Have you ever climbed the stairs of a 20-storey building? If so, you should be prepared to huff and puff your winding way to the top of the spectacular Pey-Berland bell tower in Bordeaux. Your reward will be a view across the beautiful city from the highest point in the area. All you need to do is haul yourself up 231 tightly spiralling stone steps.
Bordeaux’s art you can climb inside
Standing at an impressive 66 metres (216 feet) the rocket-like tower is riotously decorated in a style known as Flamboyant Gothic – and it really does live up to its billing, with the exterior being packed with gargoyles and intricate carved detailing.
You might recall having climbed the 284 spiral steps of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. So perhaps you’re feeling confident about powering up the tower in Bordeaux. Well, keep in mind that the Arc de Triomphe is ‘merely’ 50 metres (164 ft) high. That is to say, the Pey-Berland tower is higher but has fewer steps. A little arithmetic will tell you that each riser of the tower’s stone steps is a calf-and-thigh stretching 28 cm (11 inches). By the time you reach the top, you will have really earned it!
Historic Bell Tower
The Pey-Berland is actually the bell tower of the adjacent Saint-Andre cathedral, which is a marvellous Gothic edifice in its own right. Its massive flying buttresses are an astonishing sight to behold looking down from the top of the tower. So why was the bell tower built separately? The cathedral’s many and mighty flying buttresses actually provide a hint. When the current form of the cathedral was taking shape around 1320, the ground on which it stands was (and remains) somewhat marshy and unstable. Owing to random subsidence, the cathedral was at constant risk of falling to pieces.
Of course, a cathedral must have bells. But the church authorities had a well-founded fear that a heavy bell tower built atop the unstable cathedral would spell doom. And so, under the driving force of the Archbishop Pey-Berland, after whom the tower is named, in 1440 the construction of the separate bell tower began – and continued until 1500. The irony was that because of various protracted problems, no bells were installed in the tower until 1853: a 353-year wait!
In between times, the non-bell bell tower was turned to several non-religious purposes, including a shot tower. That is to say, lead metal ingots were hoisted to the top of the tower and were there melted in wood-fired crucibles. The molten metal was then tipped down the inside of the tower. As it fell, the liquid metal cooled and separated into pellets for use in shot gun cartridges.
Our lady of Aquitaine
By 1863, four massive tolling bells had been in place for ten years. They collectively weighed a hefty 15.6 tonnes or 17.2 US tons. At that time, a 6 metre (19 ft, 8 inch) sculpture of Madonna and Child – known in Bordeaux as Our Lady of Aquitaine – was installed on the peak of the tower. Made from a steel frame with a copper plating skin, the sculpture weighed in at 1.3 tonnes (1.4 US tons). Over time, the copper sculpture acquired a typical dull greenish patina. But after a restoration in 2002 it emerged dazzling in the daylight, being newly covered in gold leaf.
Well, knowing all that, you simply must climb the steps of Bordeaux’s Pey-Berland tower. Find a 20-storey building in your hometown and put in some practice.
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…
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