I just learned about a new place in France that I absolutely have to visit – la phare de Cordouan (lah far duh kor-do-ahn). The Cordouan Lighthouse was placed in service in 1611 – and it’s still operational. It’s located seven km (about 4.5 miles) offshore on the west coast of France a shelf known as the plateau de Cordouan. For 400 years, it has secured the estuary formed by the joining of two rivers.
The graceful Renaissance era lighthouse has a few equally classy nicknames, such as the “Versailles of the sea,” the “lighthouse of kings” or “the king of lighthouses.” Engineer-architect Louis de Foix designed a tower but he died during the 27 years of the tower’s construction. It looked more like a chapel than a lighthouse, with its beautiful domed roof with eight window bays. It was a fairly short tower at only 37 m (about 40 yds) above sea level.
In 1719, the upper part of the tower was demolished and then rebuilt based on plans by Chevalier de Bitry. The modifications were insufficient to meet the needs of mariners, however, and in 1789 construction was completed on a 30 m extension to the lighthouse. The new section, designed by Joseph Teulère, was starkly simple in contrast to the Renaissance base. Then he added a further 60 m as well as the first revolving parabolic light, known as a Fresnel lamp. This oil fueled lamp was in service for over 150 years, until electricity came in 1948. Now the Cordouan light houses a modern halogen lamp – it’s evolved from the Renaissance to high-tech. Many special events marked the light’s 400th birthday in 2011.
Today, the tower is made up of six storeys. The main floor has a massive door that opens onto a vestibule and from which begins the 301 stairs that lead to the top (a further 8 led to the lantern, but it’s inaccessible to the public). The second floor has the king’s apartment; it was built and furnished for Louis XIV, even though he was never there. The room has an arched ceiling and is paved in marble. The pilasters on the wall are decorated with the monogram of the king and queen. The third floor has a chapel, the most magnificent part of the lighthouse. The vaulted ceiling curves over two beautiful, original stained glass windows that have recently been restored. It’s become chic to use it for weddings and christenings.
The fourth floor marks the beginning of the work by Teulère. It is known as the Salle des Girondins – a huge light-filled space. It’s paved in grey and black marble. The fifth floor, paved in oak instead of marble, had two cots for the light-keepers. The final floor houses the great light. There’s a hole that runs through each floor from bottom to top that allowed fuel to be hauled to the light with a pulley.
Even though the light functions automatically, there are still three keepers at the lighthouse who live in apartments at the base. They work in rotating shifts – 14 days on, 7 days off, 7 days on, 7 days off. Today their duties include welcoming visitors as well as keeping the lighthouse running smoothly.
Due to erosion, the island is now under water except at low tide. Extensive efforts have been made in recent years to preserve the lighthouse from the battering of the sea. The work took a long time to complete because they could only access the site four hours a day during low tide. About 15,000 people visit each year arriving by boat, but only 30 can be allowed to the top level at a time. There are plans to install a guest house that will allow visitors to stay on the island for a few days. Until then, you can visit it virtually.
Plan your visit: Visiter la phare du Cordouan