We’ve been to Sarlat-la-Canéda (most people just say “Sarlat”) several times, and each visit reveals more to love about this fine medieval town in the Dordogne region of France. Yes, it can be crowded and touristy on peak days in peak season – that’s why one of our favorite trips was in late February, when the market days are quieter and the chill wind makes passing an evening with a good bottle of local wine and a plate of fresh foie gras all the more inviting. Even if you can only go at the height of the summer, though, it’s one of those sites that genuinely merits your attention.
Here are 5 great reasons to plan your next holiday using Sarlat as your base for exploring this corner of the deep heart of France:
It’s an extraordinary collection of well-preserved medieval buildings with a rich history
For my most recent trip, I rented an apartment for the week overlooking the town’s central square. It’s a great place from which to admire the ensemble of Sarlat’s medieval architecture, so perfectly preserved that it’s been used in dozens of movies and TV shows from Musketeer adventures to Luc Besson’s Jean d’Arc. In my experience, there are only a few other places remaining in France that have so successfully preserved buildings that are 400 or 500 years old on this scale – Carcassonne to the south, perhaps, or Pérouges near Lyon.
People have been living here for a very long time. The cave paintings in places like Lascaux and the Font de Gaume attest to human habitation at least 20,000 years ago, and the region around Sarlat is rich with other troglodytic sites like the abbey at Brantome or the cave houses at La Madeleine. The French national Museum of Prehistory is located just up the road at Les Eyzies.
Sarlat traces its own history to Gallo-Roman times, but it really came into its own in the 700s and 800s A.D., when the Benedictines established a major abbey here under the imprimatur of Pepin the Short and Charlemagne. One of the town’s quirkier landmarks is the loaf-shaped Lanterne des Morts (Lantern of the Dead), built to commemorate a visit by Saint Bernard de Clairvaux in 1147; he was greeted by 4,000 people in the narrow medieval streets of Sarlat, and the bread he distributed to the crowd was reported to heal a great number of sick people.
The town’s most prosperous years were all in the Middle Ages, roughly the 14th to 17th centuries A.D. , so it’s not surprising that it has one of the most complete ensembles of medieval buildings to be found anywhere in France. It is surprising, though, to find so many that are so well preserved. Sarlat went through the same historical cycle that you can see in many towns in the Dordogne – prosperous for as long as river traffic was the main way to transport goods, then in long decline when railroads left it “too far removed from the main stream”, as the official history puts it.
Almost miraculously, though, Sarlat was “rescued” from its decline in 1962, when the central government, acting under the famous loi Malraux, chose Sarlat as a pilot for a new program allocating money to restoration projects in historic places like this. You can see the results all over town – the Maison de la Boetie, for example, and the half-timbered buildings that surround all the main squares.
Our favorite, though, was the Manoir de Gisson, built in the 11th century as the private house for Sarlat’s consul (magistrate). In its restored form, it has two parts – a “cabinet of curiosities” showcasing the collections of odd and interesting objects accumulated by the house’s owners over the centuries, and several rooms of private apartments restored to show what life would have been like here in the 14th century. The Manoir is still occupied – the owner lives on the 3rd floor, and outside the hours the house is open to the public, he “still profits regularly from the use of the whole monument”, according to the signs.
The street market is one of the oldest and finest street events anywhere in France
It’s been going on here for 800 years or more, and it’s one of the more popular and spectacular commercial displays we’ve seen anywhere. You can read more about it in detail here, but if you’re in the area on a Saturday you should make a point to battle the crowds and walk through the streets of Sarlat, where you’ll find enormous steaming skillets of paella, grapes the size of golf balls, peppers in more colors than I knew existed, rich sausages made from any meat you can imagine, fresh fish, and spices in bulk, the way they might have been presented at a street market just off the ship from India or China in centuries past.
Like every other important site in this part of France, Sarlat suffered the ravages of both the Hundred Years’ War and France’s Wars of Religion. Even during those times of great upheaval, though, people came here, as they continued to come when Revolutionary fever swept through the country and in years when crops failed and the food they had to sell was poor and scarce. There’s nothing scarce or poor here now, though, and you can easily make a fine picnic meal just of the things you find for sale in the town’s central square.
Local food and wine are worth a visit even if you don’t see anything else
This region is famous everywhere in the world for two of its gourmet specialties: truffles and “anything related to a duck”. These are available from many of the vendors in the street market, but to find the best suppliers I recommend you step inside the covered market set up in an old church. The Eglise Saint Marie, originally built in the 12th century and reconstructed in the 14th and 15th, was deconsecrated and trashed during the French Revolution and turned into a weapons factory and then a post office and a clinic.
The old church was rescued in 2000 in a project by architect Jean Nouvel, and the covered market inside is actually open every day of the week from mid-April to the end of October. This is where you’ll find the good stuff – meaty black truffles, whole ducks and any individual part of a duck you can imagine eating, and of course, foie gras in dozens of forms. Even if you don’t want (or can’t afford) any of the pricey gourmet treats, you might still visit here and take the glass-walled “observation” elevator that’s been built into the old church’s bell tower for a spectacular view of Sarlat and the surrounding countryside.
Of course, every restaurant in town features some of these produces on the menu, so you’ll find it easy to sample the regional specialties wherever you can find a table. I discovered a new wine here, too – Pécharmant, from the Bergerac region of the Dordogne. I loved several of the ones I sampled; it’s a full-bodied red made from some of the elements that make the Bordeaux wines further west so famous – Merlot, Cabarnet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec.
The town is a welcoming destination for English-speaking tourists
In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that only British people live in Sarlat, especially on a market day in the summer. That means, too, that most of the stores are well-equipped to pack and ship anything you find here that you don’t want to add to your suitcases.
… and Sarlat is in an incredible location for exploring the best sites in the Dordogne.
The town within 30 minutes of some of France’s most interesting historical sites – great castles, prehistoric cave painting, troglodytic homes. Here are just a few that I’ve covered already in this blog – and all of them are easy daytrips from Sarlat:
The extraordinary Gardens of Marqueyssac, one of the best family-oriented sites we’ve found anywhere in France
The incredible abbey founded by Charlemagne at Brantome, and the “secret” cave church carved into the cliff face behind it
Several centuries of troglodytic history in the caves of La Madeleine.
Of course, the famous sites where so many prehistoric cave paintings have been founded, headed by Lascaux, but also including the Font de Gaume and Les Combarelles
It’s also a perfect base for cycling, canoeing, hiking, or any other outdoor activity that appeals to you along the ancient Dordogne River. In every way that matters to a traveler, Sarlat earns the rare 3-star rating that it holds in the Michelin Green Guide. It’s a dramatic setting and if you use it as a base for your next vacation in the Dordogne I think you’ll find that the graceful Renaissances houses of noble families and the beautiful soft lighting on the facades as the sun goes down will transport you – as they transport us every time we go -- to another time.
Do you have a favorite town in France? Is there someplace that draws you back over and over again because of its history or its natural beauty? Please tell us about your experience in the comments section below – and please click on one of the social-media buttons to share this post with someone else who loves to travel in France!