The Most Beautiful Lady In France – Cordouan Lighthouse
She was the most beautiful lady I’d ever seen, and I’ve seen a few.
Her stone walls rose high to the heavens, stark and imposing against the grey sky, yet softened with intricate carvings that belied her enormous strength. Her exterior was lined with columns worthy of a Roman treasure, huge mounds of stone wet from the last tide, hundreds of years old and battered by the weather, yet still impressively new and smooth.
She opened up to an interior of unbelievable wealth, intricate marble, stained glass windows, and palatial landings complete with rooms for Kings and others for God. The richness and size was overwhelming and confused all sense of directions and time.
The staircase, a piece of art in its own right blossomed like a flower to the sun, spiraling in increasingly grand circles around a majestic stone dome before finally narrowing and spilling out into the lantern gallery.
And there finally was the sky, a horizon of infinite blue, the seaweed and shallow sand spreading like a mushroom for miles.
What an incredible place!!!
We’ve Wanted To Come Here Ever Since We Arrived in Europe
One of the things we really looked forward to when we moved to this side of the pond was the lighthouses.
Those of you that have been following the blog for a while know that we are happily certified “lighthouse nutters”, an addiction that we acquired when we were RVing on the West Coast of the USA and lucky enough to become volunteer docents at several of the lighthouses in OR & WA. We’ve seen many fine ladies since that time, but none of them can quite compare to what we have here in Europe.
THIS is the birthplace of lighthouse history. Well, perhaps not the oldest history in the world (that belongs to the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the 7 wonders of the Ancient World and sadly long since gone), but certainly the oldest lighthouse history still living today. This is where you’ll find the Tower Of Hercules, a lighthouse in NW Spain that dates back to the 2nd century, and is still active today (!). The history of that place is almost beyond comprehension (we have yet to see her together).
This is also where you’ll find the birthplace of Augustin-Jean Fresnel, the pioneering Frenchman who designed the Fresnel lens in 1822, a revolution in design that allowed lighthouses to cast their lights up to 21 miles out to sea, saving millions of seafaring lives across the globe. His invention quite literally changed the world.
And then there is the oldest lighthouse in France, Cordouan Lighthouse, first lit in 1611, 7 km out to sea near the mouth of the Gironde estuary in Les Landes. She is not just a historical and architectural masterpiece, but also the first lighthouse in the world to ever carry a Fresnel Lens (in 1823). Those two pieces of history are enough to make even the most modest of lighthouse nutters shiver with excitement.
I’m not kidding you when I say I was BEYOND psyched to see this place!
But First We Had A Few Nights To Kill
Before our “date” however we had a few nights to kill.
There’s only two boat companies that can take you to Cordouan Lighthouse, and she is only visit-able at low tide when the weather is right. Plus numbers are limited each day. So, if you want to see her you have to book well ahead. Several weeks ago we’d managed to book tickets for the last boats of the season from Le Verdon-Sur-Mer, one ticket per day for Paul and myself (we planned to go on alternate days, so the pets wouldn’t be alone), but hat meant sticking to a rigid schedule, and two sleeps until we needed to be there.
We left our busy campground at Dune du Pilat early Monday morning, following the road ~100km inland towards the northernmost lake in Les Landes, Lake Hourtin. Our target was the Camping Aire at Hourtin Port, a nice-looking spot just steps from a popular kite & windsurfing area and port.
It’s a gated lot where you pay €11.90 on arrival, giving you 24 hours in the Aire before you have to be out again. And inside it’s quite nice; lots of greenery, well-separated pitches, a good number of electricity outlets and excellent bathrooms. Plus it’s right next to water and a large beach area (sadly not dog-friendly by the Aire, altho’ you can access with dogs further down).
We arrive at 11AM and there’s still has plenty of spots to chose from. We park up and walk around the harbor, watching the many kite/windsurfers and sailboats going in and out of the port. Not a bad place, but it’s a tad too busy for our tastes. We decide we’ll only spend the one night.
The next day we move onto another Aire right by the marina (Port Medoc) where the boats to Cordouan leave. It’s the most basic place we’ve stayed at so far, nothing more than a hard-packed dirt parking lot at the end of the harbor road with no services (no electricity, no toilets) apart from garbage and a dump station. But we’re the only ones here, it’s super quiet, only €9.60 per night and we have full views of the marina. We immediately love it.
Should have stayed here last night!
