Sunset, from the top of Eckmühl lighthouse
The wind and the lights put on a show just for you: that’s the magic of the lighthouse Nights
Are you ready? Then up you go! At the very tip of Cornouaille stands Eckmühl lighthouse, where you can literally reach for the stars. As evening falls, Alexandra opens the giant’s door, and lets you climb the stairs to the terrace, some 56m high. Here, poised between sky and sea, you can watch the magical spectacle played out by the rays of the setting sun and the flashes from the lighthouses and beacons.
Meet the myth
In the Pays Bigouden area, reaching for the stars is popular: traditional ‘coiffe’ head-dresses do it, steeples do it, and so do the lighthouses that you find all along the coastline. The Eckmühl lighthouse stands higher than most, and is more deeply steeped in legend. It’s also the only one that opens its doors to visitors late in the evening.
At the foot of this stone sentinel, about 10 of us are waiting to begin our vertical journey. In the dusk, the lighthouse looks different somehow, more peaceful. Alexandra and Adeline greet us beside the mahogany door. And there’s the famous spiral staircase. Like a strange giant mollusc, it coils majestically skywards. And so do we! The climb begins. Only another 290 steps to go!
A good climb
Alexandra knows all there is to know about this jewel of maritime heritage, including the fact that we need time to stop for regular breathers. It’s a thoughtful touch that stops us getting out of breath and gives her a chance to let us into a few secrets. What looks like tiling on the walls, is in fact opaline glass. Worked to follow the curved walls, it creates delicate blueish reflections inside this fortress of the seas. Curling around the staircase is a handrail in burnished bronze, which adds to the overall elegance of our surroundings. At the very top of the stone steps, a marble ceiling has the same star pattern as the floor far below.
Fit for a prince
The unexpected grandeur of the design and materials vies with the natural beauty outside. The beautiful details that enhance this maritime building were made possible by the generosity of a marquise, who wanted a lighthouse to be named after her father, the Prince of Eckmühl, and dedicated to saving lives. On this jagged coastline, her noble gesture has been much appreciated ever since the lighthouse was finished, in 1897.
A view from the top !
Now we’ve reached the watch room and the terrace. Outside, the wind ruffles our hair. We have a superb 360° panoramic view. To the west, the horizon is coloured by the glowing rays of the setting sun, and we can see the white outline of Audierne bay. The first crab boats and fishing boats are setting out from the port of Saint-Guénolé, threading their way between the green and red lights. The sea markers and the other lighthouses on the headland seem like pin-pricks. Near the islands of Glénan flashes a beam of light. Another beacon points out Le Guilvinec. Above our heads, the lamp begins its dance, flashing every five seconds, 50km around. This white flare is one of the most powerful in France. The lightshow from the lighthouses begins. Alexandra points out that they all flash at a different rhythm, giving a distinctive signal to sailors who know what they mean.
Flashback through the years
In the nice cosy watch room, Alexandra explains the meaning of the different colours and shapes of the maritime signal flags all around us. The room’s atmosphere is evocative of the time when lighthouse keepers kept watch here. They climbed up from the lighthouse-keeper’s house and spent the night here, checking that the two lenses and nearby lamps were working properly. The wood-panelled floor and walls made their working conditions much more comfortable than those of some of their colleagues who weren’t so lucky, working on the lighthouses out at sea known as ‘enfer’, or ‘living hell’. Within these walls, it’s easy to believe the legends that have grown up around lighthouse-keepers. And, perched up high in this cylindrical tower, tales of lighthouse-keepers of old begin to crowd the imagination.
Round and round we go !
It’s time to go back down, and the descent turns out to be a lot quicker than going up. But we pause to admire the sharp downward spiral of the staircase. When we’re back at rock-level, the photographers take advantage of the lull to take pictures from all sorts of angles. Wonderful images like these will keep the memory of our visit to the lighthouse burning bright in our minds.
Text: Annick André
Additional information :
The 'Nuits du Phare' (Lighthouse Nights) take place every Tuesday in July and August,
with three tours scheduled on each evening: 9.30pm, 10.15pm & 11pm
The lighthouse can only open when weather conditions are favourable.
When it can't open, the evening visit will be postponed to the following day.
Admission fees – Adults: € 7 / Concessions: € 4 / Family ticket: € 21