The Cordouan Lighthouse is considered an architectural and engineering masterpiece.
It stands on a rocky plateau in the Gironde estuary on the French Atlantic coast, about seven kilometres from the mainland. The 68-metre-high tower has been in operation since 1611 and is the oldest lighthouse in France. It is considered a Renaissance masterpiece, the architect was Louis de Foix.
Map of Cordouan LighthouseLoad map
I visited the Phare de Cordouan in July 2021, just one day before the site was inscribed on the World Heritage List. The ICOMOS evaluation was clearly positive, so I had no doubt that it would be the first new WHS on my trip through the South West of France.
Different from Els, I opted for a boat tour from Royan. I pre-booked a spot on the boat of La Sirène Cruises. Clyde reported some inconveniences with La Sirène in his review below, but things have obviously changed over the years. In 2021, booking online was easy and convenient with secure payment by credit card, no phone call required, you only have to give your phone number in case the tour has to be cancelled.
No matter which operator you choose, the tours are more or less the same: first with a big boat, then, split into two groups, with an amphibian vessel to the tower, and on foot across the sandbank back to the boat, wet feet guaranteed.
I would recommend being in the first group, especially if you want to take photos unspoiled by other visitors. I was one of the first at the lighthouse and with only about ten visitors, one of the keepers started the first tour. The interior was a surprise. I had not expected such magnificent decorations, sculptures and marble floors. There is even a royal apartment, but no monarch has ever stayed there. In the basement you can see drawings showing how the building has been remodelled and extended over the centuries.
After the tour, you have plenty of time to view the lighthouse from the outside and take photos from all angles. It is an impressive construction, a beautiful blend of Renaissance and Neo-Classicism. And it is a bit strange to find such a pompous building on a rock kilometres away from the coast. You would expect a more functional construction. However, it was definitely intended to express the wealth and power of the royal dynasty.
Usually there is only one tour per day, sometimes two, the departure times depend on the tides. My tour started at 8:15am. Tours are only in the warm season, from Easter to October. Several operators in Royan offer boat tours, but be aware that not all of them stop at the lighthouse. So make sure that access to the lighthouse is included.
The unique location and the trip to it add a lot to the experience of the visit. All in all, it was a highly enjoyable visit and the Cordouan Lighthouse is a worthy addition to the World Heritage List.
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 wind farms 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 1 pm departure of my boat trip. From the tiny Verdon station, it takes a half an hour's 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, therefore, we 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 sand banks. 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 while 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.
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If this is actually inscribed in 2020 I can already "tick" it off, and that's mainly why it was on my itinerary. An early morning drive to Royan was required to match my schedule. Parking at the port is not free although I think it's free if you park outside of that lot? Anyhow it's also quite an expensive trip if you include the ride + visit, and as pointed out already it's NOT worth taking a boat trip just to see the lighthouse from close-by. The best parts are inside. It is also quite an effort to get there, a bumpy boat ride, then an LCVP to the sandy patches, a not-so-much-fun walk through the wet sand and algae-covered rocks until you finally get to the lighthouse area. It was also very windy and cold in early May.
You get to spend a good hour at the lighthouse, or maybe it was 80 min. The French-speaking crowd got a guided tour of the tower and the rest of us could enter it first and explore with a nice little brochure. There are several floors of interest, and the top layer with the dual-color glass gives you a look of the sea and what lies below - well, not much really.
You may already be thinking why I give it the thumbs down. I just don't find it unique enough. One of the rooms even had a lot of posters of other towers, or at those gone now? Well, perhaps it is the last remaining one of this kind but nevertheless the architecture isn't that unique, and even so I find it of national treasure level if anything. I took many pictures and like the place, but I wouldn't include it on a WHS list. The trip is also quite an "adventure" if not all was fun. You have to wade back to the LCVP, get loaded into it like a GI and take the main boat back to the port. It doesn't take the entire day and I still went to Rochefort in the afternoon. I felt like watching Saving Private Ryan that evening.
