On one of the afternoons when we had been trekking around the Dordogne Valley, we decided we would visit the town of Sarlat in the afternoon and finish the day with a meal in this popular tourist destination. We were very impressed with this beautiful medieval town and decided that if we had our time over again, we would have based ourselves here. Whilst not currently a World Heritage site, it was put on the list for future nominations in 2002. Sarlat was lucky enough to be nominated as a trial town in 1962 as part of a government program to preserve the history and architecture of French towns. It has many historic and classified monuments and is no doubt a gorgeous place. We were late getting home that night as Sarlat is perfect for strolling just after dark.
Little is known about the origins of Sarlat but it apparently developed around a Benedictine Abbey sometime in the 9th century. Its first mention in the historical record is in 1081. If you compare Sarlat’s history with the general list of sufferings that besieged other centres in the Dordogne, it is clear its late development meant that it escaped some of the early onslaughts that affected other places in the region. It wasn’t on the path of the Barbarian invasions and it was too far from the Dordogne River to be sacked by the Vikings. Being an important abbey town in the 11/12th century, Sarlat was given protection by its papal status and the fact that it was under the protection of the French monarchy. Sarlat’s run of prosperity ended in the 14th century when the Great Plague ravaging Europe eventually arrived in town. 2500 citizens of Sarlat died from this unwelcome visitor who had breached its walls.
Like the plague, Sarlat couldn’t escape the effects of the 100 Years War. Although it was given some protection by its proximity to the castles along the Dordogne River (Beynac and Castelnaud) in the early years of this complex conflict, Sarlat and its region suffered the usual ruination that is brought by long years of warfare.
The 2019 map of Sarlat here (Source: Sarlat Tourist Bureau) shows that the old Medieval section of Sarlat is defined by the route of its old ramparts. Both maps in this blog show where the old walls ran and what sections of these ramparts are left today. With such significant defensive walls, the citizens of Sarlat would have felt reasonably safe in the late 16th century when the Wars of Religion broke out. Unfortunately, their walls failed them in 1574 when a protestant military leader with 40 soldiers broke through and seized the town for the first time in its history. This capture only lasted a month before it was retaken by a Catholic army. Ten years later the walls were tested again when a 6000 strong Hugenot army besieged Sarlat, equipped with those enemies of medieval walls, canons! A section of wall was breached in the area of Rue de Siege which can be seen indicated by the purple arrows on the map above. This is also the street that has the largest remaining section of the old wall that has survived demolition since that time; note image on left of a section of Rue de Siege.
Whilst the defensive walls of Sarlat suffered during the Wars of Religion in the late 16th/early 17th centuries, the town itself and its beautiful medieval buildings remain standing to greet visitors in the 21st century. As mentioned at the start of this piece, these same medieval buildings were the recipients of Government restoration funds in the 1960s and can be admired and visited today. There is plenty of parking outside the medieval walls and tourists can enter the old cite and use Rue de la Republic as a guide to their visit; you can always return to it to get your bearings.
At the end of this article there is a map of Sarlat with a guided tour that starts in Place de Peyru where St Sacerdos cathedral is located. The Cathedral began as part of the original abbey of the town but it was largely rebuilt in the 16/17th century., Next door to the cathedral is the region’s tourist bureau where a more up to date map of the town can be found.
Following the guided walk after exploring the cathedral, you would head out the side door and through the old cloister of the original abbey. The trail then leads through the Courtyard of the fountains that provided water for the original monks as well as the citizens. At the back of the Cathedral there is a cemetery that contains tombs from as early as the 14th century. A little further on is a curious conical tower that history has left little explanation as to its purpose. It is called the Les Lanterne des Mortes or St Bernard’s tower. Presumably it is named after Bernard of Clairvaux who visited the abbey in 1147, preaching the Second Crusade (1146-49) which was an ignominious failure and which Bernard later apologised for in his writings. Bernard had also been in Southern France twenty years earlier preaching against the Cathar heresy, the military consequences of which devastated the castles along the Dordogne River not so far from Sarlat.
On the afternoon we visited Sarlat, we took the other route from the Cathedral and headed along Rue de La Republic with our destination being the centre of action in the old cite, the Place de la Liberte where Sarlat’s famous market is held. We walked along this pedestrianized main thoroughfare and turned right into the Rue des Consuls. This is one the great streets of medieval Sarlat with numbers of 14-16th century buildings that now function as hotels. Not far along this street you encounter Place des Oies, the site of the old Goose Market.
Heading further down Rue des Consuls, the street opens up to show you a vista of Place de la Liberte. Sitting at watch at this point is the statue of ‘Le Badaud’ (by Gerard d’Auliac) who gazes out over the crowd in this square.
To the right of the ‘watcher’ is what remains of a 14th century church, St Marys, which is one of the many churches in France that was sold off by the Revolutionary government in the late 18th century and partly demolished. Today it is a covered marked and a glass elevator runs up what is left of the old bell tower to provide views over Sarlat.
The photo above shows the view looking back up Rue des Consuls from the centre of the piazza with the Eglise St Marie on the left; the image of the same church here on the left was taken before its restoration. Right of centre in the above image can be seen a distant Le Badaud sitting outside Manoir de Gisson. This attractive 13th century mansion is actually two buildings joined by a hexagonal tower and it houses a museum well worth visiting if you have the time.
In the earlier photo above that shows the Place de Ville over the shoulder of Le Bataud, the ‘Hotel de Ville’ of Sarlat can be seen on the left with umbrellas and chairs out front for visitors taking advantage of the view and the local cuisine. This Town Hall was erected on the site of the first Town Municipal Building in the 17th century. Like the town, this building has suffered the depredations of the last three centuries and was eventually restored at the start of the 20th century. In the same image can be seen, directly ahead down Rue de Liberte, the bell tower of the Cathedral. On the right of the exit to the cathedral can be seen the beautiful Hôtel de Royère de Roquefeuil. It is listed on the inventory of Historic Monuments of Sarlat and was one of the buildings in Sarlat that received national government funds for its restoration. If you time your visit to Sarlat on a market day, you not only get to appreciate this amazing space, but you get to enjoy the amazing produce of the region. We left Sarlat later that evening after a great meal at a restaurant near Place de la Liberte and decided that we should have chosen to base ourselves in this beautiful town where we could have spent our evenings strolling the engaging alleyways of this intriguing town in Perigord.
APPENDIX 1…The Sarlat Council Tourist Walk Around their Town.