A couple of hours after arriving in Bourges, I was standing in the colourful gardens next to the utterly magnificent Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Bourges. Photographs can tell some of the story, but you really have to be there in person to understand the scale and majesty of the building. Strangely, it wasn’t the cathedral that was occupying my mind. Instead, I was struggling to reconcile the glorious city I found myself wandering around with the fact that I seemed to be the only tourist to have shown up that day.
This itself was cause for conflicting emotions. Bourges is a town filled with riches that richly deserves to be on the tourist trail, yet I couldn’t help but be selfishly grateful for the town’s unfortunate location. A little too far from the Loire Valley’s industrialised tourism, and more than just a short detour from the southern Champagne region, it seems to sit in a tourism no man’s land. That, I figured, was a problem for other people, and I went inside the cathedral to gawp at its spellbinding stained glass and massive interior space.
I only came to Bourges because I’d picked up a leaflet in a tourist information centre on a trip last year. It looked like my sort of place, and then I discovered L’Hôtel de Panette. I was trying to keep the costs down on this trip, but the lure of staying in a chateau with an incredible history caused me to splurge for a night. I’m glad I did. The chateau dates from 1418, when it was residence of the Treasurer of Bourges. It passed through many hands until it became residence of the exiled Bourbon ‘King of Spain’, Charles V.
Don Carlos, as he was known, was a reactionary and out of step with the times. When his elder brother died, he tried to claim the throne but met with fierce resistance. This resulted in the The First Carlist War of 1833-40, which ended in defeat for his forces. He fled to France where he was ‘imprisoned’ for five years in the L’Hôtel de Panette, which acted as a de facto court in exile. This can’t have been much of a hardship, or that unusual for him – Napoleon had him and his siblings imprisoned in France during the Napoleonic Wars.
Today, the L’Hôtel de Panette has several rooms and is a very stylish B&B. It may not be the cheapest option in Bourges, but it is definitely worth every cent. If you really want to splash out, you can stay in Don Carlos’ former bedroom. I checked in and went out to explore the city. The cathedral was my first destination. I approached down a narrow lane, over which the cathedral towered. I’ve become used to finding exquisite churches in sleepy French towns, but it was obvious that this was in a different category.
A Christian temple has been on this site since the 3rd century, but the current building dates from 1195. The most remarkable thing about the cathedral, once you get over its immense size, is the fact that it retains the majority of its original stained glass, dating from 1215. Given the turbulent times the cathedral has witnessed, that really is a feat. It’s now an UNESCO World Heritage Site, described as “one of the great masterpieces of Gothic art … admired for its proportions and unity of its design”. It’s hard to disagree.
I finally tore myself away from the cathedral and went looking for lunch. Just behind the cathedral is the Rue Bourbonnoux, a quiet pedestrianised street that is home to several excellent restaurants. I had a set lunch in a very good bistro and, fully rested, set off again to explore more of Bourges.