Why this bijou Perigord town attracts 1.5m visitors each year
Sarlat, a small town of some 10,000 people in France’s Perigord, part of the Dordogne, lives comfortably in the midst of 15,000 years of human history. Only a few minutes’ drive from the prehistoric caves of Lascaux, six hours from Geneva by road, it might seem that “modern history has largely passed it by”.
That’s not true, despite wikipedia’s snap judgement, as this article will make clear. But the town remains one of the most representative of 14th-century France, with 77 protected monuments. It’s also, unfairly, been called a time warp town. So this first part is bound to read like a promotional brochure.
Sarlat’s limestone buildings have been carefully maintained or restored, largely because in 1962 it became the trial site for a law to protect the patrimony of French towns. This was the brain-child of writer and Culture Minister André Malraux. During World War II, Malraux was very active, as Colonel Berger, in a Resistance cell in and around the Dordogne.
Wikipedia explains: “While visiting Sarlat [after becoming Minister], he realized that the city was in danger of ruin in certain neighbourhoods and that some monuments were being destroyed. The Saved Areas Act was drafted to save the city.”
Sarlat now has the highest density of ‘Historic Monuments’ and ‘Classified Monuments’ of any town in France. A square and gallery in the town are named after Malraux.
Sarlat’s centre in summer. Photo: wikipedia Jack R. Blaze
The region is also a gastronomic centre, known for its foie gras, truffles, magret and confit de canard (duck specialities) – and this time of year for cèpes (boletus/porcini mushrooms). Bergerac, whether white, red or rosé, is the wine of choice.
For foreign visitors it is often the starting point for trips around. For example, to La Roque Gageac, a member of “France’s most beautiful villages” association, with stone houses built up against a steep rock face and a riverside offering trips on boats based on the Dordogne River’s old trading vessels.
Close by Sarlat are Domme, a fortified medieval town where many Knights Templar were imprisoned (their graffiti survive) and the site of long English-French and Protestant-Catholic disputes, and Beynac, which has what many consider the region’s most beautiful castle.
Equally close is the Chateau of Milandes, once home to the American singer and dancer Josephine Baker, who used it in World War II to store arms for the French Resistance and hide British, Polish and Belgian pilots during the Occupation. She adopted 12 children and created here a “world village” designed to give a home to orphaned children of different races, religions and nationalities, as well as offering holiday accommodation as a business. Baker opened a theatre at the chateau, gave performances, and helped improve life for the villagers of Les Milandes. The present owners have kept the beautiful rooms as close in detail as possible to Baker’s time, while continuing restoration, and have carefully labelled displays as well as producing a portable audio guide to the mansion. A statue of Josephine was recently erected in the village.
But for most visitors, the many castles and countryide are unexpected bonuses to their exploration of the Perigord’s prehistoric past and rich food offerings. The region was a centre of Magdalenian culture (17,000-12,000 years ago). These tool-making people, who numbered perhaps as many as 50,000, are thought to be semi-nomadic hunters, with the great increase in art forms indicating they had leisure. They disappeared as herd animals became scarce when the climate warmed. “It has been suggested that the complexity of the later cave art represents an attempt by Magdalenian man using ‘sympathetic magic’ to cause the animals to once more become abundant,” notes the Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Magdalenian culture owes much to the abundance of food, allowing time for leisure and the development of religion and aesthetics.”
The Abri of Cap Blanc contains animal engravings and the replica of young woman’s skeleton found here, the most complete Upper Paleolithic skeleton in Northern Europe. The frieze engravings, including at least ten horses, are considered “the most dramatic and impressive examples” of art from this period some 11-15,000 years ago. It is believed this Magdalenian woman was buried deliberately.
The prehistoric sites were preserved because sandstone rock slides sealed them off for centuries. Sarlat preserved itself by being cut off from the main railway lines (it now has a good connection to Bordeaux) and was outside the major trading routes of France.
The region’s history has been used in many films. Ridley Scott’s The Duellists (1978) used the region as its setting. The pyramid tomb of its inspiration, a French general in the Napoleonic wars, can be viewed in the cemetery. The director came back to film scenes for The Last Duel (2021). Other films that have used its historic buildings include Luc Besson’s Joan of Arc (1999).
But Sarlat is also a community that today prides itself on its openness to the modern world. Not just because it is “besieged by tourists at almost all times of the year”, particularly from Northern Europe, as one guide notes. The Sarlat Theatre Festival is the biggest in La Nouvelle Aquitaine and one of the best known in France, with open-air performances at the end of July and beginning of August. It celebrated its 70th anniversary this year.
For 31 years Sarlat has also held a film festival known for its adventurous choices of international films you might find it difficult to see elsewhere outside their home countries. It has also established itself as “the festival of high-school students (lycéens)”.
