It is the roofs that first catch the eye: made of ancient Sarlat stones, so heavy that roofers must have cursed them as they struggled to finish the job in wind and sun and rain. But how proud they would be today to see the fruits of their labours still in place, nigh on 1,000 years later, reflecting a golden light over this medieval city.
Snug in a small valley between the Dordogne and the Vézère, Sarlat-la-Canéda, rarely called by its full name, has changed little across the centuries, its stone walls, blistering to the touch in midsummer, and its steep cobblestone streets giving the old town a uniquely authentic air. However big the budget, no film director would bother to build his own set when he can leap back in time here simply by rolling the cameras.
Sarlat has seen its share of real violence, too. For a long while it was the border between France and England’s French territories, indeed an English possession for a bloody decade from 1360 to 1370. Ravaged during the wars of religion, only in the seventeenth century, when Henry IV united France by becoming a catholic, did Sarlat, like some ageing mercenary, slip into comfortable retirement.
The capital of Black Périgord, Sarlat presides over the most spectacular gastronomy in France: the land of truffles, foie gras, crêpes, patés and crystallized fruits. You can buy them at competitive prices in Sarlat’s colourful open- air market, held on Wednesdays and (especially) Saturdays; or in the covered market, daily except Mondays, in the derelict church of Sainte-Marie, by the place des Oies. Sample a huge range of culinary delights in Sarlat’s bustling restaurants, located in every nook and cranny. The walled courtyard of the Quatres Saisons has a particularly romantic air.
The American writer Henry Miller was fascinated by Sarlat, calling it the “paradise of France”. The town’s huge reputation has spread far and wide, so in high season be prepared for large crowds, especially in the afternoons. The theatre festival, although a hugely entertaining and vibrant event through the end of July and the beginning of August, can make life in Sarlat quite frustrating, with every restaurant table taken and shops packed almost to bursting point. In this period, far better to visit Sarlat’s immediate surroundings: a huge number of prehistoric and natural caves, manors and castles, and charming villages.
To the northwest, Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac, is sometimes called the cave capital of France: most are small, so do not expect simply to turn up and be sure of a place on the next tour. To the south, Vitrac is a market village, with a constant flock of bargain-hunters. It stands on a hill where in 51 BC the last of the Gauls, survivors of the battle of Alesia, fought a desperate last stand against Caesar’s legions. A meal here in its Hotel Plaisance is far better value than at Sarlat, and unlikely to disappoint. The most striking, however, of the local villages is surely La Roque-Gageac to the west, with almost perpendicular cobbled streets and little craft shops huddled together beneath a cliff.
Sarlat’s abbey, so old that the site is thought to have been used by the Vikings for pagan worship, is one of 65 ancient monuments in the town officially protected and in the process of being restored. It has, per kilometre, perhaps the densest collection of classified buildings anywhere in Europe, the first French town to benefit from a rigorous new law of 1962 that forbad any alterations to buildings of historical interest. The guided tour at night, when Sarlat is lit by flickering gas lamps, is a wonderful experience.
© Mathieu Anglada, Akim Benbrahim