I visited this tentative WHS in July 2016. It was a real adventure and I really enjoyed my visit. There are 3 ways to visit the lighthouse itself or else you can take any excursion from Royan or Le Verdon-sur-mer just to get you up close to the lighthouse. I think the latter option would be a real shame is not only would you pay a lot of money (36 euros) just to see the lighthouse without actually visiting it but also because you'd brave the choppy seas just the same so I'd recommend paying the extra 10 euros which should go directly to the coffers of the lighthouse preservation team which do a lot of restoration work every winter. If you decide to visit the lighthouse, you can either visit with Royan Cruises, La Sirene Cruises or Cordouan Express from Royan, with Vedette la Boheme from Le Verdon-sur-mer, or with La Cote de Beaute from Meschers-sur-Gironde. The prices are pretty much the same (46 euros inclusive of the 10 euro lighthouse entrance ticket). I opted to visit from Royan as I wanted to visit the nearby Rochefort and the Rochefort-Martrou Transporter Bridge (similar to the inscribed Vizcaya Bridge in Spain). There are trips to the lighthouse everyday and the companies take it in turns to visit on alternate days. I tried to choose a day with a high tide coefficient to be able to experience a short "walk" from the exposed sandy banks to the Cordouan lighthouse. Booking ahead is highly recommended and I preferred Royan Cruises over La Sirene Cruises simply because the latter company required my credit card details AND secret number over the phone which I wasn't comfortable with especially since trips can be cancelled without notice according to the weather conditions on the day. Royan Cruises took my reservation over the phone and I paid upon arrival 1 hour prior to the trip. Moreover, the company's service was very good and an amphibian vessel is used towards the last bit near the lighthouse to get you as close as possible to the submerged jetty. Another positive note was that a local author who published the very good information book on the Cordouan lighthouse, Frederic Chassebouef (Cordouan - roi des phares), happened to be on board when I visited and we had a very fine chat together on the pros and cons of Cordouan's inscription on the WH list. After around 45 mins at sea from Royan, the amphibian vessel approached our boat and one by one we safely went on board to be taken as close as possible to the sand banks. Then we literally walked the last 20mins or so in the middle of the sea with water just above knee level till we reached the wooden door and staircase guarded by the lighthouse guardian. The lighthouse guardian actually lives in the lighthouse every other week and alternates with another young lighthouse guardian. He's in charge of letting people in after having made sure that everyone has paid the 10 euro ticket and then does a short talk explaining the lighthouse's transformation over the years and its importance. Cordouan is an active lighthouse located 7 km at sea, near the mouth of the Gironde estuary. At 68 metres, it is the 10th tallest traditional lighthouse in the world and by far the oldest in France. Its construction started in 1584 and it was completed in 1611. Its main highlight and OUV is that it is a Renaissance masterpiece, in that it is an amalgam of a royal palace, a cathedral and a fort, all in one unique lighthouse. Small beacon towers had existed on the islet since 880, but the first proper structure was implemented by the "Black Prince", since Guienne was then an English province. Passing ships paid to pass by and it is believed that this was the first known instance of lighthouse fees. A small chapel was also built on the islet, however, by the second half of the 16th century, the tower fell into disrepair and the hazard to navigation threatened the Bordeaux wine trade which led to the 'tower' construction. Moreover, a round base was built to take act as a wave breaker. Within it was a cavity for storing water and other supplies. Above it the tower had 4 floors. The ground floor had apartments for four keepers. The middle floor had a richly decorated entrance hall and the second floor housed the King's Apartment. The top floor consisted of a chapel with a domed roof. The architectural genius still visible today is that instead of removing the domed roof the lighthouse was later extended further to today's length with spiralling stairs. Moreover, the first turning lighting dish in the world was used here and in 1823 the first lens rotating system was installed in Cordouan, two very important steps for worldwide navigation. By the time I climbed the 301 steps up and down and explored the lighthouse, the tide had retreated further and the jetty to the amphibian vessel was no longer submerged. Instead I had to keep my balance while walking on some very slippery algae and several bivalves. The whole trip takes around 4 hours and if the weather is fine you have around 2 hours to visit the lighthouse itself. A banner was displayed on the round base stating Cordouan's candidature as a UNESCO WHS but several locals are against its inscription mainly because it already receives enough money and protection as a national historic monument and the current number of visitors is quite controlled to be able to safeguard the marine/estuary ecosystem without an excessive negative impact. Personally, I think this is truly one of the best sites France has to offer and well worth the effort for an unforgettable experience.
Very impressive lighthouse on a rock outside Royan. The volume, age and history is impressive but information is poor, even in French language. It is a small adventure of its own to get out there and the complete set makes it a nice tour out on a nice day.
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