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Explore the rooms

Visit the Cordouan lighthouse… please follow the guide!

The Cordouan lighthouse has stood watch over the Gironde estuary for over four centuries.

An architectural tour de force rising from the ocean itself... majestic in its soaring height, the lighthouse proudly displays the beauty of its dressed and sculpted stone. From the summit at 67.50 metres, the breathtaking view is a fitting reward for climbing the 301 steps leading to the lantern.

Unique of its kind… the only offshore lighthouse in the world still manned and open to visitors, the first (and for many years the only) lighthouse to be listed as an historic monument in 1862.

A testing ground for innovation… In addition to performing its duty of lighting mariners to safety, Cordouan provided one of the first testing grounds for aids to navigation. Drawn by the fame of the Phare des Rois, the lighthouse of kings, France's leading engineers came here to test their latest inventions.
 

Four keepers manning a lighthouse…

Cordouan is France's last remaining manned coastal lighthouse. Its keepers alternate in pairs on tours of duty lasting a week or a fortnight.  The handover takes place on a Friday, at a time dictated by the tide, with the relief crew brought in from Verdon-sur-Mer aboard a boat operated by the Phares et Balises (lighthouses and markers) service, France's equivalent of Trinity House.

Keepers' duties:

  • taking care of routine maintenance of the lighthouse,
  • providing a permanent presence, night and day, all year long, to watch over the monument and prevent vandalism and theft,
  • acting as guides to visitors during the summer,
  • participating in the environmental management of the plateau.
 

Did you know?

The Cordouan lighthouse keepers have had their own Facebook page since 2013.
 

A brief history

  • In 1360 or thereabouts, the Prince of Wales (better known as the Black Prince) ordered the construction of a beacon tower 16 metres in height to ensure safe passage of the mouth of the estuary.
  • In 1584, Henri III commissioned architect Louis de Foix to rebuild the lighthouse, by now little more than a ruin. The work continued under the reign of Henri IV and took on all the air of a temple to the glory of the monarchy.
  • In 1611, construction work finally came to an end and the lighthouse lantern was lit for the very first time. A technical and architectural feat of the highest order, it represents the missing link between the lighthouses of antiquity and those of modern times.
  • From 1786 to 1789, architect Joseph Teulère raised the height of the tower by adding a conical section of almost 20 metres in height to the existing structure.
     

Ground floor  … ENTRANCE HALL

This square-shaped room features alcoves of barely 3m² each, which served as the keepers' sleeping quarters for close on two centuries. Nowadays the keepers' "base camp" (kitchen and bedrooms) is situated at the top of the lighthouse.

Did you know?

Look up and you will see a central well running through all the upper floors. These circular openings, or oculi, were added in 1789 so that the fuel required to power the lantern could be hoisted up to the summit of the lighthouse by pulley rather than carried up the stairs.

View of the oculus from the Counterweight Room.
 

1st floor … THE KING'S APARTMENT

Vaulted state room with a marble-paved floor, and walls decorated with Ionic pilasters.

No monarch ever actually used the apartment

From the mid-17th century onwards, the keepers began using this room as their kitchen.  At this period, there was only one fireplace. It was not until 1789, when the height of the tower was raised, that the chimney was blocked off and a second (dummy) fireplace added for symmetry.
 

Did you know?

The letters "MTL" represent the royal cypher of Louis XIV and his wife Maria Theresa of Spain.

 

The busts are those of four 19th century engineers and scholars: Léonce Reynaud and Léon Bourdelles (former directors of the Phares et Balises service), Charles François Beautemps-Beaupré (a hydrographic engineer) and Augustin Fresnel (physicist). 
 

2nd floor … THE CHAPEL ROYAL

The chapel is what makes Cordouan truly unique. Masses are still celebrated here on special occasions.

A celebration of the Catholic monarchy
While the busts of Louis XIV and Louis XV were removed at the time of the Revolution, the inscription to the glory of the two kings over the door has remained, as have the monograms of Henri III and Henri IV. 

The bust above the door is that of Louis de Foix, the architect commissioned to build the tower in 1584.

Note: the Sainte-Anne marble floor, the Corinthian pilasters and the Renaissance-style coffered dome.
 

Did you know?

