September 25, 2021

The last guardians of Cordouan, the lighthouse of kings

By Béatrice Gurrey

Posted today at 03:46

The soul of the sea knocks at the postern. She hums, whispers, roars, depending on the evening. She never misses her nocturnal round around the wall. Its waves play with the ancient wooden door, thread their way, bathe the bottom of the stairs in their choppy water, the vault of which echoes back.

Barefoot on the stone slabs, in the perfect circle of the lighthouse courtyard, Pierre Cordier stops for a moment to listen. It is one of his favorite sounds in Cordouan. He also likes that of the heavy bronze tie rods that squeak when the door opens onto the foreshore, the area uncovered at low tide. There are only six goalkeepers left in France, who take turns here in pairs.

Read also The last two lighthouse keepers return to dry land

Seven kilometers from any coast, Cordouan has watched over the Gironde estuary for four centuries, the largest in Europe. In front of him, the infinite horizon of the Atlantic. On the right, Royan (Charente-Maritime), on the left, Le Verdon-sur-Mer (Gironde), the two ports allowing to reach it. Behind him, the mixed waters of the Garonne and the Dordogne, which flow together into the ocean. And at the end of this long notch in the western facade of the country, Bordeaux.

On the peyrat, the stone path that leads to the Cordouan lighthouse, in Verdon-sur-Mer, July 2, 2021.
Le Verdon-sur-Mer, Friday July 2, 2021. In the office of the keepers of the Cordouan lighthouse, a nautical chart of the Gironde estuary.

A long white candle

The electric generators and the gulls are silent, the last visitors are sleeping on dry land, the lighthouse is silent. Looking up, we see only a starless night and this long white candle which rises to 68 meters in height, dominating the sea. Cordouan in its whiteness was like a specter. “He seemed to me, on his reef, fantastically pale. Its tower seemed like a ghost saying: “Woe! misfortune !””, wrote Jules Michelet in The sea (1875). It must be said that it is then coated with a thick layer of oil paint – white. That evening in October 1859, during a storm that lasted four days, Cordouan saved thirty men all the same, as the historian then narrated.

On July 24 or 25, Unesco, the United Nations organization for education, science and culture, will deliver its decision, which has been under review since 2016. The oldest lighthouse in Europe, a tall palace where the XVIIIe century stacked gracefully on the Renaissance without altering it, does it take on a “Outstanding universal value” ? Does he meet at least one of the required criteria, ten in number, the first of which is to testify to the “Creative genius of humanity” ? The international procedure is long, complex, to obtain its inscription in the world heritage. But without betraying a secret, it seems that the lights are all lit on the starboard side, that is to say, an optimistic green color.

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