Like all lighthouses, the Phare des Baleines on the Île-de-Ré is an impressive sight as it looks proudly out to the Atlantic Ocean from its rocky vantage point. The phare – French for lighthouse - is based in the commune of Saint-Clément des Baleines. They both take their name from the number of whales that have been beached on this part of the Île-de-Ré in the past (baleine is French for whale). The nearby point where the whales have become stranded is called the Pointe des Baleines.
This popular tourist attraction, with its 257-step spiral staircase and stunning views that visitors can enjoy, is still a working lighthouse. It stands 57 metres tall and on a clear night its powerful light can be seen at a distance of around 27 nautical miles or 50km. It was completed in 1854 having been designed by architect Léonce Reynaud and has been a workign lighthosue ever since.
Originally the Phare des Baleines was powered by oil, though later it was given its own steam-driven power source. After the Second World War it was hooked up to the power grid, though it has its own generator, too, in case of power cuts.
The old tower
The current Phare des Baleines is not the only attraction for tourists to this site at the very edge of France. The threat to shipping along this stretch of Atlantic coastline was recognized long ago. And two shipwrecks in the middle of the 17th century – when both military and commercial shipping was increasing in volume - persuaded the authorities of a need for a lighthouse.
In the Middle Ages it was accepted practice that the debris from shipwrecks belonged to those who owned the stretch of coastline where the vessel foundered. Shipwrecks were common enough, but sometimes locals gave nature a helping hand by luring unsuspecting ships onto the rocks with lights. Along the Charente-Maritime coast and off the Île-de-Ré the custom was to attach a light to the neck of a donkey to draw in ships. The unfortunate sailors who made it ashore were first robbed then and killed.
So Louis XIV's controller general of finances Jean-Baptiste Colbert instructed the building of lighthouses – under a plan devised by the equally illustrious military engineer Vauban - to protect shipping. In particular there were to be two lighthouses to protect the important naval arsenal and shipyard at Rochefort – one on the Île-de-Ré and the other, the Phare de Chassiron, on the Île d'Oléron.
Thus the original Phare des Baleines was built in 1682 by the architect Augier. It was made with stone from the quarries at Saint-Savinien (in the Charente-Maritime) and was three storeys high. Given its superb location the tower served not just as a friendly warning to ships but also as a lookout for enemy vessels.
However by the early 19th century the original 29-metre lighthouse was judged to be not high enough and so the current structure was built. In 1904 the Old Tower was classified as an historic monument and has recently been restored. At its foot now is a museum called the Musée des Baleines, dedicated to the history of lighthouses in France. The museum is in a restored building that originally served as a the home for lighthouse keepers and their families, and which was from 1949 until 1970 a school for lighthouse keepers, welcoming students not just from France but from overseas too, including Algeria.
Yet another attraction for visitors is the two hectare local gardens or parc du phare, which was designed in 1861 in an English style and then redesigned in 1937. There is also a shop and bookstore where visitors can buy books and souvenirs.
The Phare des Baleines is open 7 days a week all year.
October to March: 10.30am to 5.30pm
April to June: 10am to 7pm
19 June to 19 September: 9.30am to 9pm
20 to 30 September 10am to 6.30pm
Visitors can buy separate tickets for the main lighthouse and the museum, or one ticket to visit both.
Lighthouse only: Adults: €3 Children 7-12: € 1.50
Museum only: Adults: €4.20 Children 7-12: € 2.20
Lighthouse + Museum: Adults: €6 Children 7-12: €3
Groups and schools rates also available.
Tel: +33 (0)5 46 29 18 23
Phare des Baleines website
Main image: Kilohn limahn/Wiki
Old Tower: www.lepharedesbaleines.fr