The latest edition took place on 8-12 November. The film programme brings 600 lycéens to Sarlat-la-Canéda (the commune’s official title for the two joined settlements), and includes the opportunity for the school pupils to make a short film in the streets of Sarlat helped by working directors and editors, with professional actors playing their scripts. The films are then projected in the local cinema. There are also six workshops for students, free and open to the public. Topics this year include filming with portable equipment, film criticism on social media, and video games.
In 2022 the school filming programme switched its rules by giving the teenagers a common scenario to film. And its study sessions featured a restored version of Federico Felliini’s 1953 film about young people in Pescara, I Vitelloni (‘The Layabouts’), the film that French lycéens are studying for the 2023 baccalauréat (school-leaving exam).
It also planned to project two films throughout Perigord in a cinema chain using decentralized means and one of them, Les rascals by Jimmy Laporal-Trésor, a story of gangs preying on Blacks and Arabs in Paris, was to be transmitted in high schools of the region, in the presence of the director in the afternoon, as well as the film selections in the morning.
In fact, this willingness to go outside conventional boundaries doesn’t just take place on five days in November. The local cinema held its 4th international festival of shamanic films earlier in October, and it has run unusual foreign films for years – the latest Costa Brava, Lebanon, the first film of 31-year-old Mounia Akl, about a family trying to resist exploitive encroachment by politicians on their eco-friendly existence in the hills outside Beirut. On rottentomatoes it has won an 89% approval rating and is available for rent on Amazon Prime and iTunes.
One unusual aspect of the movie was that the young girl who played what became the main character was brilliantly played by twins, Ceana and Geana Restom. The local film club’s presenter filled in Lebanon’s catastrophic political background in an informative talk to spectators beforehand. Its environmental disaster theme made it resonate as our own possible futures very soon.
My tips for your trip:
On the way from other parts of Switzerland besides Geneva: break your journey at Parigny: Le Dahu. A charming hotel with super food at a fair price that gets a bum rap on TripAdvisor and skirts Lyon on the north. 30min from Geneva itself.
Streetmap of Sarlat and attractions (LINK)
Film festival programme (LINK): Apart from French movies, the selection for 2022 includes films from Tunisia, Turkey, Chile, Austria, the U.K., Spain, Iceland, Algeria, Pakistan, Finland, Russia, South Korea, Morocco, Italy and Norway.
Where to eat? I had been warned to avoid the tourist traps but Sarlat is cosmopolitan enough for that not to seem to matter. We ate at l’Imprévu for CHF25 each with wine surrounded by visitors as well as locals and it was great. And that was true elsewhere as well. And we felt welcome everywhere.
tripadvisor. Explore Sarlat-la-Canéda. (LINK)
Abri de Cap-Blanc: can accommodate 25 visitors, and the tour is a comfortable 1-hour. The Grotte des Combarelles nearby will set you thinking – how did they carve the figures so close to the floor in such narrow tunnels, but visiting groups are limited to 7 at a time. Star of the show is the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume with 200 illustrations, some polychrome, but limited to 13 visitors at any time. You may have to book it days in advance. They are all close together.
Limieul: another of the “most beautiful villages of France”, where the Dordogne meets the Vézère, “not usually completely overrun with tourists”, according to its website (but see below). Here I was introduced to the restaurant Le Chai near the water with its beautiful garden and exceptional cooking at a reasonable price. The village itself has an extremely steep street, which I did not attempt. Wikipedia is rather snooty about it: the “derelict houses were steadily bought, to be restored by French, Dutch, English, German, South African, and Australian second-home owners. The original village (of barely 30 permanent, year-round, residents now) has to endure all the inconvenience – as well as some benefits – of this mass inflow.” It was charming in October.
If you want a panoramic view of the hills around, Domme has a charming, reasonably priced restaurant (Le Belvedère) at the top of the town with parking nearby.
Les Eyzies-de-Tayac is for some “the world capital of prehistory” at the confluence of the Vézère and Beune Rivers, with a friendly café on the High Street with parking nearby and an original choice of music for its ambience, appreciated by other travellers as well as myself (see the link). Another “tourist trap” well worth your time.
Le Bugue is also on the Vézère, at the meeting point with the Doux. It’s worth a trip for its Aquarium, the largest freshwater aquarium in Europe with 6,000 animals and demonstrations by staff to explain aquatic life, though it closes for winter. TripAdvisor has critical reviews from last year, but nothing to complain about in October 2022, except that the pricing is set for families to visit more than one of the attractions. Everything is set up for children, with “jungle golf”, a “prehistoric labyrinth”, virtual reality and lazer game arcades – “13 universes of pleasure” in conjunction with nearby Journiac, according to Univerland’s blurb. Worth putting in your diary for a family outing if you have young children.
Uzerche. Wikipedia says: “In 1787, the English writer Arthur Young described the town as ‘the pearl of the Limousin’ because of its picturesque setting. Since 2010, [it] has been listed among the towns of France to be worthy of a “plus beau détour”.
Explore prehistory: Why did ancient humans paint the same 32 symbols in caves all over Europe? 4 November 2022 npr TED Talks (LINK)