A journey between the Middle Ages and World War II under the forecourt of Bourges Cathedral

To the left is Saint-Étienne Cathedral. Majestic. A masterpiece of Gothic art, erected in the late 12th century, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List for 30 years. To the right the former Archbishop’s Palace. Classic. A pearl of stone, built in the second half of the 17th century, rebuilt in the late 19th century after being ravaged by flames, and erected as a historical monument in 2004. In Bourges, visible from the Place Étienne- Dolet, located part arises from the heritage iceberg impresses with its beauty, irradiated by the summer sun. Its underground counterpart is just as magnificent.

“I’ve been interested in underground passages for about thirty years now, I must have visited about sixty of them all over town, but as we say in cycling to talk about passports, this one is out of category.”

Roland Narboux Author of a book on the underground passages of Bourges

At a depth of twelve meters, it winds between the two buildings overlooking the forecourt “the most beautiful and longest underground passage in the city. And when we know that Catherine (historian born in Aubinges in 1628 and died in Bourges in 1688, ed.) compared Bourges with Thebes, in Egypt, it is nothing, says Roland Narboux, who is passionate about local history and author of numerous books, including one, published in 2003, on galleries, cellars and quarries in Cher Prefecture, entitled Bourges Mysterious. I’ve been interested in underground passages for about thirty years now, I must have visited about sixty of them all over town, but as we say in cycling, when we talk about passports, this one is out of category. Also out of reach of the general public.

By appointment from the city and necessarily accompanied

“This is one of my biggest regrets as an elected official,” continues Roland Narboux, former deputy mayor of Bourges from 1995 to 2014. I fought for a long time for a glass plate to replace a stone slab due to lack of opening for visitors. from the forecourt to take advantage of this true construction marvel. Unfortunately in vain. »

This journey underground, in the center of the city, and several centuries back, which begins behind a secret door, closed with a double turn, to the old archbishop’s palace, can only be carried out with the consent of the city, the owner’s services. of the building under the Act of 1905 on the Separation of Churches and State, and in the Company of a Municipal Agent. That day, it was Ludovic, clinking keyhole in one hand, cell phone in flashlight mode in the other, opening the way: “Hold a helmet. It can be helpful. And follow me pretty closely. I do not want to lose you, he laughs. Aside from jokes, it’s a real maze below, steeped in history. »

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World War II stretchers

Barely a few steps down, the promise is kept. This time corridor opens to visitors to a first basement and a row of old wooden stretchers. Then a second with, this time, metal models stacked up and balanced against a wall.

These stretchers testify to World War II and the passive defense system developed at the time to protect the population from bombing. In these air defense shelters, the white-cut stone is relegated to the background, masked by beams and sheet metal.

Beams and slabs for a solid air attack

“After the bombings of the Spanish Civil War, there was an attention in France, and the decision was made to reuse existing underground passages, taking care to develop them to provide maximum protection to the people who were invited to return these shelters to the siren. “Roland Narboux resumes. Here the work began in 1938. The mission of the metal construction was to avoid protrusions of rubble and the effects of explosions.”

A marvel of medieval tunnel

At the bottom, the stones shaped by the human hand, the not-so-moist beaten soil, control the steps in this subsoil, which do not stop falling down, and whose history goes back to the “Middle Ages. By saying that we do not get too wet, for this period runs from the 5th century to the 15th century, laughs Roland Narboux.But historians are categorical: the size of the stones was made with a tool similar to those used to cut the stones in the Jacques-Coeur palace, even built in the middle of the 15th century. “

Baptized Saint-Guillaume, after the successor of Henri de Sully, the first archbishop behind the construction of the cathedral, the subsoil, to its depths, cannot be crossed like a speleologist by crawling on the ground. But still standing. And for the most amazed who have forgotten to wear the helmet, the chamfers made on the edges of the stones allow you to get out unscathed.

Instead of venturing to the surface and taking the risk of getting dirty, being robbed or worse, being murdered ”

“The stonemasons of that time did a magnificent job. They did it beautifully, solidly and practically, with a tunnel in which you can walk two in a row “, Roland Narboux continues.

If the visit is now rare and inherited, this subsoil, mapped in 1864 by Berruyer engineer and topographer Paul-Adrien Bourdaloue, once had all its usefulness in everyday life. “You have to imagine a city of Bourges in the Middle Ages, where it abounded with animals, dirty streets, sometimes impassable and unimaginable people, imagines the scholar. This tunnel, which connects one place of power with another place of power, was reserved for the elite of the time. , the clergy as well as the nobility, who instead of venturing on the surface and taking the risk of getting dirty, being robbed or, worse, being murdered, preferred to move in peace underground. »

An intersection twelve meters underground

After a detour via a long straight line of concrete and false flat blocks that rise to the surface and lead to a brick opening, on the side of the cathedral’s apse, “the highlight of the visit”, Ludovic smiles. Somewhere between the cathedral, the archdiocese’s garden and the former archbishop’s palace stands a true underground crossroads, with its ribbed vaults in the ceiling and its exits blocked by an agglomeration of rocks and earth, behind which a deep mystery hovers.

“There is no doubt that a passage, built by Bourdaloue, led to the interior of the cathedral itself,” says Roland Narboux. The rest are just legends that still run today. The wine would have been transported from Sancerre to the Jacques-Coeur Palace, via the aqueduct in Traslay, and the underground passages in Bourges, and Charles VII would have passed through these galleries on horseback, from Mehun-sur-Yèvre, to join Agnès Sorel, incognito, at the castle Bois-Sire-Amé. All this is false. But this is part of the fantasies that surround Saint-Guillaume’s underground, and this also contributes in some way to their charm. »

Virtual visit. At Berry Républicain, we must admit that we are fortunate to have been given the green light to access the Saint-Guillaume underground. The general public can always fall back on a virtual visit from a smartphone. This is actually the big news in the 2022 edition of Nuits lumière. In addition to giving the visitor the keys to understanding the history of the various sites that benefit from scenography until August 31, the dedicated audio tour of Nuits lumière, available from the Legendr application, offers a short video shot in the gallery. “This place is so incredible that we wanted to go beyond its simple evocation on the projection of the violence of the Archdiocese garden,” explains Constance Bonduelle, deputy mayor responsible for promoting the city. For this 2.0 underground dive, all you have to do is download the Legendr app for free and go to Place Étienne-Dolet.

Benjamin Gardel


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