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Stunning Sarlat

The jewel in the crown of the Dordogne

The full name of this iconic place is Sarlat-la-Canéda and it brims with medieval riches. It is set in the middle of what most British consider to be quintessential Dordogne country, dominated by massive limestone cliffs and steep-sided wooded valleys, crossed with narrow, leafy lanes.

Sarlat is situated in the Périgord Noir, so called due to the thick, dark cloak of chestnut, walnut and oak trees that cloak the landscape. It’s a region of astounding natural beauty, providing the traveller with some of the very best scenery of pastoral France.

Sarlat at dusk
Sarlat at dusk

A brief history of Sarlat

A settlement since Roman times, Sarlat gradually became a prosperous town when a Benedictine monastery was founded there in the 8thcentury. The town survived the rigours of the Hundred Years War, and the later Wars of Religion, and grew to prosper despite being something of a backwater. 

Today its fine old buildings, important heritage and natural charm are protected. Such is the integrity of the old world architecture and absence of modern neon signage and street furniture that the town is often a location for films and TV. 

Sarlat appears to have been lifted directly from another age, and has been called the most perfectly preserved medieval town in France. At its centre lies the ancient Place de la Liberté where corbelled towers, steep pepper-pot cappings and rich ochre walls surround the visitor on all sides. From this hub radiate arched alleyways, with picturesque town houses and quaint shops just waiting to be investigated.

Streets of Sarlat
Streets of Sarlat

Sarlat - the tourist magnet

The town has an irresistible appeal for tourists who flock there in high summer. They come for the history and the heritage, the unspoilt old quarter and the chance to mooch along the ancient time-worn streets. There are intriguing churches to peek into, venerable townhouses like the Hôtel Plamon (today the Historical Museum of Sarlat), Magnanat and Vassal and elegant fountains. The delightful little St Mary fountain was carved from a natural cave in the 12thcentury.

The Place du Marché aux Oies (Goose Market Square) is renowned for its bronze statue of three life-sized geese – photographed countless times. Geese are still sold at the Fest’Oie.

A popular feature is the scenic lift at Eglise Ste-Marie, providing wonderful views over the rooftops and surrounding countryside as you climb. Tickets are available from the tourist office.

Wherever you find yourself in Sarlat, bear in mind it’s a busy place so it is generally advisable to leave your vehicle at one of the car parks on the perimeter of the old city and walk in. The old town is the very centre, while the modern outer ‘ring’ has little of interest.

Sarlat market
Sarlat market

Sarlat’s market

Reputedly the best in France, it is certainly a sensory spectacle like no other. Held in the Place de la Liberté, the main square beside the Cathédrale St Sacerdos, on Saturday mornings (get there early as it’s a busy day), it always has a great atmosphere and a bewildering array of local produce. Depending on season, you’ll find foie gras, walnuts, truffles, cheeses, strawberries, jams and preserves, wine, cepe mushrooms and a range of enticing breads.

Typical store in Sarlat
Typical store in Sarlat

Gastronomy of Sarlat

This is one of the key gastronomic regions of France. The climate, landscape and traditions ensure plentiful produce and real quality. This is very much the land of the goose, with goose fat being the common cooking medium, and foie gras is a delicacy often paired with the elusive truffles which are sniffed out by dogs, pigs and man in the misty autumn.

Sensational looking produce graces the stalls of every market and roadside vendor – artichokes, tomatoes, chicory, cabbage, garlic, fruits like fragrant sweet strawberries and cherries are all a speciality. Not to mention nuts, artisan biscuits and delicious goats cheeses. Duck dishes are regional classics, notably magret de canard, and the celebrated pommes de terre sarladaises (potatoes cooked with garlic and duck or goose fat) are a must-try. 

The food around Sarlat, and the wider region, is so good partly because of the healthy competition which keeps prices keen and quality high. There are few places in France where you can eat out so well and at such good value. 

Eating out in Sarlat itself is a real pleasure. Stroll the streets before you settle on a restaurant. Peruse the menus, usually displayed outside or in a window and weigh up the ambience, how busy the restaurant is (a reasonably full restaurant is usually a good sign and far preferable to an empty one), and the choices on offer. Don’t go for the cheapest, you will usually be disappointed; and the menus fixes are usually excellent value and offer a modest choice.

Wherever you choose, enjoy your surroundings. Sitting at a table outside a Sarlat restaurant, sipping a decent Bergerac as the sun goes down and the swallows swoop among the ancient rooftops, is one of life’s pleasures.


Top 5 places around Sarlat

Domme
Domme
Domme

Probably the most famous and beautiful bastide in Périgord. This fortified hilltop village was built around 1280 and offers one of the finest panoramic views in France from the ramparts overlooking the entire Dordogne valley. It is French charm personified, with little streets and lanes to wander and underground grottes, or caves, below the ancient market place.

Beynac
Beynac
Beynac


One of France’s great historic castles, it perches on a rock from where the French would glower at the English across the river in Castelnaud. With a colourful history over the Hundred Years War, involving Richard the Lionheart and Simon de Montfort, it is today a fascinating place to visit. 

Castelnaud
Castelnaud
Castelnaud

Built in the 12thcentury to command the valleys of the Dordogne and Céou, it conveys a real sense of history and has a wonderful panorama from its terrace. 

Jardins de Marqueyssac by Ladislaus Hoffner CC BY-SA 4.0
Jardins de Marqueyssac by Ladislaus Hoffner CC BY-SA 4.0
Château de Marqueyssac


This 17thcentury château is lovely but it’s the exquisite gardens that people come from afar to see. Of national importance, the 6 km of meandering paths are lined by clipped box hedging and topiary in sweeping, swirling shapes that are the stand out feature. 

La Roque St Gageac
La Roque St Gageac
La Roque St Gageac

This remarkable village clings to the cliff face above the Dordogne. So precarious does it look that it gives the impression of being about to fall away from the cliff side. It is incredibly beautiful with winding alleys lined with artisans and merchant houses. Boat trips and canoe excursions depart from here and are thoroughly recommended.

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