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In the 17th century, the attractive two-storey stone building that runs along the banks of the Charente river in Rochefort was the longest industrial structure in Europe. It was the Royal Rope Factory, a symbol that France was fighting back against the naval power of the English, and an edifice so elegant that it was described as the Versailles of the Sea. The building was designed to impress. On the other side, out of sight of the river, the windows are unadorned.
But the French king needed an arsenal on the west coast, and the location proved ideal. The river provided access to the sea, but its mouth was protected by two natural headlands and a collection of offshore islands.
The marshy terrain was both an asset and a problem: a challenge to any attacking army, it was also difficult to build on. In the end a raft was created on which to float the structure and anchor it in the ground. A triumphal arch, the Porte du Soleil, was added later, and there were shipyards and workshops, including a building separate from the main rope factory where the rope was tarred to make it waterproof.
It has been restored and is now the town library. Nearby, the former naval artillery is now a comfortable three-star hotel that overlooks the river. When the arsenal was completed, a town was needed to provide accommodation for the officers and traders associated with the navy.
German bombing raid during the Second World War left the Rope Factory in ruins; but it has since been restored to something like its former glory. Some ships were built in Rochefort, including the Hermione, the frigate on which General Lafayette sailed to America to fight in the War of Independence. Visitors can watch from the scaffolding as , pieces are put into place, and it is hard not to be impressed. Everything, from the rigging to the sails, is prepared on site and every aspect of the construction is authentic.