The Cathedral City of Bourges in the Berry Province in the Loire Valley is certainly not as well-known as some of the other Cathedral cities of France and it isn’t on the main tourist route. Having visited it recently – I’m really not sure why this is.
I knew little about the city other than it was once under Roman rule and has a big cathedral and, I assumed the word Bourgeois originated from Bourges.
I was wrong on two counts. The name Bourges came from an ancient Celtic word, Bourg, meaning town. And, Bourges has much more to it.
It is in fact a beautiful and elegant town with some spectacular architecture. It was at one time the capital of France instead of Paris. Bourges boasts 500 half-timbered houses, more than any other French town; there are ancient ruins, a castle, beautiful cobbled streets and it is gastronomically fabulous (see our photo gallery of Bourges).
I was though right about the Roman bit, Julius Caesar laid siege to the town in 52BC but the Bourges marshes held him off for many months, it is said he killed 40,000 townspeople when he broke through. The Romans were so impressed by the wealth and beauty of the town they stayed and made it their own instead of destroying it. Gallo-Roman remains, from impressive towers and huge walls to fountains can be seen around the town.
Marshes and gardens in Bourges
Those marshes that almost defied the Roman emperor were later drained by religious orders and vegetables and crops were grown here. More than 1000 years later, the marshes were chosen as a meeting place during the 100 Years War between France and England. Duc Jean de Berry (he gave his name to this province) and his brother, the Duke of Burgundy, met with the French King Charles VI known as Charles The Mad. At the meeting he certainly lived up to his name, falling on to his hands and knees and chomping away at the marshy grass believing he was a horse.
The marshes are now filled with glorious gardens and as you wander round you can hear the frogs singing. It was mating season when I visited and the love sick frog swain were full throated and in good voice.
The gardens were created hundreds of years ago when the marshes were confiscated from the church during the French Revolution and sold off to local people and many have passed down from father to son since those heady days. You can pick up a leaflet about the Marais from the tourist office.
A tea shop in a Roman Tower in Bourges
When Julius Caesar captured the town he had a wall built round it dotted with 50 Roman towers. The towers were sold off in the 13th Century and some are hidden inside houses that built up around the city over the years.
There are though around a dozen still very visible and I visited one tower that is very much accessible – it is in fact now a tea room. I’ve seen some things in my time but I have never had tea in a Roman Tower before and this one is absolutely gorgeous. In fact if that’s all I saw in Bourges I would have been happy. Under a high vaulted ceiling at Cake Thé you will discover a quirky café that serves a delicious home-made lunch and scrumptious cakes which are laid out on book shelves filled with beautiful old books which you are encouraged to peruse.
Bourges Cathedral and its winding streets
After lunch I wandered. A medieval atmosphere still hovers over the cobbled walkways and buildings that look as though some ancient townsfolk might pop their heads out of the narrow windows at any point. I peered round the corner of the Three Flutes House and into the Rue Heureuse (Happy Street), once the red light district and now home to the most amazing gourmet food shops. A sudden downpour forced me to take cover inside one of them – what a happy chance that was. I discovered Sablé biscuits, invented when a local woman’s son dropped flour in her cake mix. She didn’t want to waste it so she made biscuits. The shop was stocked with so many goodies I could have filled my suitcase.
All roads here lead to one of the first great Gothic churches of France, Bourges Cathedral. It was built by the Bishop of Bourges who happened to be the brother of the Bishop of Paris who was busy building Notre Dame at the time. I get the impression there was a little bit of sibling rivalry going on.
The Bourges Cathedral features a set of the most magnificent stained glass windows some of which date back 800 years. The colours of the ancient glass are spectacular and the detail is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. One window alone had more than 1600 figures depicted. Our guide told us that in the 18th Century some of the windows were taken out and broken up to make room for clearer windows to let more light in and I’m aghast at the thought. The cathedral was begun in 1195 and completed in 1230 but it is very much in the present.
I saw a tiny, crooked and wizened old lady being helped out of a confessional box. She must have been in her 90s and, leaning on her stick, she made her way to take a seat for the Cathedral’s daily mass; I wondered what on earth she could have done that needed confessing.
Guided tours can be booked at the tourist office or in the cathedral (more spiritual).
Jacques Coeur – the first Bourgeoisie?
Though the word bourgeois didn’t come from Bourges, it’s possible the first Bourgeoisie did. Jacques Coeur is one of the most famous men in French history and yet few have heard of him outside of France.
He was a 15th-century merchant and banker and the first non-Royal to build a palace and use the Fleurs de Lys insignia, which was illegal and he went to prison for it. His castle, built in 1443, has been preserved in pristine condition, showy late Gothic style vies with early Renaissance architecture, it is fabulous. His emblems, oysters and hearts are carved everywhere and he indulged himself in the innovations of the day. You can still see his steam room and toilet with its advanced plumbing system that must have made him the envy of the aristocracy. Jacques Coeur is not famous just for that though, he was the man who bankrolled Joan of Arc, he financed the French armies.
Bourges is beautiful, elegant, cultured, architecturally glorious and seductive, I will be back… I have fallen in love with Bourges.