Steve Smith, who co-authors our France guidebook with Rick, favors the word “sensational.” I don’t tend to describe things as “sensational,” but if ever a town deserves that superlative, it’s my favorite town in France: Sarlat.
For a traveler, Sarlat ticks all the boxes: It’s beautiful and idyllic, but still feels real. It’s tourist-friendly without being objectionably touristy. It’s just the right size — about 10,000 people — but because it’s a population center for the most scenic stretch of the Dordogne River Valley, it has the bustling metabolism of a city double its size.
Sarlat is built out of a soft-focus, distinctly hued limestone that’s perfectly described in our France guidebook as “lemony.” The only other place I’ve seen that’s so liberally brushed with this palette is England’s Costwold villages…putting Sarlat in pretty good company. (In this photo, Sarlat is busy with its twice-weekly market. More on that in my next post.)
Sarlat decided to convert this old church into a market hall. The Jurassic Park-sized doors are cracked open each morning, when the vendors inside are selling local products.
Sarlat sweetly fills a valley with its stony homes. The church/market hall is equipped with an open-air glass elevator that zips sightseers up, Willy Wonka-style, to this viewpoint. The worthwhile trip comes with a little English commentary. My guide explained that the town’s full name, “Sarlat-la-Canéda,” represents the two communities — Sarlat and the much smaller La Canéda — that merged into one. (No connection to the Great White North, however.)
This statue — on the “Square of the Geese” (Place des Oies) — makes it clear who butters Sarlat’s bread: the buttery livers of force-fed geese, better known as foie gras. In American foodie circles, chefs emphasize taking great care with ingredients as a way to show respect to the animal who made the ultimate sacrifice to please your taste buds. While that’s a relatively new (and still minority) view in the US, Sarlat is way ahead of the curve — literally putting its favorite food on a pedestal. (I’ll be discussing the Dordogne Valley’s “duck, duck, goose” approach to cuisine in a future posting.)
With so many gorgeous mansions, Sarlat had me wondering what life was like behind those yellow facades. I found my answer at Manoir de Gisson, a noble townhouse-turned-museum just steps from the goose statue. This fortified spiral stairwell connects its four period-decorated floors. Although the English descriptions were pretty dry, the space itself stoked my imagination; I enjoyed daydreaming about what it would be like to live in this splendid burg a century or five ago.
And, just because I’m so head-over-heels about this town, here are a few more pretty pictures of sensational Sarlat: