While the Cordouan lighthouse was built for the primary purpose of keeping guard over the mouth of the Gironde estuary, it has far exceeded this utilitarian function. Its architecture proves irresistible to visitors to this unique building.
The Cordouan lighthouse has long been referred to as the lighthouse of kings and has just been named “2019 Lighthouse of the Year” by the International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities to mark World Marine Aids to Navigation Day. This year, France has nominated the Cordouan lighthouse for inclusion on the World Heritage List for 2020. A support committee has been set up, and the campaign is backed on social media using the hashtag #UNESCORDOUAN.
This remarkable building deserves such recognition. The care taken over its construction is impressive considering it’s found in the middle of the sea and can’t be seen from the coast. Built in stone and sculpted on all sides, the lighthouse was commissioned in 1584 by Henri III, who entrusted the project to Louis de Foix. Its construction was finished in 1611, but work resumed from 1786 to 1789 to add a further 20 metres in height. This took it to 67.5 metres tall. Another interesting fact is that it is the last remaining lighthouse to be continuously inhabited by its keepers and visitors.
Two options for boat crossings: from Port Médocin Gironde on La Bohème or from Royan in Charente-Maritime on the other side of the estuary on La Sirène. Visits are conducted at low tide, so opening times vary. I set off from Port Médoc, 8 kilometres from the lighthouse, in a boat that could carry around a hundred passengers. Just before we get there, I transfer to the amphibious shuttle that will drop me off just opposite the entrance to the lighthouse. The shuttle does several trips between the boat and lighthouse to transport all the visitors. The tide continues to go out during my visit, so I follow a paved path, which wasn’t visible when I arrived, from the lighthouse for a few hundred metres. Jumping over puddles and rocks, I make my way back to the shuttle waiting for us on a sandbank, before boarding the boat back to Port Médoc.
In the meantime, I visit this unique monument, which is continually restored to repair damage caused by the sea and wind. I climb the 301 steps, each level offering its share of discoveries: the entrance hall, with the former guards’ room in the corner, and the apartments reserved for the King, even though no king has ever visited. Even carving the initials “MTL”, for Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain, into the lighthouse wasn’t enough to entice the monarch to come. Higher up is the chapel with its Saint Anne marble floor, Corinthian pilasters and stained glass windows. Here, we find the monograms of Henri III and Henri IV, as well as a bust of Louis de Foix. Mass is still celebrated here often. The Girondins Room was created when the tower was made taller. Its large stone staircase is a surprise in this type of building. It’s followed by the lantern room, where the lighting material was stored, and just before the gallery, where you can admire the panoramic views, we find the old keeper’s watch room, with its desk. This round room is clad in wood from floor to ceiling. On the way back down, I pass through the completely oak-panelled engineer’s apartment, found in the crown of the lighthouse on the ground floor. The Cordouan lighthouse: a short trip across the water, a grand voyage through time.