A typical day in Sarlat, music, merriment and splendid good looks, friendly people and a gorgeous market, if you’ve ever needed a reason to visit this lovely town in the Dordogne – read on!
On a corner of the rue de la Liberté, two acoustic guitarists Jacques Fourgèvre and André Bernard, are playing a splendid, toe-tapping rendition of Sweet Georgie Brown in the key of D major…
All around, enlightened-elite BoBos (bourgeois Bohemians), bewildered and wide-eyed first-time visitors to Sarlat, and thrifty holidaying pensioners munch on labour-intensive but inexpensive salades Sarladaises, babble animatedly on stylish Androids and no doubt ponder the meaning of Life as they effect not to acknowledge the melodious duo – alas, their tapping feet give them away.
And I’m probably wrong about the pondering about life bit.
Still, the narrow street is thronged with baguette-wielding ‘Madames’, smart-suited hommes d’affaires, querulous children, yappy, piddling dogs and ever-watchful opportunistic cats. Some of the smaller dogs are restrained in fashionable carry bags, from which only their eyes and ears protrude smugly.
It’s all a hubbub of unorchestrated mayhem and delight; not ideal for connecting with the Zen-like rhythms of Nature, but perfect for slipping easily into France mode, and a charming chaos that is the very essence of lunchtime in urban France.
Such is lunchtime in Sarlat, too.
We make our coffee last the best part of an hour, and when finally our entertainers head off to relocate to another corner, another audience, I chat with them briefly and give them all the loose change I had, just three euros as it happens; cheaper than buying a CD, but only a fraction of their worth in terms of the atmosphere they brought to this busy market day in Sarlat, or, to be precise, Sarlat-la-Canéda, the capital and major town of the Périgord Noir.
The pedigree of this lush and abundant region between the Dordogne and the Vézère rivers finds expression in this appealing old market town, a place of medieval streets and restored houses of Gothic and Renaissance origin. I seem always to arrive on market day, and that is not good for fully appreciating the architecture and the heritage it reflects, but it is a splendid way of getting to know the regional produce, its cheeses, olives, foie gras (of course), truffles and wines.
At the heart of Périgord Noir, Sarlat lies in a hollow surrounded by a mosaic of wooded hills, a medieval settlement that evolved around a Benedictine abbey of Carolingian roots. The town’s great charms lie in the fact that, mercifully, modern history has largely passed it by, leaving a centre comprised of impeccably restored stone buildings and narrow pedestrianised streets. Not quite preserved in aspic, but preserved nonetheless and one of the few Villes d’art et d’histoire in France evocative of the 14th century. As a result, the town was a perfect setting for Richard Donner’s film Timeline based on the late Michael Crichton’s book about a team of present-day archaeologists sent back in time to rescue their professor from medieval France.
Not surprisingly, Sarlat sits on France’s Tentative List for future nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not only are its 77 protected monuments and buildings just cause, but this, too, is the birthplace of Étienne de La Boétie, the French judge, writer and founder of modern political philosophy in France, and of François Louis Fournier-Sarlovèze, a French general of the Napoleonic Wars.
Yet, in spite of this worthy acclaim, Sarlat remains a small, friendly, provincial market town, home to merchants during the Ancien Régime, a place of aesthetic allure founded on its wealth of Gothic and Renaissance townhouses.
From our hotel we wandered down to the place de la Liberté, Sarlat’s lively main square, the 17th-century town hall on one side and the disused Église Ste-Marie, now an indoor market, on another. The recent addition of a panoramic elevator to the church building allows you to get an aerial view of the town and its setting among the hills.
We stopped in the square for a kir, watching the world go by and eavesdropping on a young man doing his best to convince a young damsel that his immediate intentions where honest, before allowing our stomachs to get the better of us and drawing us into the narrow streets in search of sustenance that was a cut above pizza but not quite ‘Breaking into the Piggy Bank’ expensive…
More on Sarlat
The fabulous Saturday market at Sarlat – this will tempt all foodies for sure!
The glorious gardens of Marqueyssac – Topiary Heaven…
How to have a perfect weekend in Dordogne and Sarlat in the winter