I’ve spent enough time in France to know that, no matter how high my expectations are when I visit a new area, they’ll be met or exceeded. Even so, my first glimpse into the ancient city center of Sarlat-le-Canéda was stunning.
Many old towns and cities have experienced most of their population growth in the modern era and so usually have an old town center that’s surrounded by the newer suburbs. Sarlat-le-Canéda (just Sarlat to her friends) is no different. When I first visited, I drove in from the North, and so passed by the Macdonalds restaurant, the large Carrefour shopping center, the hospital, several car dealerships, and a farm implement lot. Like most French cities, it’s very tidy and well maintained, but in Sarlat’s case, these outskirts are pretty nondescript. I wasn’t discouraged by the modest fringes, though, and quickly found parking near the periphery of the vielle ville, the old part of town.
Because of the way the town is laid out and the newer buildings are constructed, very little of the old town is visible, even when you’re very near it. So when my wife and I strolled through narrow alleyway that opened onto an original street in the old town, we were literally awestruck. The French colloquial term for “love at first sight” is coup de foudre, literally a bolt of lightning, as in “Quand je l’ai vu, ça a été le coup de foudre.” Or, “When I saw it, it was the bolt of lightning.” And that’s how we felt on our first glimpse of the medieval center of Sarlat.
The contrast between the old and the new was a factor in our delight at as the city revealed itself to us. But there was much more. The narrow streets that wind through the honey-and-soot colored stone buildings, the cobblestones, the restaurant-lined open squares, ancient stone architecture, and the many alluring shops together produce an atmosphere that is comforting, tranquil, and wholly agreeable.
Photos, at least my photos, can’t begin to reveal the essence of Sarlat but they at least give you a sense of what you’re missing by not being there. But more than just seeing it as it is today, every house, every building, practically every stone has some really intriguing story behind it, and that’s a huge part of Sarlat’s appeal.
The photo above is of the house of Étienne de la Boétie, born in 1530. Boétie was a scholar, and judge, a man of vision, integrity and rare brilliance who was taken from the world at the age of 32 but not before he penned the essay, “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude”. This essay was an ingeniously insightful treatise on the relationships between tyrants and their subjects in which Boétie asserts that victims of tyranny can free themselves by an act of their own will without resorting to violence. And even if you’ve never read it, or even knew that it existed, the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude has been influential since he first wrote it at the unlikely age of 22. The essay is powerful and timeless, and of worthy of particular note at this juncture in human history. I strongly recommend that you read it, here.
It wouldn’t be fair to mention Étienne de la Boétie without at least mentioning his friend Michel de Montaigne who was also a judge and scholar. Montaigne wrote a towering essay on friendship some 25 years after Étienne’s early demise in which he extolled his friend with whom he felt he shared an uncommon bond. Of their friendship, he wrote, “We loved each other because it was he, because it was I.”
Among countless other historical monuments are the Saint Sacerdos Cathedral, dedicated to Sacerdos of Limoges, who was born in AD 670. The cathedral itself is intriguing because of it’s strangely discordant architecture. It’s mainly gothic, and was originally built as part of a Benedictine Abbey in the 12th century, although it was extensively rebuilt in the 1500s.
Behind the cathedral on a slope overlooking the cemetery is Les Lanterne des Morts, supposedly dedicated by St. Bernard in the 12th century to commemorate victims of a plague, but there is a lot of mystery surrounding its origin. It’s built of limestone blocks, and the upper level includes a series of slotted openings that would allow light to enter and guide the dead.
The Manoir de Gisson was built in the 12th century for a noble family, and has survived the centuries with remarkable aplomb. It’s open to the public, and includes lots of great examples of period architecture, furnishings, and artwork.
Sarlat is a popular place, and so it gets lots of visitors, as many as 2 million a year, as shocking as that sounds, since the town’s total population is under 15 thousand. With such a thriving tourist industry, you won’t be surprised to learn that Sarlat’s old town has lots of restaurants and shops that are loaded with the things that tourists, and even some locals, love to buy. The local cuisine is superb and some of the artisans that supply the shops are astonishingly talented.
The regional delicacy is foie gras, along with other preparations of duck and goose. Don’t be put off if you’re not a fan, and don’t let the stories of animal cruelty keep you from sampling the area’s delectable foie gras. Yes, I know that PETA and other animal rights groups are disdainful of the feeding practices, but foie gras and the practice of gavage (force feeding) has been around for over 3,000 years. I had the privilege of staying on a foie gras farm and seeing first hand how the animals were treated. The process was far more humane than a typical American egg production facility or Confined Animal Feeding Operation.
Although I don’t have a specific recommendation for a Sarlat restaurant, look for the “Routard” recommendations. Routard is a French website that’s roughly equivalent to trip advisor. Since it’s readers are predominantly French, and French palates are quite refined, their recommendations are powerful. Spend some time on their site, use Google translator, or better yet download a free Google Chrome browser which will translate the site automatically. Routard is a wealth of information for the Francophile.
Sarlat is one of the highlights of my travels in France. There is much more to tell and see than I have time for now, but I highly recommend a visit. If you’ve been there and have comments, I’d love to read them, and if you haven’t and have questions, I’d love to answer them.