The Weekender – Vive la Difference – Sarlat, Dordogne:
I hesitated before accepting an invitation to visit Sarlat in the Dordogne for the Fest’ Oie. Although I do sometimes eat Foie Gras, it always feels like a guilty secret – our cousins across the channel seem to have no such concerns. More on the Festival and Geese later, this particular post aims to set the context for the Fest’Oie, a celebration of our feathered friends in the Perigord Noir.
A medieval town just north of the Dordogne, Sarlat was the second beneficiary of a programme of major restoration in France in the 1960s. Most of the old buildings were carefully renovated and restored under the ‘Loi Malraux’ – a policy introduced by Andre Malraux duing his time as Minister of Culture. The result – a town centre that is a maze of narrow streets lined with stunning buildings and home to a vibrant markets festivals and events.
The historic Cathedral dates back to the twelfth century and was originally the roman church of a Benedictine abbey. Through the centuries additions include the main cathedral walls started in 1505 but finished much later due to lack of funds, plague and wars .
Near the Cathedral is a curious tower, the ‘Lantern of the Deceased’. No one is sure exactly what the purpose of this building was – a funeral chapel seems most likely. And the strange construction is hypothesised to have be built by the Crusaders on their return from the Holy Land. Although it was built in around 1180, it really has little in design to link it to the Romanesque period – and to me it bore a strange and disturbing resemblance to London’s Gherkin!
Sarlat’s most famous resident was Etienne de La Boetie, a philosopher and friend of Montaigne. His house is a landmark in Sarlat with superb bay windows built in the Italian Renaissance style.
But, if in the early hours of the morning you might think time has passed this place, by 10am everything comes alive with market stalls and shops opening to cater for locals and visitors alike.
The people of Sarlat seem intent on bringing people to the pretty town; apart from the Fest’ Oie there are numerous other events throughout the year all celebrating in some way what makes this region special. A Truffle festival in January, a Film festival in November – and every other year the Ringuette – a celebration of historic games. Like the Causses and the Cevennes this area was part of Occitania and the Felibree, a celebration of their Occitanian origins takes place on the first Sunday of July takes place in one of the towns of the department selected at random.
There are plenty of things to do throughout the year outside the town too, charming villages, chateaux and the Lascaux caves to visit, canoeing, hiking and riding in the countryside and of course sampling the local produce.
There’s absolutely no sense of ‘Dordogneshire’ here. At least not now, although Sarlat was heavily attacked during the 100 years war and was even under English rule briefly when, by the treaty of Brétigny, Edward III of England renounced his claim to the throne of France in exchange for the South West of France. That lasted for just 10 years, until the English were chased from France. The Wars of Religion continued to rage until the Edict of Nantes under the reign of Henry IV brought peace and much of Sarlat was rebuilt from the late 15th century onwards. It is those buildings which now typify the town.
Until recently travel to Sarlat from the UK involved a stop-over in Paris or a long journey by road. Now, however, you can fly directly to Brive, around an hour from Sarlat by car. That opens up parts of the Dordogne relatively untouched by the British invasion, the Perigord Noir, a centre for foie gras, walnuts, chestnuts and truffles, is a gastronomic centre. And, it is perhaps those uniquely French gastronomic specialities here that mean at the moment Sarlat and the Perigord Noir have retained a quintessentially French feeling. If foie gras helps this part of France stay that way, then vive la difference.
For more information on Sarlat:
Email Katia Veyret: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarlat Tourist Office
City Jet flies to Brive in the Dordogne from London City Airport:
The Brive Dordogne Valley Airport
We stayed at Hotel le Renoir, a few minutes from the Town Centre