A 3-Star Town in the Dordogne
Someday I’ll write about why it’s a great idea to visit Sarlat-le-Caneda, the perfectly-preserved medieval town in the heart of the Périgord Noir in the Dordogne. It’s one of France’s most popular tourist destinations (last time I was there I heard more British accents than French!), and within 30 minutes of some of France’s most interesting historical sites – great castles, prehistoric cave painting, troglodytic homes. 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.
Today, though, I want to talk about the town’s market. True, you may have seen street markets in many other villages in your travels around France; they are an integral part of life in this country, a place for neighbors to meet, for local farmers to sell their best produce, a place to dig into the best of French food and drink. Sarlat, though, is special to me, with a richer history than most village markets and a broader variety of products on any given Saturday than you’ll find elsewhere.
At the center of the action in Sarlat
My apartment, rented for the next 9 days, sits on top of a café overlooking the town’s great Place du Marche. The days have been intensely hot, topping 94 ° F (34 ° C), and I have only a floor fan with a broken stand, so I’ve slept with the windows thrown open. The banging and shouting begin just after 4:00 a.m. as the first trucks arrive in the space and merchants begin reconstructing their booths and awnings for the long day ahead.
(One of the things that strikes me about every market in France is how much labor these merchants must invest as they move from town to town, installing their equipment, unloading their wares, staffing the booth all day, keeping an eye on the passing crowds as they try to talk to a specific customer, then tearing everything down, cleaning up, reloading, and moving on to some other town to repeat the whole process in a day or two!)
By 7:00 the market is open for business (although stragglers will continue to arrive to set up their smaller stands in the little niches that aren’t already taken until 9:00 or later). The first customers start to walk slowly through the Place while the produce is still at its freshest, while the baguettes are still warm. By noon the crowd in the narrow streets will be shoulder-to-shoulder and there’s no way to hurry through; that will last until around 6:00 p.m. when the stalls start to close and the crowd begins to scatter into the bars and restaurants around town.
(Here's a video that will give you an idea of the work that goes into setting up the market and a flavor of life in Sarlat on market days.)
Almost everything for sale in the central Place du Marché is related to food or wine – clothing, carved wooden toys, leather goods and other stands appear to be relegated further from the main activity, on side streets or at the edge of the town’s center.
An 800-year-old tradition
I think the thing that pleases me most, personally, about markets like this is knowing that people have been doing this work, engaging in this kind of commerce, for hundreds and hundreds of years. They came when the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion ravaged this part of France; they came when Revolutionary fever swept through the country, and they came even in years when crops failed and the food they had to sell was poor and scarce.
That sense of history is present in a few other markets we’ve visited around France – I’m thinking particularly of the fine smaller market in Vienne, south of Lyon, which can also trace its roots to the Middle Ages – but it’s heightened in Sarlat because of the setting itself. This town is almost perfectly preserved as it would have looked in the 14th century; all the buildings in the center have authentic roots in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It’s so authentic, in fact, that it shows up regularly in movies like The Musketeer (2001) and Luc Besson’s 1999 biography of Joan of Arc, The Messenger.
A universe of fresh food and wine
So there’s plenty to see in Sarlat even if you don’t come on market day – we’ll come back to explore its medieval streets further in a future post. But if you can plan to be in town on a Saturday, what riches you’ll find!
There are enormous steaming skillets of paella if you just want something to eat right now…
Grapes the size of golf balls…
Peppers in more colors than I knew existed…
Earthy, rich sausages made from any meat you can imagine (that’s sanglier – wild boar – sausage in the foreground) …
Cocktail olives in a variety of flavors…
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…
An ancient church transformed into a gourmet temple
But if you want to really go “local” while you’re here, 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.
Continuing the tradition of the ages in Sarlat
We’ve been back to the Sarlat market several times in the years we’ve been travelling in this corner of the deep heart of France – and every time we make our way slowly through the crowds, checking out every stand as though it’s the first time we’ve been there. Amazingly, the products remain the same, although they do seem to get better over time (and the prices certainly get higher).
Still, it’s the dramatic setting, the graceful Renaissances houses of noble families, the ancient Cathedral and Bishop’s house, the beautiful soft lighting on the facades as the sun goes down, that transport us to another time and remind us why people have been participating in this same ritual for hundreds of years.
Do you have a favorite “market 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!