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So Sarlat!

So Sarlat!

The lovingly preserved medieval town of Sarlat is a world-class destination, particularly in high summer


You never quite get over your first encounter with the area popularly referred to as the Dordogne, a place whose hauntingly beautiful landscapes evoke images of an idyllic, bygone England which probably never existed. But here they do. Locally, of course, you’re far more likely to hear the former French province referred to as ‘Périgord’, usually with a colourful suffix denoting one of four geographical areas: Noir, Blanc, Vert and Pourpre.

Arguably the most beautiful of all is le Périgord Noir, through which the rivers Dordogne and Vézère flow beguilingly to their liaison at Limeuil, and at whose leafy heart lies the dazzling architectural showcase of Sarlat-le-Canéda. Even if you’ve never been here before, chances are that when you do you’ll recognise it instantly, since Sarlat has featured in countless film productions, and you can see why. For centuries this was a heavily fortified town, and while the walls themselves have mostly gone, those sections which remain are nevertheless impressive, and the area which they protected for centuries still looks and feels much as it did when it was constructed in medieval times.

To really make sense of it you need to see it from above. When I first came here many years ago I had to climb to the bell chamber of the Cathédral Saint-Sacerdos to photograph bird’s-eye views of the skyline, but now it’s much simpler, as the nearby Eglise Sainte-Marie contains an ‘ascenseur panoramique’ – a sensational glass walled lift installed within the belltower of the redundant church. Step in and seconds later you’ll emerge from the 35m summit of the now-hollow tower built in 1365, to gaze in awe upon the rooftops of the town spread far below you. From up here a lot of things suddenly make sense, including the distinctive steeply-pitched roofs of the tall, elegant merchants’ houses which line the streets. Instead of slates or tiles, they were covered in ‘lauzes’ – pale limestone slabs whose formidable combined weight (around 500kg/m2) needed to be directed safely down onto the sturdy stone walls.

Another feature you notice is that the buildings are not aligned, but instead follow a more fluid, tightly packed medieval street-plan, which simply evolved within the protective embrace of the town’s fortifications. Had Sarlat’s defences done their job less well, then we could be looking at something laid out on the rigid geometrical plan of nearby bastide towns like Domme and Lalinde, which were purpose-built during the 13th century – turbulent times for southern France. Once safely back to street level you’ll discover that the nave of the church has found a new role as an indoor market hall (whose giant 15m-high steel doors were fabricated in Rochefort by a company which normally specialises in producing lock-gates). Like the ascenseur, it’s the result of a visionary transformation by internationally-renowned architect Jean Nouvel, who spent his childhood in Sarlat, and who managed to preserve something of the building’s inner serenity.

Come here on a summer Saturday morning, however, and you’ll find the adjoining Place de la Liberté packed with traditional market stalls laden with local produce, among a sea of both locals and visitors here to buy, browse or merely soak up theatmosphere. Their incomparable setting has made Sarlat’s markets world famous, and there’s no better vantage point from which to watch it all unfold than over the rim of a coffee cup on the terrace of the Hotel de la Mairie Brasserie. That said, there’s still considerably more to discover, since the market outgrew the square long ago and now spills over into the neighbouring streets (if you’re looking for more than local specialities then you’ll find a whole new world of possibilities among the stalls which line the entire length of Rue de la République). 

As lunchtime approaches it all starts to wind down, the restaurant terraces fill with eager diners and the town reverts to its principal role as a quite extraordinary place to explore. The Cathédrale Saint-Sacerdos, dedicated to a former Bishop of Limoges, looks and feels older than 16th/17th century, and if you come during a service or while an organist is rehearsing you’ll be able to experience for yourself the celebrated tonal qualities of the Monument-Historique-listed Lépine organ, inaugurated in 1752. Behind the cathedral is the late 12th century Tour Saint-Bernard (or ‘lanterne des morts’) built to commemorate a visit by Saint Bernard, and which might have served as a funerary chapel for the original cemetery area (le Jardin de Enfeus) which it overlooks. Rising steeply beside it is Rue Montaigne, off which you ’ll find an atmospheric route leading back down to the market square via Rue de la Salamandre (emblem of François I, and now widely adopted by the town).

Other places have interesting stories. Place des Oies was for centuries the scene of a live goose market, which lives on in the Fest’Oies weekends in early March. In Rue des Consuls you’ll find elegant 14th-17th century Gothic and Renaissance hôtels particuliers of counsellors, magistrates and clergy, plus the huge, grotto-like 12th century Fontaine Sainte-Marie which provided the town’s water supply until it became undrinkable. Sarlat’s most celebrated architectural treasure is the Maison de La Boétie, built in 1525 and birthplace of humanist philosopher and poet Etienne La Boétie. There are many more features to be discovered, but no visit is complete without seeing surviving portions of the town walls which ensured their survival – the SW end of Rue du Siège contains one of the best sections.

In sunlight the town’s stonework glows vibrant gold, but dusk brings a subtler alchemy, as the centuries’-old masonry is lit by the soft glow of gas-lamps. If you haven’t already fallen in love with this place then dining out beneath the stars in this truly magical setting will finally tip the balance.


History Lesson

The site is thought to have been inhabited since Gallo-Roman times, and rose to prosperity after the establishment of a Benedictine monastery at the end of the 8th century, in the reign of Charlemagne and Pepin le Bref. In 937 the monastery came under the control of the Abbaye de Cluny (founded in 910 by William I Duc d’Aquitaine) and in 1147, according to legend, was visited by Bernard de Clairvaux (Saint Bernard) on his return from the crusades. While in Sarlat he blessed loaves and gave the bread to assembled sick townspeople, who were suddenly healed – a miraculous event said to have inspired the building of the Tour Saint-Bernard, better known as the Lanterne des Morts.

During the 11th century Sarlat suffered Norman invasions and during the Hundred Years War found itself in an uncomfortable buffer zone between the ambitions of France and England. The heavily fortified town withstood all attacks but nevertheless became English in 1360 after the signing of the Treaty of Brétigny, when Edward III of England renounced his claim to the sovereignty of France in exchange for her southwestern territories. Ten years later, the English were ousted from France and Sarlat once more became French.

In 1453 the Treaty of Castillon ended the Hundred Years War, but the Wars of Religion ravaged the countryside and the town until peace returned under the reign of Henry IV in 1598. At this time Sarlat, which had been an episcopal see (or diocese) since 1317, finally began a campaign of construction which produced the Cathédrale Saint-Sacerdos, the Eglise Sainte-Marie and numerous elegant townhouses. The town’s prosperity continued throughout the 16th-18th centuries, after which its geographical isolation saw it fall into a steady economic decline which would not be reversed until river and rail networks were finally eclipsed by road transport.

Paradoxically, Sarlat owes most of its present-day prosperity (not least from tourism revenue) to those same years of lying dormant, during which the town’s medieval heart escaped the kind of redevelopment which would claim countless architectural period pieces elsewhere. The other factor was legislation introduced in August 1962 by Minister for Cultural Affairs André Malraux to provide financial aid to restore and preserve the nation’s heritage for future generations. Sarlat was a major beneficiary.


Find out more

The official site of Sarlat Périgord Noir Office de Tourisme is multi-lingual, but the French pages are more detailed than their English counterparts: 

Visit the Office de Tourisme in person for guided tours, street plans, iPod audio-guides and more.

You’ll find market details here: 

The town centre is pedestrianised, but there are free car parks off Ave Général de Gaulle, Chemin de Demouret, in Place de la Libération and in Place des Cordeliers.