Bourges: a startling city bang in the centre of France

The stunning historic town of Bourges, located at the heart of France, was once of central importance, but seems off the beaten track to many tourists today. Philippe Barbour, in his occasional series for The Ham and High on great but ignored French cities, encourages you to seek out its marvellous treasures.

�The city of Bourges stands like an urban oasis in a cereal desert. The cathedral rises out of its centre like a vast spiritual silo; this stupendously powerful building has acted as a beacon on the plains for some 800 years. Bourges was once a great town. Not simply capital of the now forgotten province of Berry (which faced Burgundy across the Loire), it played a major role on the French national scene. It was crucial to the country’s royal and religious history in medieval times and to Gaul before that. It’s been sidelined for centuries since its glory days – even if army and arms industry moved into the outskirts in the 19th century.

Today, Bourges may mainly register with older French people because of its sublime medieval legacy. But this town isn’t entirely pickled in the past. Younger French people know it as the very surprising venue for one of the wildest annual contemporary music gatherings in the country, the Printemps de Bourges. This really is a startling little city in so many ways.

Bourges was evidently well established when Caesar attacked a town he termed “almost the finest in Gaul”. He had its inhabitants butchered for joining Vercing�torix’s uprising against Rome. A shiny new Gallo-Roman city would emerge and, once Christianity accepted by the Empire, Bourges became the seat of one of the most important archbishoprics in France.

You might follow my example and peacefully contemplate a portion of ancient rampart while taking a light lunch at the enchanting Cak’T tearoom. But few other Gallo-Roman remains stand out around town.


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In medieval times, the city’s importance was reaffirmed when the small-fry Capetian monarchy, largely confined to the Ile de France around Paris, acquired the viscounty of Bourges in 1100. This new royal outpost, south of the Loire, held major significance. Louis VII, just before becoming the first husband of that firebrand, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was crowned king of France in the cathedral in 1137.

The ceremony occurred in a smaller, Romanesque cathedral. The enormous one you see now was embarked upon at the same time as Gothic Chartres in the 1190s. Bourges cathedral may be less well known – it never became a major place of pilgrimage – but it was built to be equally awesome and continues to amaze visitors to this day.

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Uplifting

How can I begin to praise this cathedral enough? As a good, non-religious Republican, for me, admiring the five staggering portals (preferably lit by golden evening sunlight) provides one of the most uplifting manmade sights in France. Walk up close to decipher a host of Biblical and saintly stories. From the back of the building, row upon row of flying buttresses make it look like a huge galleon propelled by giant oars.

Enter the edifice to marvel further at the elevating skills of the engineers and masons. Down in the choir, the brilliance of the medieval stained-glass makers can keep you engrossed until you crick your neck. Climbing the side-tower, Gothic grotesques grin at you as you struggle upwards. Reaching the summit, finding myself alone above the city, I have to confess I not only enjoyed the stunning views but also took the opportunity to sunbathe for a while atop a cathedral. A rare privilege, I felt.

UNESCO has honoured the cathedral with World Heritage status. But how could it have ignored the fabulous historic town below? Looking down from the cathedral tower, you can peer into the courtyards of countless magnificent townhouses. One major reason for such exceptionally grand late-Gothic real estate? Courtly wealth. Even as English troops ravaged many parts of France through the Hundred Years War, regal centres thrived. Bourges catered to luxury-loving royals, first under King Charles V’s hugely ambitious, art-loving brother, Jean Duc de Berry, then under the latter’s put-upon great-nephew, King Charles VII.

Jean’s grand Bourges palace would be destroyed but the tomb of this phenomenally greedy pug-faced patron of the arts survives in the cathedral crypt. As to Charles, he escaped Paris in 1418 as England’s Burgundian allies carried out appalling massacres in the capital. Tauntingly nicknamed “the little king of Bourges”, he settled some time in the city.

