The Cordouan lighthouse,
“Versailles by the Sea”

The Cordouan lighthouse is located at the entrance to the largest estuary in Europe, theGironde estuary, 7 kilometers from the coast of Charente-Maritime, off the coast of Royan. It is the last lighthouse in France to still be inhabited by keepers who take turns there each week. At night, its fire radiates up to 40 kilometers around. It projects a luminous signal on the horizon divided into three sequences which are repeated every 12 seconds. Faced with the disorders of the ocean, the white tower of the Cordouan lighthouse imposes its watchmaking precision, the quiet strength and the extreme finesse of its architecture, richly worked in Saintonge stone.

The lighthouse of kings, the king of lighthouses

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Perched on its throne of rock and sand, the Cordouan lighthouse is one of the ten highest in the world with its 68 meters high. In France, only the lighthouses of Ile-Vierge (Finistère) and Gatteville (Manche) manage to surpass it in height. We call him "lighthouse of kings" ou "king of headlights". On the one hand, it emphasizes the monarchical symbol that it represents. Indeed, it was dedicated to the glory of the monarchs Henri III and Henri IV. And, on the other hand, it illustrates its majesty in the face of the harshness of the natural elements.

The construction of the primitive monument began in the midst of the Wars of Religion, under the direction of the architect Louis de Foix (1584). It is then limited to the first two floors of the current building. It ends almost 30 years later, after the end of the reign of Henri IV. The lighthouse so dazzled its contemporaries that they did not hesitate to raise it to the rank of "eighth wonder of the world". This title – certainly unofficial – said a lot about the extent of its splendor and the strong impression it had on the collective imagination. At the time, the tower was projecting about forty meters above the sea. It was therefore almost half as high as today.

Its current appearance dates back a little over two centuries. After the death of Louis de Foix in 1602, his foreman succeeded him. Then, at the dawn of the Revolution, the Bordeaux engineer Jean Teulère (1788-1789) raised the original building by nearly 30 meters.

A chapel on the second floor of the lighthouse from cordovan

Its tower is formed of a circular shaft which becomes thinner towards the top. It contrasts by its sobriety with the ornamental generosity of the lower part. It adds four additional floors to the lighthouse, which therefore has six in total. At the first, we find theking's apartment (no crowned head has however stopped there).

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Cordouan lighthouse chapel

On the second floor, a chapel paved with marble and topped with a superb coffered vault surmounts the king's apartment.

A ceremonial room occupies the upper level from which a staircase of 301 steps leading to the 6th floor lantern. Here, the old fire fueled by coal, olive oil and whale sperm has been replaced by a 250 watt halogen lamp. It is accompanied by a Fresnel lenticular apparatus which brings together the rays of light.

Did you know?

It was in Cordouan that this optical system was tested for the first time in 1823. It is used today by most lighthouses in the world.


A lighthouse listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The lighthouse is classified Historic Monument in 1862, the same year as Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. In 2017, he was then recognized as "masterpiece of human creative genius". It is both a maritime signaling structure and a building of prodigious architecture given its hostile maritime environment. Crossing the centuries, its construction illustrates the significant periods in the history of lighthouses in the world:

  • the development of maritime trade
  • the symbolic marking of borders
  • or technological innovation with the fresnel lens.

It is these criteria in particular that justify the “Outstanding Universal Value” of the Cordouan lighthouse. They allow him to be registered in the Unesco World Heritage as "cultural property", the July 24, 2021. It becomes the 47th French site to receive this distinction. It therefore joins major sites such as the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China.

Length of the video: 2 minutes 11

The Cordouan lighthouse is open to the public and can be visited at low tide (more than 20 visitors per year on average). Trips are notably offered from the port of Royan depending on the tide times in Charente-Maritime.

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