Blog WHS Visits

WHS #760: Cordouan Lighthouse

Directly after I read the positive ICOMOS evaluation for adding the Cordouan Lighthouse to the World Heritage List, I booked a flight to Bordeaux and a spot on a boat tour that would take me there. So this is how I arrived at my 760th visited WHS only a week after its inscription. It was a shoo-in, an exemplary site especially from a management perspective. It boasts a large core zone which includes the waters surrounding the lighthouse. The buffer zone extends to the coastal areas, so no windfarms will appear here spoiling the view.

A visit involves some practical considerations, especially when travelling on public transport. Clyde already described most of it well, though I only read his review carefully when I was already on a train to the site (so I worried about wet socks for a while). I had chosen a tour departing from Verdon-sur-Mer, which is linked by direct train from Bordeaux. The trains leave every 2 hours, the 9.29 one connected nicely with the 1pm departure of my boat trip. From the tiny Verdon station it takes a half an hour walk to Port Medoc, where the boats from Vedettes La Bohème depart. I walked alongside the main road on the way up there (following Google Maps), but there is also a coastal boardwalk for hikers and cyclists which I took on the way back.

Port Medoc is a small marina with a couple of restaurants and other amenities. The Cordouan tour boats take some 50 passengers and are partially covered from the elements, which came in handy as it was drizzling when we left the harbour. The lighthouse can be seen already from afar. It is located on a rocky plateau that is so shallow that the boat cannot sail all the way to it. For the last few hundred meters we therefore were divided into two groups and had to transfer to an amphibious vehicle. The tide was still high enough to be dropped right at the front gate of the lighthouse.

Up close its neoclassical design stands out, in the tradition of the lighthouses of classical antiquity. We were immediately ushered in for the tour by one of the keepers. The interior is rather palatial: there is a royal apartment and a chapel, decorated with ornaments and bust statues. Most beautiful, however, are the marble floors. One wonders why they made it so pompous rather than practical, as in the past hardly anyone would have visited due to the hazardous environment.

At the top you can go outside and walk a full circle behind a balustrade. There is a beautiful view of the shallow sea and the sandbanks. An underwater stone path to the entrance can be clearly distinguished, which dries up at low tide.

On the way back to the boat we were dropped off on a sandbar. We had to wait fifteen minutes until the amphibious vehicle went back and forth to move two other groups. The French passengers were fully prepared for this and had put on their water shoes. I just stood barefoot in the sand. Fortunately the sandbar was large and high enough for all of us. We got to admire the lighthouse from a distance one more time; it looked even more radiant due to the sunny spells. Its white, green and red lights are electrically powered nowadays.

We have a long connection list of lighthouses already, but a simple comparison by age/setting/use makes it clear that the Cordouan Lighthouse stands out among all. It was built in the 17th century, while most other lighthouses that we have are from the 19th and 20th centuries. It has an offshore location, when the others are almost all coastal. And it still is in full use as a lighthouse and has been continuously so since its construction. Only St. Petersburg's Tolbukhin lighthouse comes close. It may even be comparable to that other single monumental lighthouse WHS, the Tower of Hercules, which has Roman origins and also is still in use. Outside of the List, the 16th century Lighthouse of Genoa might be its closest competitor.

Els - 8 August 2021

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Els Slots 14 August 2021

Thanks for pointing that one out, Juha. 16th century, still in use, unusual appearance.

Juha Sjoeblom 13 August 2021

Also outside of the List, Kõpu Lighthouse in Estonia would be quite a strong competitor, if Estonia want some apply for WHS status. It is one of the oldest lighthouses on the world, and in a rather original shape.

When it comes to lighthouses, the question is always how much they have been altered from the original plans.

Kyle Magnuson 9 August 2021

Looks like a fantastic trip!