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Périgueux - At every turn

Périgueux - At every turn

As you'll discover, there's history at every turn, but the town can take some getting to know, and your best ally in making sense of it and being sure you don't miss any important sights is an awareness of how it all evolved..



The administrative capital of the Département de la Dordogne lies in the heart of ‘Périgord Blanc’ – a reference to a landscape characterised by numerous pale limestone outcrops. It also sits beside an important looking waterway, although perhaps not the one you might have been expecting. The Dordogne actually flows past Bergerac, almost 40km further south, but Périgueux seems more than happy to have one of the great river’s tributaries for company – the 255km-long Isle, whose name derives from the Occitan ‘Eila’. In many respects it’s a charming town, but can take some getting to know, and your best ally in making sense of it and being sure you don’t miss any important sights during your visit is having some idea of how it all evolved.

Périgueux can trace its own title to ‘Pétrucores’, four Gallic tribes who occupied a nearby site from around 200BC until the period of Roman occupation. Under Roman rule the land in which it lay was referred to by Caesar as ‘Gallia Aquitania’, possibly a reference to the many rivers which shaped the landscapes of what would become Aquitaine. The Romans chose to develop a former tribal settlement which benefited from the natural protection of one of the river’s more pronounced meanders. In time they transformed the landscape beyond all recognition, creating temples, baths, amphitheatres, a forum and several villas and naming the site ‘Vesunna’ after a Gallo-Roman goddess. Development continued steadily until prolonged Barbarian raids in 275-276 compelled the Romans to construct defensive ramparts around what had by then become the city of Civitas Petrocoriorum. Today this has become one of the most important excavated Roman sites in France, since it revealed not only a wealth of artefacts, but also the clear structural outline of a complete villa, now protected within a huge glass-walled museum which perpetuates the name of Vesunna.

After the fall of Rome the area declined as the region suffered destruction by both Visigoth and Viking raiders, until eventually stability returned and ‘La Cité’ became the seat of the bishop and clergy, while lesser mortals took up residence outside the ramparts.


A cathedral dedicated to Saint Etienne was constructed during the 11/12th centuries. By then, however, the focus was turning increasingly towards the less constrained Puy Saint-Front area, the two becoming formally united in 1270 with the signing of a Deed of Union. However, they were not destined to remain equals, for the Puy Saint-Front’s 6th century abbey (built on the site of a chapel containing the Saint’s tomb) was replaced in 1047 by a larger church destroyed in 1120 by a fire which also consumed much of the town. Despite extensive pillaging in 1575 by Huguenots during the Wars of Religion, much of the basilica which replaced it survives, albeit in drastically altered form, in the Cathédrale Saint-Front. So much for the basic historical grounding; now it’s time to explore.


There’s something almost hypnotic about the way the cathedral still dominates the skyline, particularly when viewed across the river (a strong contender for anyone’s list of must-see sights of France). Dedicated to the first bishop of Périgueux, it was constructed in local stone, and once looked very different, with a much more sober outline. Between 1852 and 1901, however, architects Paul-Louis Boeswillwald and Paul Abadie transformed the lacklustre structure into the kind of neo-Byzantine curiosity you simply can’t ignore. Abadie was responsible for adding the five huge, near-white domes above the cupolas which lie within, and crowning them with minaret-style towers. He didn’t stop there, applying the same treatment to the tall belltower (clocher) and several gables, to produce the kind of effect which he also used in Angoulême and would later employ in his world-famous Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Paris. Embellishment or architectural vandalism? I’ll let you decide.

Step into the vast and rather bare interior, laid out on the plan of a Greek cross, and it feels overbearingly heavy, the colossal stonework being denied the kind of sizzling surface decoration which lightens the cathedral’s original inspiration, the Basilica San Marco in Venice. At the rear of the apse, however, you’ll find a satisfyingly huge carved walnut Baroque altarpiece (retable) dating from the 17th century, which like the throne was originally installed in a nearby Jesuit convent. Overhead, the largest of the five chandeliers (lustres) designed by Abadie was used at the coronation of Emperor Napoleon III in Paris in 1852.

Outside, Rue Denfert-Rochereau is looking much more attractive these days, following recently completed landscaping works. On the opposite side, just below the cathedral you’ll discover in Rue Mignot and Impasse Port de Graule some of the town’s wealth of Renaissance architecture just waiting to be rediscovered by visionary restorers.

Perigueux-Dorodgne-FranceJust a stone’s throw away from this silent, long forgotten world you can see the potential rewards, both in the 15-17th century Maisons des Quais overlooking the river, or higher up in the historic heart of the town. Rue Limogeanne, for example, has been home since 1885 to the celebrated Coutellerie Favié (look for the giant pair of scissors suspended above a painted sign), while a few steps away lies the Maison Estignard, a medieval logis which around 1520 became a Renaissance showpiece, complete with François I’s royal salamander emblem above the doorway.

