Dordogne: Sarlat, the Jewel of Perigord

February 3, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

I returned to the Dordogne on a Saturday evening in September for the second time in 2014. It was a great opportunity to spend the night in the city of Sarlat, coinciding with candle night (Journee-du-Patrimoine).

 Sarlat-la-Canéda, capital of the Périgord-Noir, is a medieval town in the Dordogne Valley in South-west of France. The town was established around the large Benedictine abbey built in the 12th Century, dedicated to Saint Sacerdos. Sarlat Cathedral is a Romanesque Catholic Church rebuilt in Gothic style in later centuries. Behind the cathedral, there is a tower called the Lanterne-des-Morts (Lantern of dead) in place of an old cemetery. Despite its name, its purpose is unknown.

Sarlat, the jewel of Perigord, has been miraculously well preserved. It looks as if it has been frozen in time, owing to its restoration by resistance fighter and politician André Malraux, who, as Minister of Culture, restored many historical sites throughout France. As you walk through Sarlat, you get a feeling that you are in 14th century France. The old town centre gives the appearance of an open-air museum of immaculate stone buildings with yellowish-brown coloured facades. The town is mainly pedestrianised. Its breathtaking architecture, cobbled streets, narrow pathways, passages, water fountains, little squares and hidden courtyards combined with green plants and colourful flowers could quickly become a large film set. In fact, many feature films have been shot in Sarlat, the favourite place for filmmakers after Paris and Nice.

The tourist board lit up the whole town with over 10000 candles in the little tea lights to celebrate candle night. The town is normally lightened up with original 17th Century gas lamps, giving a medieval feeling throughout. It is Sarlat’s heritage day. All official buildings, which are not normally open to the public, become accessible to everyone to visit. The artists and craftsmen display their artworks in special exhibitions. The tourists, locals and villagers gather to celebrate a special night. The candlelights and soft music played in the background and filled the air with a pleasant romantic feeling. The rain started showering the town and extinguished some of the candles. However, despite the rain, the people remained walking around and the candlelights still brighten up the narrow passages. Fortunately, the rain stopped and did not spoil the night.

A large crowd was gathered in the church, watching a spiritual cartoon film showing three dimensional movements of animals (related to cave paintings), a piano played in intervals. There were celebrations everywhere. I followed a few people into the Hotel-de-ville with its yellow stone façade, standing like a small palace in the town’s main square (Place-de-la-Liberté) in the heart of the old city. The interior of the building, walls and steps were nicely carved in the limestone. In a hall decorated with fine paintings which normally opened for special ceremonies, a woman played the guitar and sang opera.

 Sarlat is the gastronomic centre of the Dordogne, with restaurants serving special foie gras dishes which are made of the fattened liver of duck or goose. There are many foie gras shops in every corner of the town, selling them with variety of specialist paté. The goose is a recognised symbol of Sarlat. There are three bronze geese in the middle of a small square, the Place-des-Oies, commemorating the old times when geese were traded in this place. Sarlat celebrates a special Goose Festival, full of activities, food workshops and entertainments every year in February.

The truffle is another treasure of Sarlat which inspires chefs to serve it with French Omelette along with other local delicacies. It is the black diamond of Perigord, sniffed and dug out of the ground by pigs or specially trained dogs. The pigs are normally called by name and treated like domestic pets. They are not just pigs but gold hunters. Every half kilo of truffles is worth approximately €500.00.

I met the French novelist and historian, Jean Luc Aubarbier in his bookshop in the Rue-de-la-Republique, which separates the old town into an eastern and western part. He was born in Sarlat and got his inspiration from the renaissance charms of the town and the natural beauties of the Dordogne. He told me that Sarlat was on the border line of conflict between the French and the English for many centuries on one hand and Catholic and Protestants on the other hand. It was only in the 15th Century in a period of peace, the town was rebuilt. When I asked him whether the English had left any mark in the area, he said, “Many Castles and small towns were built by English to collect taxes. The English King and Queen claimed the French throne until 1801, but no English soldiers set foot on this soil. They were Aquitaine soldiers. It was all family conflicts between cousins.”

You can look at more images at www.amirinia.com.

The Tourist Office of Sarlat (www.sarlat-tourisme.com), can give directions to all the things to see and do in Sarlat and many more interesting places in the Dordogne Valley region.