Sarlat, a medieval and Renaissance town

Hotels in Sarlat center

It stands as one of the most beautiful cities in France for its medieval and Renaissance charm. A city that preserves all its flavor and surprises. A place where many films have been produced, taking advantage of its wonderful urban center. Shall we discover it together?

All the streets, squares and palaces recount centuries of history. It was during the Middle Ages that Sarlat reached the rank of bishopric. This title and the important commercial activity of the city was at origin of the existence of the many fairs that still survive today. All this activity turned this small town into what we discover today: a museum of palaces of Renaissance and Gothic style, where merchants wanted to demonstrate their power, despite not possessing titles of nobility.

The medieval town of Sarlat developed around a large benedictine abbey whose church, half a century later, would become the cathedral of the diocese. It reached its apogee in the 13th century when it counted 5,000 inhabitants. It was in year 937 when the abbey became part of the Cluny order.

The origin of the abbey is lost in the legends. It exists since the ninth century, forming part of the six great abbeys of Périgord (Paunat, Belvès, Saint Front de Périgueux, Brantôme, Terrasson). The Carolingian Abbey of Sarlat is the only one that was saved from the Vikings, located away from the Dordogne River and its tributaries. It was able to remain independent and, in the year 1153, was put under the direct protection of the Holy See in Rome.

In the year 1317, the abbey was the seat of the new bishopric created by Pope John XXII. The abbey church was transformed into the cathedral of the diocese of Sarlat. From there began the architectural transformation of the city with the construction of a parish church as well as numerous manors.

From the fourteenth century on, bishops and consuls shared power until the Revolution. Sarlat played an important role during the Hundred Years’ War with its status as an episcopal city.

The town became a reserve for men of arms, ammunition and provisions. The city was fortified, but it was also defended by the castles located in the surroundings, and it could lend aid to other cities besieged by the English: Belvés, Domme, Montignac.

However, Sarlat was taken by the English as a result of the Treaty of Brétigny in the year 1360. It joined the King of France again ten years later, when the Constable of Guesclin defeated the English.

If the victory of Castillon put an end – in the year 1453 – to the Hundred Years’ War, the wars of religion caused additional damage a century later. The city played the same role as before, yet had to surrender twice and suffer the exactions of the captain of Vivans and Viscount Turenne.

House of La Boétie
House of La Boétie in the old town of Sarlat

The kingdom of Henri IV allowed Sarlat to witness peaceful days. New constructions began in the city, completing the first reconstructions undertaken between the Hundred Years War and the wars of religion.

Numerous mansions were built between the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century, with the house of La Boétie and the Hotel de Vienne. At the beginning of the 17th century, the construction of the Town Hall, the Church of the Récollets and the Présidial began.

The Fronde put an end to this favorable period in the year 1652. Sarlat was again occupied by the troops of Condé. It freed itself from these invadors after a very bloody fight. Wars, epidemics of plague and floods caused damage episodically in the city. However, the city had between 5,000 and 7,000 inhabitants.

The architectural quality of these monuments testifies to its dynamism and its capacity to stay in the great economic currents. A city of merchants in the Middle Ages, it became a town of magistrates in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, thanks to its role as episcopal city and capital of the diocese.

The center of the small medieval city counts sixty-five monuments and protected buildings, and the city served as a model for its restoration when it had public funding and followed clear criteria for restoration.

The buildings with old facades were protected by magnificent roofs of lauze; they have recovered their authenticity and have gained in comfort. Visiting Sarlat will leave you with a very vivid memory. Sarlat is the heart of a Périgord that offers you thousands of treasures. Discover them without haste, and as the great Henri Miller stated: “Here is the Paradise of the French.”

The city status features towers in-between other buildings. When a merchant got rich, he bought the building next to his house and built a tower between the two. The tower served as access and usually housed a spiral staircase inside. If you walk through Sarlat, you must raise your head and you will discover many of those towers.

How have all these palaces managed to survive to this day?

After the French Revolution, the city fell into oblivion. However, it was the merchants and not the nobles who built these palaces, so their buildings were not attacked during the Revolution. Sarlat is today the European city with the largest number of buildings declared historical monuments per square kilometer.

Walking through its streets during the day allows you to enjoy the warm colors of the yellowish stone and the life of its squares full of small terraces. We must highlight Sarlat’s famous night illumination along with the tranquility of its narrow streets, making the Middle Ages feel even more present.

Saint-Sacerdos Cathedral by day
Saint-Sacerdos Cathedral by day

The Cathedral of San Sacerdos is still the most representative building of the historical center of Sarlat-la-Canéda. You can see some remains of the old Romanesque church built by the monks, who came to the village in the ninth century with bell tower dating back to the twelfth century. But most of the current building was erected from the sixteenth century forward.

Its interior presents an austere place that gives even more importance to the beautiful eighteenth-century organ, which hangs from the walls that are completely bare, decorated only with large stained-glass windows that fill the cathedral with light. The absence of altar pieces and images behind the altar is striking, something unusual in our religious buildings. The cathedral is dedicated to San Sacerdos, of which the relics are venerated.

We can find several patios belonging to the old Abbey in the back of the cathedral, the first of which is delineated by the Chapelle des Pénitens Bleus, the only building that is currently preserved from the old building. One of the most curious parts of the Cathedral of Saint-Sacerdos is the path of the niches that surrounds it, as if it were an exterior cloister.

The building is as striking like no other: a tower with a circular floor that ends with a black conical roof, making it even more of a tourist attraction for the city of Sarlat.

Next to these courtyards, we find the lantern of the dead or tower of San Bernado de Sarlat, which is a Romanesque tower of the twelfth century consisting of two parts: first, a sepulchral chapel crowned by a dome that is a place of prayer for the dead linked to Easter. Second, we find a higher room without any access. These type of towers with conical shapes were intended to facilitate the transit to the beyond of the souls of the deceased, so it is understood that this is their location, surrounded by ancient tombs carved in the stone.

It is the oldest building in the city, a relic from the 12th century, after the passage of San Bernardo through the village. The name “flashlight” seems to derive from the fact that it was used as a beacon to illuminate the lost travelers.

We can also find a lantern or lighthouse of souls in the Old Calton Cemetery in the Scottish city of Edinburgh. In that case, it was a way of telling the souls of the fallen where they had to return to rest in peace.

In the Place de la Liberté lies the old church of Sainte Marie, an old 14th century temple with large metal doors. The curious thing about this building is that more than 200 years ago, it stopped being a church going and underwent many uses: it was even an armament factory at one point, until it became the market of the city and cultural center that it is today.

When approaching the facade of the market you can see the old apse of Sainte Marie and we can see the huge doors built by Jean Nouvel, which almost reach the roof of the building. The architect also built a panoramic elevator on top of the church tower where the glass walls allow a 360º view, and where you can appreciate the harmony of its buildings, the honey color of its wallss and the medieval air that is present in every corner of the city.

The market opens in the mornings. Walking through the square is a marvel at any time of the day. Here lie the terraces of the cafes and restaurants, the weekly market stalls on Saturdays, and some of the most beautiful buildings in Sarlat: City Hall and the Gisson mansion, or Chassaing.

The Perigord is the region of the foie gras and the delicacy is on display with images of cheerful geese in many of the posters of the shops and with three statues in the geese market square. The bronze statue representing the three geese is polished due to the thousands of hands that touch them each year.

One of the most illustrious figures of Sarlat was Etienne de la Boétie, who became inspector general of finance. His native 16th century house is the most photographed in the city.

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