Sarlat – a Perfect Medieval Town

Medieval architecture

Medieval Street in Sarlat


The south-western region of France contains numerous medieval villages full of castles, churches and narrow cobbled streets in varying degrees of preservation. What makes southern France’s ancient villages and castles different from those in other parts of Europe is the region’s staunch resistance to the hunger of the tourist industry for theme parks and “colourful” markets.

A stranger to the area could drive through the town of Sarlat without knowing that an authentic medieval village is just a few metres from the main road. In fact, Sarlat has some of the best preserved medieval architecture in the country, dating back to the 8th century.

Restoration began on many of the fine buildings in Sarlat in the 1960’s, making every cobblestoned street and quiet courtyard a visual delight for the tourists of today. Due to its many examples of art from the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the town has been classified as “a Town of Art and History”. There is a tourist centre near the cathedral, where you can pick up the latest information on walking tours, and take the opportunity to photograph the town’s remarkable spires and chimneys silhouetted against the blue sky.

It is Sarlat’s direct link to the Middle Ages that excites every sightseer’s imagination. The cobblestones, street lanterns and cathedral bells invite tourists to immerse themselves in the mood of a completely different time. Sarlat’s network of alleys features stone

Rooftops in Sarlat, France

Rooftops In Sarlat

-roofed houses with individually decorated facades and detailed window openings. Many of the buildings are made of ochre stone, which gives off a golden hue. This glow forms an interesting contrast to the muted tones of the limestone and slate roofs, and the handcrafted wooden doors.

A number of film directors have chosen Sarlat’s nest of alleys as the setting for their films. The Duellists, Les Miserables, and Ever After: A Cinderella Story, are famous examples. But the town is not merely for show – the ancient stone houses are still lived in and used as shop fronts.

The centrepiece of Sarlat’s historic attractions is the cathedral of Saint Sacerdos, named after Sacerdos of Limoges, an 8th century saint. Another connection between heaven and Sarlat is its famous graveyard “Lantern of the Dead”, built in the mid-12th century to commemorate the healing of plague sufferers by Saint Bernard.

Overshadowing the Place des Oies – formerly the goose market – the Manoir de Gisson is a unique example of 13th century architecture. The Manoir is actually two buildings of contrasting architectural styles, joined by a hexagonal-shaped tower. It showcases wonderful examples of Middle Ages furniture, superb parquetry floors, and a terrace with a commanding view over the town.

The best times to visit Sarlat are during autumn or spring, but winter is less hectic and usually quite mild. The town is truly glorious on a sunny morning and, although the streets are narrow and winding, you can stroll through the Medieval quarter in a few minutes. During the daytime, the crowds in Sarlat can be overwhelming but, if you can get accommodation within the town, use the quiet times to become acquainted with Sarlat’s incomparable charm.

Medieval Sarlat, FranceYou can find accommodation for any number of people inside Sarlat’s medieval quarter. The rooms and apartments are in renovated 13th, 15th and 19th century buildings. Most of them are air-conditioned, have internet access and are soundproofed against street noise. All the extras you can think of, such as maid service and baby cots are provided.

The Place de la Liberte is a paved square where you can enjoy a meal and admire the surrounding historic buildings, including the bell towers of the cathedral of Saint Sacerdos and the town hall. Saturday and Wednesday are market days, when the square comes alive as visitors flock to sample the local produce, including fruit, vegetables, eggs, cheese, duck or goose foie-gras, pasta, tea and jams.

After exploring the town, you might like to travel further afield to see the many other delights of the region. Among these is the Font de Gaume Cave at Les Eyzies de Tayac, which features paintings similar to those at the famous nearby Lascaux Cave. Some tourist sites are only open between April and November but Castelnaud castle, Beynac castle, Font de Gaume caves and other popular sites are open all year round.

One reason Sarlat has survived unchanged for so long is its isolation from the usual tourist spots. Paris is 600km to the north, and Marseilles is around the same distance to the south. Nevertheless, Sarlat is a popular tourist destination, especially amongst French people, so make sure you book in advance.

Getting there: You can travel by train from Paris to nearby railway stations, which have many services going to Sarlat. If you prefer to drive, you can reach Sarlat from Toulouse, Bordeaux or Paris on the A20 and A89 motorways (“autoroutes“).

By Terry Crosble


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