Bourges is an ancient town, with a history dating back millennia. It was the capital of the Celtic Bituriges tribe, and an important political, economic and military centre in pre-Roman Gaul. Known as Avaricum, in the winter of 52 BC it attracted the attention of Julius Caesar, sent from Rome to crush the rebellion that had broken out amongst Gallic tribes united under the leadership of Vercingetorix. After initial success, the Gauls were forced to adopt guerrilla warfare to avoid a head on battle with Caesar’s formidable army.
Avaricum was at the time the largest and best fortified town in Gaul. Caesar laid siege to it and built an ingenious siege engine to breach the walls. It’s estimated that in the bloody massacre that followed only a few hundred of the 40,000 inhabitants were spared death. Despite still having an army of 80,000 the end was in sight for the Gallic rebellion. Defeated at the siege of their last stronghold, Alesia, Vercingetorix was captured and taken to Rome to be displayed as a prize of war before being executed.
Centuries later, between 1422-37, the town was home to King Charles VII who, with the assistance of Joan of Arc, liberated contemporary Gaul from the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Joan stayed in the town in the winter of 1429-30. It was Charles VII who raised Bourges’ most famous son to prominence following the end of the war. Jacques Coeur was a trader and a very wealthy man. He became a banker to the royal court, a member of the king’s council and was something of a legendary figure of the era.
His position of influence with the king made him even wealthier, as did his pioneering trade deals with countries around Europe and the Mediterranean. Vast wealth and fame brought him many friends, and even more enemies. When his luxurious lifestyle made even Charles VII envious, he was framed for the murder of Charles’ mistress, Agnes Sorel. He escaped imprisonment and fled to Rome, where he took command of a naval expedition against the Turks, dying in 1456 during a battle in the Aegean.
Over the centuries, his life and death became the stuff of legend, and gave credence to his family motto: To a valiant heart nothing is impossible. His glorious, sumptuous Gothic palace in the heart of Bourges is open to the public and is well worth a visit. Outside is a small square with a romanticised statue of Coeur dressed in some of the silks he traded around Europe. Inside it’s quite plain, with few furnishings from the period. To make up for this, there was a temporary exhibition of slightly bizarre video art.
Of Bourges’ many historic associations, one other stands out. It was when studying law here in the 1520s that John Calvin was converted to the reformist religious ideas of Martin Luther. Calvin had originally been studying to join the Catholic priesthood, but his form of Protestantism would go on to have a major impact on the world. All this history, plus a wealth of historic buildings and several good museums, should mean Bourges is a tourist hotspot. Yet even at the Jacques Coeur Palace I saw only a handful of other tourists.
I stayed in Bourges for a couple of days and spent my time wandering the narrow lanes and picturesque streets. There are half-timbered houses dotted around, many of them on a walking route around the town. The walk takes you along the old ramparts, as well as through back alleyways and steep stairways between the upper and lower towns. The streets were often empty of people as I meandered around, giving me a sense that in Bourges, time stands still and is only occasionally interrupted by the modern world.
The manager of my hotel had recommended a restaurant in the square next to Jacques Coeur’s former palace. So, on my final evening in the town, I sat at an outside table and watched the sun set in the shadow of the great man’s statue. It was a fantastic end to my time in this wonderful town.