That Afternoon I Take The Boat To Cordouan
My tour is that very afternoon.
Low tide is 4:30PM, so I walk to the port just 10 mins away, carrying a change of socks (in case we need to wade through water to the lighthouse, which sometimes happens) and well drugged up with Dramamine to keep me on the level. It’s a grey day, drizzling and overcast so sadly not the best for pics, but the crowd is light and the mood is electric. EVERYONE is excited to go!
It’s a rocky 45 min (7km) ride to the lighthouse, where we all transfer to another boat that “drives” over the low sand bar to the lighthouse itself. There finally, we disembark to view the beauty we’ve come to see.
The History Of the Lighthouse Is Fascinating
To give you some background, the history of this place goes back hundreds of years.
The first light in this place was actually built by Edward the Black (back when this was English territory) in 1360. The Tour aux Anglais was a crude polygonal tower, 16 meters in height, topped by a platform where a wood fire could be kept burning, manned by a religious hermit.
By the 16th century, the English light had fallen into disrepair, so another tower was commissioned by Henry III. This one however, was going to be much more than just a light. It was to be a masterpiece of royal work, a “Versailles of the sea” with a rich interior designed by the famous French engineer and Paris architect Louis de Foix. Construction started in 1584 and was expanded with more funds under Henri IV, the extensive works lasting through the end of De Foix’s life around 1603. Thereafter the base was strengthened & reinforced by François Beuscher (royal fortifications master). The lighthouse was finally completed and put into service, 27 long years after she was originally commissioned in 1611.
The final structure was a monument to the glory of the Kings and the Catholic monarchy. It became the only tower in history to have a chapel within it’s interior, and the only tower with such extensive and lavish decor from the finest of marble floors, to wood paneling, stained glass windows and elaborate sculptures. The structure stood 37 meters tall and was considered so beautiful and unique it was known in its day as the 8th wonder of the world.
In 1786 the lighthouse tower was raised, the final construction done (apart from her restoration by Napoleon III in 1855) to the form that we see today. She now stands 223 feet (68 m) high.
And She’s A Joy To Visit
It’s hard to describe what a unique experience it is to see this place.
The tower herself is so beautiful she could easily rival the most elaborate of castles, while the interior is truly a wonder of over-the-top 17th century design.
There are SIX separate floors and each is a discovery, from the King’s Apartment to the Royal Chapel, the Girondins Room and the Watch Room. You enter through spectacular arched doorways, walk on finely crafted marble floors and stand beneath gorgeous stone carvings and elegant windows. And the 301-step stone staircase is so large and impressive, it’s almost impossible to understand you’re actually inside a lighthouse when you climb it.
She is also still manned, the only remaining lighthouse in France to still be so! The four lighthouse keepers, who alternate in pairs on tours of duty lasting a week or a fortnight conduct the tours (in French) and they are all wonderful.
Plus of course she is still active. Her light has seen practically all of navigation history from the burning of wood through whale oil, coal, mineral oil and petroleum to (finally) electricity in 1948. The Fresnel Lens beautifully displayed at the top is no longer the original from 1823, but is still a fabulous example of a “modern” Fresnel lens using catadioptric rings from 1854. It’s just impressive stuff all-around.
This is hands down one of the coolest tours I’ve ever done!
Alas, Paul Didn’t Get To See Her
The day after my visit (Paul’s planned day), the weather unfortunately turned foul and the boat to the lighthouse was cancelled (Arghhhhh!!). It was the last boat of the regular season too, so tragically he didn’t get to go. We spent another night at our quiet Aire in the marina, but then there was no reason to stay any longer.
Also, we were reaching the end of our “tour”. The cats had done really well, but Taggart was was a bit wobbly again (turns out her phosphorus levels had gone too high, something we were able to correct once we got back home), so we decided it was time to turn around.
We whipped out the map (well, opened up Google Maps on our iPads anyway) and decided we’d do the drive home in two stops, enjoying a bit of history and a bit of wine along the way. And to our delight, both turned out way better than we expected.
Paul might have missed the glory of Cordouan, but he was about to see something aaaaalmost as cool.
Visit Notes/ Visiting Cordouan lighthouse is only possible in season (~early April to end Sept, with occasional boats in Oct/Nov) during low tide. There are two companies who provide the service, one operates from Le-Verdon-Sur-Mer while the other operates from across the estuary in Royan. Tickets cost €43-€49 per person, depending on season. Bookings highly recommended! See more HERE.