Visiting Rochefort and La Rochelle

For the tourists interested in visiting Rochefort and La Rochelle I thought to share my impressions after my stay there in February. Overall they look very different. While La Rochelle was founded over one thousand years ago, Rochefort was built in the late XVII century by the French government at the time. La Rochelle has old medieval buildings, many towers, narrow and winding streets. Rochefort instead has large perpendicular streets and buildings from more recent time.

Hermione is a major attraction in Rochefort. It is a ship, a reproduction of the frigate which under command of Lafayette was sent in 1780 to help the United States revolution against England. This new ship took 15 years to build and was completed in 2012. However, being made out of wood it requires a lot of maintenance work compared with the modern ships. The frigate Hermione navigated to the United States in 2015 in a symbolic voyage.

In the vicinity of Hermione, there is the National Maritime Museum. Here the visitors can see small replicas of historical French ships. There is, for example, the replica of the submarine that inspired Jules Verne to imagine Nautilus.

This is the court of the museum. I confess that I had no idea what was this item until I read the description
It was the Raft of the Meduse well known from Gericault’s painting

The frigate Meduse left from Rochefort in June 1816 with the destination Senegal. It never reached there as it shipwrecked in July at 50 km from the shores of Mauritania.

One year before, in July 1815, the same frigate Meduse was part of a less known episode of French history. Defeated at Waterloo, the French Emperor Napoleon abdicated and wanted to emigrate to the United States. For this purpose, he went to Rochefort and ordered to have two frigates prepared for the trip. Meduse was one of the two frigates that were supposed to bring the former Emperor over the ocean. He delayed his departure waiting for French passports until the English fleet completely blockaded Rochefort and made his departure impossible. The argument that Napoleon waited for passports in Rochefort is not very convincing to me. Why did he need passports? He had great support in the United States as he sold them Louisiana in 1803. In the end, he surrendered to the English fleet near Rochefort on July 15, 1815, and was imprisoned until his death on Saint Helene island.

A plaque on the military base where Napoleon stayed before surrendering to English forces

In Rochefort, I also recommend a visit to Commerces d’Autrefois museum. Here you can see fragments of life from previous centuries. An interesting return to the day to day life in the past.

In the nineteenth century, people did not afford to buy many clothes. Instead, they dyed their old clothes using machines like this one
A chair used for tonsil surgery in the nineteenth century with a very encouraging message

I was in La Rochelle only for one day, so I had less time to visit the town than Rochefort. Coming from the railway station the first thing that caught my attention was the old port with many restaurants and the famous towers.

I visited two of the three towers. One was used by the local garrison and the other one was a prison.

The towers of La Rochelle made me think of the siege of the city in 1627-1628. At the time, La Rochelle remained the only Protestant city in France. The Catholics wanted to capture the city as in those times there was a religious war over entire Europe. Despite their fight, the Protestants were defeated. Alexandre Dumas wrote about this siege in The Three Musketeers, where the musketeers, who are positive figures, working for the king killed some Protestants. With this in mind, I was curious to see if the main cathedral in La Rochelle was Protestant or Catholic. It was Catholic because I guess vae victis.

Catholic cathedral of La Rochelle

Returning to more modern times, the market in La Rochelle is located in a nice building from the nineteenth century.

La Rochelle market place

During the second world war, La Rochelle was the base of German U-boat submarines in Atlantic. The Germans built a bunker here to shelter in case of an allied bombardment. After the Germans were defeated the bunker remained hidden until it was discovered in the 1980s. Today you can visit the bunker and find out interesting things about the German fleet and the French resistance in the area.

The bunker in La Rochelle
The black cat was the emblem of the German U-boat fleet. The picture is from the bunker.

I’ve seen and learned many interesting things on my trip and I highly recommend visiting Rochefort and La Rochelle.

Les demoiselles de Rochefort

In February I was in Rochefort for a week playing in a chess tournament. When I was a kid, “Les demoiselles de Rochefort” was my favourite musical. It was written and directed by Jacques Demy following his success with “Les parapluies de Cherbourg” two years before. I enjoyed very much the soundtrack composed by Michel Legrand and the way it talked about love. The movie it’s about three men coming to Rochefort where each of them meets the love of his life. It was filmed in Rochefort for three months in the summer of 1966. Since that summer this little town has been changed forever.

Visiting Rochefort 53 years later for playing chess, I wanted to see the places where various scenes from the movie were shot and I discovered that not much of the original décor has changed.

The movie begins on a Friday morning with the arrival of showmen for a festival that was set to take place during a weekend in Rochefort. You can see that not much has changed in the town center over the years:

Rochefort town center in 1966
and in 2019

The gallery of Lancien is a “Natur House” in 2019:

The school of Boubou where Gene Kelly has a very nice dance scene:

The music store of Simon Dame became a local market. That’s the most dramatic transformation.

The market was closed that day

The tavern owned by the mother of the twins was modernized.

Michel Legrand passed away in Paris in January 2019. He was my favourite composer of movie soundtracks. Among other recognitions he was awarded with three Oscars during his career.
The town hall of Rochefort is adorned with a poster that says “Michel Legrand – Rochefort vous dit merci”

In the same town hall building Catherine Deneuve and her real life sister Francoise Dorleac sang the song of twin sisters in the movie:

The memories of this musical live strong in Rochefort as well as in my mind.

The movie ends with the showmen departure from the town next Monday morning once the festival finished. They came for just a few days then left Rochefort and… so did the chess players.

The movie will remain actual as long love is a topic of interest for human beings.
I enjoyed every day of my stay in Rochefort whether I was winning or losing a game. It feels great when you follow your dreams.