If you are in the Dordogne, do not miss a visit to Sarlat. A very attractive and well-preserved town in the south-west of France, Sarlat is one of the most visited towns in the country for a reason.
The History of Sarlat.
The town grew during the 9th century around a Benedictine abbey. The abbey grew powerful and prosperous and the town benefitted and developed until in 1299, Philippe le Bel granted the town liberty from the church.The war-torn years of the middle-ages saw Sarlat develop further and become an important market town with many of the fabulous buildings you see today built to house the town’s rich merchants. Like most of the region, the Hundred Years War bought both prosperity and great hardship as the French and English fought bitterly for every inch of land.
Many of the beautiful castles that surround Sarlat are a direct result of this long-running conflict and add so much to the beauty of the area. The town enjoyed many peaceful years and continued to quietly prosper with new buildings influenced by the Renaissance style. This period of peaceful prosperity was rudely interrupted by The Wars of Religion with Sarlat siding with the Catholic church by the end of the conflict.
The years of the French Revolution bought great change and Sarlat lost its bishopric but forged a role for itself as a local centre of commerce. Happily, its distance from main transport routes “protected” Sarlat from development and over-commercialisation and in the early sixties Sarlat benefitted from a new law designed to protect the national patrimony or heritage of French towns. Many of Sarlat’s fine buildings were carefully restored and the town now has the highest density of ‘Historic Monuments’ and ‘Classified Monuments’ of any town in France.
Sarlat richly deserves its official classification as a ‘Town of Art and History’ and ‘Plus Beaux Detour’ – identifying towns that deserve a visit for their beauty. The historic centre is also under consideration for UNESCO World Heritage Classification.
Visiting the Town.
Sarlat is justifiably famous for its medieval beauty and that fame attracts thousands of visitors particularly during July and August when the town is packed. If you get the opportunity to visit out of high season – grab it, if you are here in the summer then try and make a visit during the morning when it’s quieter, or in the evening and enjoy the street theatre and entertainers.
The town centre is not huge and you can comfortably walk around and take in the notable points but much of Sarlat’s charm lies in the atmosphere and charm of the winding streets. The tourist office, which is by the Cathedral, offers short Guided Tours in English or has a printed walking tour which will guide you around the town and explain the highlights. This is a small town and you might decide to simply explore by wandering – you won’t go wrong if you follow the Rue de la Republique which runs the length of the old town, and the charming narrow streets which meander on either side. The cathedral is to the south-east of Sarlat, with the attractive Place de Payrou and Hotel de la Boétie. North east is the lovely Place de la Liberté and the wonderful winding street of the Rue des Consuls.
Do take the time to visit the Cathédrale St-Sacerdos. Starting life in the 1100s as the church of Sarlat Abbey the original building was redeveloped in the early 1500s, and remodelled again in the 1700s, so it’s a charming mix of styles. The Cathedral has a great atmosphere and it’s a lovely place to sit down in the cool for a few minutes, especially welcome if you are visiting during the summer months. Up past the cathedral and the Jardin des Enfeus, the ancient abbey cemetery, is the unusual “La Lanterne des morts” – the lantern of the dead – which may have been built to honour a visit by St Bernard, a founder of the Cistercian order, in 1147.
If you have a head for heights take a trip in the glass lift housed in the bell tower of the restored church of Sainte-Marie which has been cleverly converted into a charming covered market. The view is stunning and gives you a totally different perspective of the lovely winding streets and rooftops and the countryside beyond. The lift is open April through December and you can buy your ticket at the base of the lift or in advance. The ticket gives you a precise time and is only valid for that time – saves you queueing but don’t miss your slot, they are non-refundable.
From the cathedral explore the Place du Peyrou and the ‘Hôtel de La Boétie’, birthplace of the philosopher and humanist Etienne de La Boétie. Cross the Rue de la Republique to the west side of town and take a look at the Hotel St Clar and the remaining part of the ancient defensive ramparts. Wander northwards past the convent of Ste Claire and the Chapel of the Penitents Blancs before crossing back over the Rue de la Republique to the Rue des Consuls with its impressive mansions and the Place du Marché des Oies, the goose market with its much photographed statue of geese in the centre, and stunning architecture.
Take the time to visit the Manoir de Gisson – two linked stone townhouses once owned by one of Sarlat’s leading families and now a quirky and interesting museum, beautifully furnished, with some fabulous and occasionally bizarre “curiosities”. It’s a great way to pass an hour or two and the guide book is available in English so you can really appreciate the exhibits – even the shrunken heads and unicorn horn!
Circling back towards the cathedral is the Place de la Liberté – Sarlat’s main square. Many of the lovely stone buildings now house bars and restaurants and this is the perfect spot to enjoy a drink or a meal and soak in the atmosphere. If you visit on a summer’s evening set aside some time to sit and enjoy the free street performances – the environment, the architecture and the entertainers create a fabulous atmosphere and it really is a great evening for the whole family. Sarlat is lit by gas streetlights and it helps create a magical “feel” to this lovely town.
The Saturday and Wednesday markets in Sarlat are among the most popular in the region and it is a lovely market, with colourful stalls of local produce spreading through the winding medieval streets. If you are early morning people then a visit is well-worth the effort but the market, particularly on Saturdays, is hugely popular and parking can be very difficult especially during the summer months. There is a shuttle bus and I would suggest that you “park and ride” rather than spend hours trying to park.
Who is this attraction suitable for?
Sarlat is a lovely town and has something for everyone whether you are visiting as a couple looking for a quiet stroll through medieval streets and a romantic meal or a family with children. The summer months are busy but even then you can still enjoy the setting and the atmosphere. We would highly recommend the market, and an evening visit is a whole new experience with the gas lighting and the street theatre. Parking can be an issue and the park and ride shuttle bus does make that much easier. There are any number of restaurants and bars catering to all tastes and budgets so a morning visit and then lunch might be the best option particularly if you want to avoid the heat of the afternoons.
Make a day of it:
Depending on the time of year and the ages of your party I would leave at least half a day to explore properly.
Sarlat is surrounding by attractions so you can very easily combine a visit with a trip to a castle, a garden or an activity suited to your party. We highly recommend the Château des Milandes , Château de Castelnaud-la-Chapelle and the Gardens at Marqueyssac.
You might choose to come back from Sarlat via La Roque Gageac, a stunning little village on the banks of the Dordogne, and take a river trip on the Gabarres – suitable for all the family the river boats are one of the most relaxing ways to see the river and some of the castles.
If you have children and want to burn off some of that energy, you will pass two popular Aerial Parks on the way back to Souillac from Sarlat. They offer a range of “courses” suitable for different age groups. I prefer the Monkey’s Forest which has 10 courses and lots of smaller obstacles that will keep the whole family busy. Many of the staff do speak some English and are very helpful. There is a small snack bar selling drinks and ice-creams but nothing substantial so don’t count on eating there after your adventures.