France's oldest lighthouse is 'unique in the world'

The Cordouan lighthouse, at the mouth of the Gironde estuary, is France’s 2021 candidate for a place on the Unesco World Heritage list

25 February 2021
By Jane Hanks

It is the country’s oldest lighthouse and is still in operation. It is regarded as an architectural masterpiece and was classified as a historic monument in 1862, the same year as Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris.

The lighthouse is described as a palace out at sea by Florie Alard, heritage curator for the Drac Nouvelle-Aquitaine regional directorate of cultural affairs.

“It is unique in the world,” she said. “It was designed to be fit for royalty, with its own chapel, king’s room, and luxury fittings in marble, wood and sculpted stone.

“Henry III ordered it to be built at the end of the 16th century. He had just become king and the position of the lighthouse at the entrance to France was perfect to show the world his power.

“The chapel symbolised his conversion from Protestantism to the Catholic faith.

“Aquitaine had recently belonged to the Protestant English and the extravagant lighthouse showed he was now in charge.

“No member of the royal family ever visited but it was a powerful symbol.

'At the time, the Phare de Cordouan was considered to be the eighth wonder of the world'

“Everyone knew about the lighthouse of Alexandria, built in antiquity, and here was a similar one in France. At the time, the Phare de Cordouan was considered to be the eighth wonder of the world.”

It was designed by architect Louis de Foix to be three storeys high with one room on each floor. There is an entrance hall with a stone vaulted ceiling; above that, the king’s room; and above that, the chapel. Each room has ornate carving, marble floors and sculptures.

“Recent renovation work has revealed extraordinary contemporary sculptures in the chapel,” said Ms Alard. “These had been hidden by layers of paint but we can now see they are typical of the Renaissance, with garlands of flowers, the head of a lion and head of a woman.”

The lighthouse took 25 years to build, as work was often delayed due to war, and construction could only take place in the summer. “It was built of limestone, which had to be brought by boat from either the north or the south bank of the estuary.

“The rocky plateau forming the island was bigger then, and about 70 workmen lived there. It must have been like a small village, as they had to have cows and chickens for food. Both Henry III and Louis de Foix died before it was completed in 1611.

“It was 37 metres tall and hailed as the most beautiful lighthouse in the world.”

By 1722, the building was suffering from the continual pounding of the ocean.

It also needed to be taller to be more efficient as a lighthouse, and in 1786 Joseph Teulère, Bordeaux’s city architect, was given the task of raising the tower to its present height of 67.5m.

“This construction was also remarkable as it was well ahead of its time,” said Ms Alard. “Most lighthouses were built in the 19th century, so this was earlier and constructed in stone. It has a superb staircase, which is a spiral.”

Cordouan is also important in lighthouse history because in 1823 it became the first to be equipped with a revolutionary new lens invented by Augustin Fresnel – the lens that saved a million ships.

This type of lens is still in use in most lighthouses around the world. Despite its claims to fame, Ms Alard says Cordouan is not very well known.

“I studied art history and the Renaissance but was never taught about the Phare de Cordouan. It was far better known to the population in 17th century France than today. It really deserves to be on the Unesco World Heritage list and for more people to learn about it.”

This month, the lighthouse will feature at a conference at the Institut National du Patrimoine in Paris and there will be a digital event to bring it to the attention of the public. There will also be a new website, translated into English.

The lighthouse can be visited from April to October (Covid health restrictions allowing). Access is by a 45-minute boat ride from either Royan on the north bank of the estuary or Le Verdon-sur-Mer on the south bank.

In the entrance hall you can see 3m² alcoves, where keepers slept for nearly two centuries. Look up to see a hole, made in 1789, which is repeated in the ceilings above and was used to lift fuel for the light until electricity was introduced.

On the first floor is the king’s room. It is paved with marble and its stone walls are decorated with pillars, relief work and sculptures. No royalty ever came, and in the 17th century the keepers started to use the fireplace for cooking.

Above is the royal chapel, which makes the lighthouse unique. Services are still sometimes celebrated there. The dark Saint-Anne marble floor, Corinthian-style pillars and domed ceiling are all typical of Renaissance architecture. The stained glass windows were added in 1855.

You can then climb the 301 steps to the top for a magnificent view.

There is a panel commemorating the fine work of the chief stonemason, Joseph Besse. Each stone was cut, one by one, to fit as the tower grew taller.

Other rooms include the oak-panelled engineers’ room, and the old keeper’s room, with alcoves for beds and again oak-panelled. An ingenious mirror system allowed the keepers to see the state of the fire from their bed.

The lighthouse has been part of a restoration programme since 2013, planned to finish in 2022.

It is the only lighthouse in France with keepers living on site

Their main job is maintenance of the building and acting as tour guides for visitors in summer.

The decision to include the lighthouse among the 1,121 sites in the world on the Unesco World Heritage list will be taken in June or July.

For more details about the lighthouse, visit its website.

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