France’s oldest active lighthouse, Cordouan in the mouth of the Gironde estuary, is once again open to visitors after nine years of restoration work – but only when tides allow.
The Unesco heritage working monument is 7km offshore and has been undergoing works since 2013, interrupted each winter by bad weather and, more recently, by the pandemic.
Chief architect Franck Lamendin said: “The works aren’t really finished.
“They have to be ongoing so the lighthouse remains in good condition, rather than falling apart and having to be restored again.”
He cites the mortar between the stones, which is designed to give way under the onslaught of the sea. “The mortar is sacrificial in order to protect the stones from damaging vibrations, so it needs to be inspected and replaced every so often.”
The Phare de Cordouan was built from 1584 to 1611 by engineer Louis de Foix to safeguard shipping connected with the Bordeaux wine trade. The ground floor provides living quarters for resident lighthouse keepers, and although the functioning of the lamp is fully automatic today, the lighthouse still has four keepers working in rotation, partly to prevent vandalism and partly to show the 22,000 annual visitors around.
Visitors quickly realise why Cordouan is called the Versailles of the Sea, as the spiral staircase from the richly decorated central entrance hall leads to the king’s apartment, including a drawing room, anteroom and other smaller closets.
The light was funded by Henri III and Henri IV and the rooms might have been named after them, but it is unclear.
Above that is the Chapel Notre Dame with its stunning mosaic roof and stained glass windows. Finally, 68m above the sea, are the lantern and viewing platform. The latest renovations include waterproofing the tower, renewing the roof, checking and restoring all exterior stone, and renovating visitor facilities plus keepers’ accommodation.
Mr Lamendin called it “the most extraordinary building” and plans to return.
The lighthouse is open for visits each year from April until October (phare-de-cordouan.fr) and visitors can climb the 301 stairs for the breathtaking view from the lantern platform.
First, they must check tides and weather as access is only possible on certain afternoons from 14.30 to 16.30 and involves a short ferry ride from Royan or Le Verdon and a transfer to an amphibious vehicle, often followed by 20 minutes of wading through knee-high waves and scrambling over slippery rocks.