There are many other treasures nearby, not least two elegant squares. Place du Coderc is a popular meeting-place, with shaded café terraces ideal for watching events unfold in the square’s colourful daily vegetable markets. A gentle stroll along Rue de la Sagesse will bring you to Place Saint-Lois, which from November until March hosts a twice-weekly marché au gras attended by local duck and goose producers. For the rest of the year, though, the square’s beautifully restored Renaissance facades provide a memorable setting for diners seated beneath pastel parasols at countless restaurant tables. It’s a popular spot, and if you can’t find a table you’ll find more options by heading back across Rue Limogeanne to Place du Marché au Bois, Place de la Vertu or in the opposite direction in Place de l’Hôtel de Ville (tucked away just behind Place du Coderc’s covered market hall). Here daily life is overseen by the venerable Hôtel Gilles Lagrange, a fortified logis dating from 15-17th century, and former home of Périgueux-born dramatist François Lagrange-Chancel. Walking along Rue de Chaînes will bring you to Place Saint-Silain, where in winter you’ll find a truffle market.

By now you’ll have got a feel for the layout for the Puy Saint-Front area which lives up to the expectations of those who come in search of old Périgueux. But as you’ll recall, there’s another, much older quarter nearby which really shouldn’t be missed. Think of La Cité as the site of the original Gallo-Roman settlement and you’ll have some idea of what’s in store, starting with a site originally occupied by the Roman Temple of Mars and now occupied by the cathedral’s long-suffering predecessor, the 12th century Eglise Saint-Etienne-de-la-Cité. During the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion three of the four original domes were lost, but enough of the building remains to indicate the impressive scale of this early structure, whose graceful interior in particular makes an interesting comparison with the present cathedral.

Tucked away just across the road from the church lies the intriguingly named Jardin des Arènes, a popular public parkland-style garden set within the melancholy ruins of a vast Roman arena. Built during the 1st century to accommodate 20,000 seated spectators, the elliptical structure was one of the largest in ancient Gaul, and despite having been pillaged for centuries to provide stone for the town, substantial portions of the structure still remain, while much more lies buried beneath the gardens. Not far from the arena you’ll discover the Porte Normande (a former point of entry to the Roman walled city) standing forlornly beside what remains of the Château Barrière. The 12th century chateau was later restyled with Renaissance features before being burnt during the Wars of Religion in 1575. It was never rebuilt, and remains a romantic ruin.


By now we’re close to an altogether more assertive survivor from the long period of Roman occupation, the Tour de Vésone. This 24.5m high stone and brick tower has a diameter of 17m and was originally the sacred heart of a temple erected during the 2nd century to the Goddess of water and fertility Tutela Vesunna. You’ll find standing beside it today a humbling experience, particularly when you realise that the tower was once lined with marble and surrounded by 23 stone columns, examples of which are displayed around the site of what is now a public garden. Just beyond the tower lies Périgueux’s big attraction, the Vesunna Gallo-Roman museum, whose architect Jean Nouvel achieved the near miraculous effect of a roof floating apparently weightless above tall walls of glass. In fact, the building’s minimalist form ensures that it never upstages what lies within, as you’ll see clearly from the elevated gallery by which you enter the vast interior. Displayed around you are large sculpted items, while spread below is the excavated site of a Roman villa (domus) with all the advanced sophistication of its facilities and services clearly revealed. When you descend to walk among it for a closer look you’ll also find displayed a wealth of exquisitely crafted small items, both functional and purely decorative, found on the site.

Vesunna provides not only a calm and deeply moving experience, but also the perfect way to round off a visit to Périgueux, with a time-tunnel experience of where and how it all began.

Places to Visit


Site-musée gallo-Romain. With the help of an audio guide (English available), you’ll get an engaging insight into the pattern of every day Roman life while you follow a visit route along raised balconies and walkways. The museum is set within beautiful landscaped gardens containing the Tour Vésone and remains of the 4th century ramparts.

20 rue du 26e R.I.- Parc de Vésone;

Tel: +33(0)5 53 53 00 92;;

Oct - March opening times Tues - Fri 9.30am - 12.30pm and 1.30pm - 5pm, Sat & Sun 10-12am and 2.30 - 6pm.
Entry 7€ with audio guide.

Le jardin des Arènes

On the site of the old Roman amphitheatre, these attractive gardens are a great place for a pause in a day’s sightseeing, and have a children’s play area. The circular Boulevard des Arènes, which encloses the park, follows the arena’s original outline. The gardens open throughout the year.


The colourful stalls of the Grand Marchés attract visitors seeking out Périgord specialities and seasonal produce. The market takes place every Wednesday and Saturday mornings near the Cathédral St Front on and around Place de la Clautre, 8am - 1pm. If you’re unlucky and miss one of these, there’s a smaller produce market every morning on Place du Coderc.


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PHOTS & WORDS Roger Moss

© Living Magazine - first published in October 2014