The stained glass, the work of master glassmaker Lobin, was not added until 1855. The glass underwent restoration in 1946, at which time the image of a dove was added to the left-hand window and the inscription "avril 1945" to commemorate the liberation of Royan.


 

3rd floor … THE GIRONDINS ROOM

Raising the height of the tower: a major technical challenge

In 1786, it was decided to raise the height of the tower by 20 metres to increase its range of visibility. The man chosen to meet this scientific, technical and architectural challenge was architect Joseph Teulère, who was keen to preserve intact the work of his predecessor, Louis de Foix.
The suspended spiral staircase is the backbone of this new construction, the weight of which (reduced to a minimum thanks to Teulère's ingenuity) rests on the vaulting of the chapel dome.

Note: the quality of the stone cutting
When the tower was raised, the precise positioning of each block was determined before the stone was cut. A bronze plaque commemorates the work of Joseph Besse the elder, who was responsible for the cutting of the stones.

 

Did you know?

In the wake of the events of 1789, Teulère feared greatly for Cordouan and the symbol of monarchy it represented.  As a pledge of support for the revolutionaries, he named this room after the Girondins (a political grouping in the Legislative Assembly) and had the busts of Louis XIV and Louis XV removed from the chapel.
 

4th floor … THE COUNTERWEIGHT ROOM

Until 1987, this room housed the counterweight mechanism used to ensure the smooth movement of the lantern.

A counterweight drove a rotary mechanism that in turn powered an occulting screen turning around the lamp to create the effect of successive flashes of light.  The Cordouan lighthouse was one of the first in the world to adopt this technique, derived from clock-making and invented in Sweden in 1780.

Running like clockwork.

Did you know?

The counterweight ended its travel in a sandpit placed at this level, and the keepers had to rewind it every three hours.

 

5th floor … THE LAMP ROOM

This room was originally used to store the lamp equipment.

From the moment the lantern was first lit in the tower built by Louis de Foix in 1611 down to the present day, a number of fuels have been used to provide light.

From wood to electricity

  • 1611: mixture of wood, pitch and tar
  • 1664: whale oil
  • 1717: coal
  • 1790: mixture of whale oil, olive oil and rapeseed oil
  • 1823: rapeseed oil
  • 1854: mineral oil
  • 1907: petroleum
  • 1949: generators
 

6th floor … THE WATCH ROOM

Where the keepers once kept watch over the light
This was the room from which the keepers kept watch at night to ensure the lantern stayed alight. Two alcove beds provided a place to rest. It was here, too, that the keepers entered their reports in the log, noting the times of lighting and extinguishing the lantern, supplies consumed and any untoward events.
 

Did you know?

A clever system of mirrors allowed the keepers to check the lantern was still alight without leaving their beds.

 

At the summit … THE LANTERN

Panoramic views.

At the top of the 301 steps, a breathtaking view is to be had from the external gallery (no more than 25 people at time). Above it is the lamp room itself (not open to the public).
Thanks to the 250-watt bulb, the light is visible from a distance of almost 40 km.

Cordouan at the forefront of new technology

Most of the inventions that revolutionised maritime signalling were first tested on the Cordouan lighthouse.

  • 1790: the first French lighthouse to trial a system of parabolic reflectors combined with a rotating device (introduced by Joseph Teulère and the Chevalier Borda).
  • 1823: the first ever trial of Augustin Fresnel's rotating lens system was conducted here.
  • 1949: electrification of the lighthouse
  • 2006: an automatic lighting system is installed

Nowadays, five generators power batteries supplying electricity to the lighthouse.
 

Did you know?

A fixed horizon lens

The colour of the beams of light projected provide a navigational aid to ships entering the Gironde estuary. The green sector indicates the main passage of the estuary, known as the west passage, used by high-tonnage commercial shipping. The south passage, marked by the red sector, is used by vessels of shallower draught.
 

Ground floor … THE ENGINEER’S APARTMENT

Within the outer protective wall, two oak-panelled rooms once served as quarters for the engineers of the Phares et Balises department on their regular inspection visits.

The quarters underwent restoration in 2014. The interior shutters were replaced, based on a model found in the cellar, while the panelling was restored in situ to retain its characteristic curve.

Note: an ingenious pantograph system provides perfect sound and thermal insulation between the sitting room and the bedroom.