 2019

Rochefort, once considered as a sad garrison town, gained unexpected international fame thanks to the musical comedy "Les Demoiselles de Rochefort", shot in the town by Jacques Demy from 31 May to 27 August 1966. The film benefited from Michel Legrand's musical score and Norman Maen's choreography. The twins of Rochefort were played by two promising actresses, Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac (extract), sisters in real life but not twins, while the experienced Danielle Darrieux played their mother and actually sung her part. Gene Kelly and George Chakiris added an international tone to the film. Moreover, the association of French romantism and American jazz, Demy's inspired filming, the bright costumes, and mostly, the recoloring of the town of Rochefort, made of the "Demoiselles", unveiled simultaneoulsy in Rocheofrt, Paris, and New York, an international success.
Demy selected Rochefort because of the town's architecture and the big Colbert Place, suitable for Maen's elaborated choreography. The Martrou transporter bridge over the estuary of the Charente, featured in the movie's introducing (extract) and ending (extract) scenes, remembered him a similar bridge in his birth town, Nantes. Erected in 1900 by Ferdinand Arnodin, the bridge, under complete restoration, is the last of that kind still standing in France.
The 25th anniversary of the movie was officially celebrated in Rochefort in 1992, in the presence of several members of the film's staff. The event was recorded by Agnès Varda, Demy's partner in life, in a documentary called "Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans".
[Municipal archives]

"Les Demoiselles de Rochefort"'s happy end and success were taunted by the death of Françoise Dorléac. A few months after the movie's release, on 26 June 1967, she was invited to London for the first presentation of the movie to the British public. In a hurry to catch her plane at the Nice airport, she crashed her car in Villeneuve-Loubet. The death of the young, talented actress stirred big emotion in France. Catherine Deneuve, who was not originally interested in acting, became a sophisticated star and emblem of the French touch, but never recovered from her sister's death.
[Télérama, 26 June 2017]

During the introducing scenes of the film, the streets of the town are decorated with vertical, forked banners, vertically divided green-yellow.

Pascal Vagnat & Ivan Sache, 4 December 2019

Logo flag


Logo flag of Rochefort - Image by Ivan Sache, 4 December 2019

The municipality also uses a white flag with the graphic element of its logo (photo), a blue stylized "R".

Ivan Sache, 4 December 2019

Three-master Hermione


Flag of Hermione - Image by Ivan Sache, 4 December 2019

The former Rochefort arsenal is now a cultural site called Arsenal des Mers (Arsenal of the Seas), which includes:
- the Navy National Museum;
- the Corderie Royale. The Royal Rope factory was in the 17th century the longest industrial building in Europe. This unusual length (373 m) was required to produce long single-cabled ropes.
- the arsenal's former dry docks, port of call of Hermione.
The dry docks built in 1668-1671, a primer in France, were required the maintenance and repairing of the vessels of the Navy. Modernized in the 19th century, they were recently used to build the replica of Hermione, now a world-famous symbol of Rochefort.

The building of the original three-master Hermione was initiated in the Rochefort arsenal in 1788. Designed by engineer Chevillard Sr., Hermione was of more than 65 m in length; its sails covered an area of 1,500 m2. The ship was equipped with 26 cannons shooting 12-pounds bullets, therefore its nickname of "12 frigate".
Together with Courageuse, Concorde and Fée, also built in Rochefort, Hermione was a "light frigate", swift and easy to steer. It took 11 months and more than 35,000 laborer-days to complete the building of the vessel.
On 21 March 1780, Major General Gilbert Motier, Marquess de La Fayette, boarded on Hermione, as the envoy of King Louis XVI to support the American insurgents. He landed 30 days later in Boston where he announced to George Washington the supply of a French expeditionary corps commanded by Rochambeau and Admiral de Grasse.

The Association Hermione-La Fayette (website), established in December 1992 in Rochefort, raised funds for the building of the ship and managed the building site. Hermione was built from scratch from July 1997 to September 2014. Her maiden voyage to America was completed in April-August 2015.
The association's present-day's aims are:
- to maintain Hermione afloat;
- to organize navigation and to plan the future voyages of the frigate;
- to manage the mooring site of Hermione and visits.

Hermione often flies a white flag charged with the emblem of the association (photo, photo, photo, photo, photo).

Ivan Sache, 4 December 2019