Sarlat-la-Canéda, the capital of the Périgord Noir in the Dordogne, is one of the most beautiful medieval towns in all of France. Founded around a Benedictine abbey in the 8th century, it was hotly contested during the Hundred Years’ War, and was briefly a foreign corner of England until Du Guesclin claimed it back for France in 1370. Its lovely Cathedral of St-Sacerdos was built under the auspices of Henri IV. The medieval quarter of Sarlat is exceptionally well preserved, thanks mainly to the efforts of writer and politician André Malraux, who as Minister of Culture created in 1962 the designation of “Ville d’Art et d’Histoire”. Sarlat was the first town in France to be bequeathed this distinction, and today its luminous golden stone buildings recall an architectural heritage going back over a thousand years, richly deserving of its Michelin 3-Star classification.
In the heart of medieval Sarlat is a truly exceptional building, the Manoir de Gisson. A listed historic monument dating from the 13th century, the Manoir looms strikingly over the Place des Oies, the old goose market. Two architecturally-distinct buildings are conjoined by an imposing hexagonal tower which houses a superb staircase, and mullioned and transomed windows, oculus-topped columns, and decorated portals highlight the rich exterior. Inside, the Manoir offers visitors the opportunity to step back into the world of the distinguished Gisson family, a 17th century clan of prominent bourgeoisie whose members held high posts in civil service and the military. The tour of their private apartments, their magnificent salons and bedrooms filled with exquisite period furniture and precious wood parquet floors and panelling gives testimony to the life of the high and mighty of the age. Look down on the alleys and rooftops of the old town from the grand terrace, and don’t miss the incredible roof of “lauze”, a remarkable construction in local traditional style of large rock slabs inserted into the joists.
The second part of the tour is a visit into a darker world. In the vaulted cellars of the Manoir, an internationally-acclaimed exhibition has recently taken up temporary residence: known as “The History of Justice”, it portrays a disturbing view of what could happen if you found yourself on the wrong side of the prevailing winds of fortune, from the Middle Ages to the Revolution. It is essentially a collection of instruments of torture, a nightmarish compendium of man’s ingenuity in making life distinctly unpleasant for his fellow (but politically or religiously disagreeing) man. Leave your imagination at the door.
The Manoir is open daily, with one-hour tours and guidebooks available in six languages.
Manoir de Gisson
Place des Oies
Photos © Manoir de Gisson