Sensational Sarlat, My Favorite Town in France

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 Market OV2

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 Cotswold 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 Market Hall

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 Tower

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.)

Sarlart Geese

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 discuss the Dordogne Valley’s “duck, duck, goose” approach to cuisine in this post.)

Sarlat Mansion

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:

Sarlat Shops

Sarlat Church

 

Sarlat Night Square

8 Replies to “Sensational Sarlat, My Favorite Town in France”

  1. Its a nice town but I think this way oversells it. We spent a day in Sarlat on the RS Loire tour. The market is wonderful, probably one of the best around, but that’s pretty much it. You can only sample & buy so much food. It takes maybe a hour to poke around the nooks and crannies in the central town with the old buildings, then what do you do? The train station is about a mile away and trains are not that frequent. If you’re stuck in town for a day there simply is not enough to do.

    I much prefer Beaune with the Hospice and town as well as wineries, Colmar with the Unterlinden museum and large church, Reims or Chartres with their magnificent cathedrals, to name but a few.

  2. I take your point. Still, I come down on the side of Steve Smith and Cameron Hewitt. We overnighted in Sarlat on our Rick Steves tour several years ago. Independent travelers who make use of a car might find Sarlat to make a useful home base.

    This is a town for those who like to wander atmospheric streets and who need more than one exposure to be able to carry memories home. As Cameron’s vivid photos show, market day in Sarlat is really something. Fois Gras is big business here and I enjoyed buying some and some cheese and some saucisson to have for a picnic.

  3. Cameron, In your last photo of Sarlat with the glowing-blue evening sky, you captured a phenomenon that I’ve only ever discovered on my travels in Europe (from California). My photos of this exact same color of sky were caught in Vernazza, Italy; Carcassonne, France; and Lyme Regis, England. I’ve never seen an evening sky this color in any of the 50 States I’ve traveled to, or lived in, but I’ve seen it many times in Europe. Magnificent!

  4. We spent a week in Sarlat, a week on a wine cruise out of Bordeaux and a week in Carcassonne. Sarlat was definitely our favorite and we plan to go back. We did have a car so we got to a few other places around the area but loved just being in “our town”. Met people that we visited several times – the beer brewer especially. It does have a lot of tourists but mostly French and to get away from it all go visit St Leon sur Vezere – nearby must smaller and very quiet little medieval town.

  5. We spent two nights in Sarlat on our 3-week drive around France this summer. Absolutely lovely town. Our b&b host was a retired French diplomat. We totally understand why he chose to retire there.

  6. We made Sarlat our base for 10 days, two years ago, and had a wonderful stay. We were right above the market square, out our lower door and down the steps. The owner, Pierre Henri, helped us plan day trips and gave us maps and excellent advise. We visited the goose farm recommended by Rick and spent several hours with the owner talking politics and life. We highly recommend Sarlat and will certainly return.

  7. I am French and I approve your message, Cameron! Sarlat is, indeed, sensational, especially off-season. I recently wrote a tribute to Sarlat on my blog. I titled it “Sarlat la Magnifique.” It is well-deserved, of course! — Véronique (French Girl in Seattle)

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