To a valiant heart nothing is impossible, historic Bourges

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.

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Jacques Coeur Palace, Bourges, France

Jacques Coeur Palace, Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Jacques Coeur statue, Bourges, France

Jacques Coeur statue, Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

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.

Jacques Coeur statue, Bourges, France

Jacques Coeur statue, Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

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.

In the footsteps of Spanish royalty in magnificent Bourges

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.

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Bourges, France

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.

L'Hôtel de Panette, Bourges, France

L’Hôtel de Panette, Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

Bourges, France

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.