Numerous men from Bourges built fortunes and fine mansions through serving king and court. The most famous was Jacques Coeur. The palace that Jack built is the most memorable Gothic townhouse in France, its entrances carved with delightful sculptures, including trompe-l’oeil figures watching out of fake windows above the main entrance. Coeur traded across the Mediterranean and negotiated with popes and sultans. However, his excesses and others’ envy forced him to flee France before his Bourges home was completed. Now, touring the empty interiors of his palace outside of temporary exhibition periods, it feels rather like you’re a billionaire on a property search.

Several of Bourges’s other grandest houses have been turned into beautiful museums, free to visit. L’H�tel Cujas, a rare brick number, focuses on Berry history and some fabulous funerary art from down the ages. The quirky H�tel Allemant is devoted to the decorative arts. As to the Mus�e Est�ve, it features colourful 20th century works in the setting of the spectacularly carved Gothic town hall. The archbishops’ palace has undergone quite a makeover, transformed into a special craft museum, the swanky pieces kitsch enough to give any bishop’s vestments a run for their money. You might also acquaint yourselves with the handful of other churches sprinkled around town, modest compared with the cathedral, but gems too.

Don’t miss the traditional covered market on the boulevards for culinary delights. Even the main post office proves a neo-Gothic extravaganza. All told, shopping in the historic centre is tempting – Bourges, after all, has remained quite a bourgeois town – although, should you be wondering, the inhabitants are called Berruyers.

It still surprises me that the first time I saw crazy youths jumping spread-eagle from a stage for their friends to catch them in their arms was at a concert in Bourges. It was during one Printemps de Bourges, the spring rock festival when hordes of dishevelled young fans descend on the surprised city. The traditionalists complained at the start, more than 30 years ago, but have been pacified. For example, that same Printemps I attended, on one occasion I listened from the back of the cathedral as an opera diva, reduced to a miniature angel singing in the distance, filled every corner of the vast edifice with her voice.

Music is very much on the city’s agenda. Thanks to the annual Un Et� � Bourges programming, look out for a free concert every night somewhere in town, mid-June to mid-September. I entered the vibrant former archbishops’ garden one summer evening to find elderly couples dancing gracefully under the trees to the sound of an accordion band. The heady scent of flowers and ladies’ perfume drifted across the formal parterres as I enjoyed the wonderful French provincial scene. If you’re a night owl who prefers to take things at your own rhythm, Les Nuits de Bourges is an illuminated trail you can follow by yourself as darkness falls in summer.

For a peaceful retreat from the city during the day, explore the water gardens of the Marais, the cultivated marshlands to one side of town, where locals take to punts to tend their plots. As you look back across the calm waterways, you get intriguing glimpses back to the cathedral, the slow-beating heart of Bourges… and perhaps of provincial France.

n RPRACTICAL FILE

For tourist information, consult www.bourges-tourisme.com.

Two good hotels stand out in historic buildings, wonderfully central H�tel d’Angleterre (http://bestwestern-angleterre-bourges.com), and H�tel de Bourbon (www.hotelbourbon.fr) in former abbey buildings out beside the Art Deco Pr� Fichaux gardens. The latter boasts a swanky restaurant. Close to the railway station, the Villa C (www.hotelvillac.com) is a stylish new boutique hotel. Or pick an atmospheric town B&B: central Les Bonnets Rouges (http://bonnets-rouges.bourges.net) has a charming medieval feel; Le C�dre Bleu (www.lecedrebleu.fr), beside the Marais, offers 19th-century elegance. If on a limited budget, consider good-value H�tel Arcane (www.arcane-hotel.com) opposite the station.

The best street for culinary treats is Rue Bourbonnoux, leading to the cathedral. Here, the restaurant d’Antan Sancerrois (www.dantansancerrois.fr) has the most serious reputation, but neighbouring Le Bourbonnoux (www.bourbonnoux.com) offers stylish setting and cuisine at more modest price. For a delightful light lunch or tea, unearth Cak’T (www.cak-t.com). Out in the Marais, La Courcilli�re (www.lacourcilliere.com) proves fun – I tried Berry lentil ice cream when I went!

PRACTICAL FILE

ead more about Bourges and the region in Philippe Barbour’s Cadogan Loire guidebook.

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