Porte Cailhau was built in 1496 to honour the victory of the King of France, Charles VIII, during the Battle of Fornovo in Italy (1495). 35 meters tall, the Cailhau gate presents an imposing but elegant silhouette. The complexity and originality of its architecture combines defensive details inherited from the Middle Ages with decorative touches announcing the Renaissance.
Between Middle Ages and Renaissance
The first gateway to the city that had been built within the walls was destroyed and replaced by the current Porte Cailhau, rebuilt closer to the Garonne. Looking carefully at its facade on the river side, one will observe vestiges of the medieval rampart.
The protective function of the monument cannot be disputed. Porte Cailhau is located at a strategic geographical point, between the mouths of the tributaries of Garonne: the Peugue and the Devèze. The gate provided surveillance and access to the Palais de l’Ombrière, residence of the Dukes of Guyenne and the future King of France Louis VII, when he came to Bordeaux for his marriage with Eleanor of Aquitaine (1137). Hence the gate contains many defensive features to protect itself from external attacks and possible popular revolts.
However, Porte Cailhau presents ornamental details announcing the beginnings of the Renaissance, such as the braces above the windows, the slender roof and its elegant turret. The richness of the façade decorations are represented by animal symbols, angels and chimeras, sometimes staged in a puppet theatre-like setting with curtain and strings.
A name with several explanations
The origin of the name Cailhau is uncertain but two sources are mentioned. It could be a reference to a bourgeois family of Bordeaux of the medieval period, Les Cailhau, a family from which came several mayors of Bordeaux. The other explanation could be the name Quai du Caillou (quay of stone), the first cobblestone-paved quay along the Garonne river and on which the goods were unloaded and delivered to Bordeaux, via the famous gate, Porte Cailhau.
The gate was restored between 1880 and 1890 by the architect Charles Durand, who was so successful that councellour Abel Jay told mayor Adrien Baysselance:
“You know how much satisfaction and sympathy the people of Bordeaux have felt in saving a monument from ruin that is dear to them. She [the gate] thus shows you, and you have felt like her, the necessity of certain expenses, perhaps without apparent utility, but which aim at satisfying the artistic taste, to embellish the city and not to let the memories of a past, from which we can no longer detach ourselves, nor from the country itself”.
Port Cailhau has been classified as a Historic Monument since May 28, 1883.
It is open to the public and offers an exhibition on the first floor which shows the size of the stones, materials and tools used to build the city.
Brilliantly illuminated by night, Porte Cailhau dominates the Place du Palais and it offers a superb panorama of the Garonne and the Pont de Pierre bridge.