Incredible Sarlat: Past and Present, Like Waking Up in a Fairy Tale
By Sharon Kurtz
Senior Travel Writer
A fairytale come to life—that was my first impression of Sarlat. On a train journey that started in Paris, I had already spent time in many lovely French villages. I even stayed in a wine chateau in St. Emilion. But Sarlat was something else entirely.
As I stepped off the train and made my way into the heart of Sarlat, I was immediately struck by the town’s beauty. The cobbled streets, lined with centuries-old buildings made of honey-colored stone, seemed to transport me back in time.
The town’s medieval architecture is simply breathtaking. Every corner turned revealed a new masterpiece, from Gothic cathedrals to quaint half-timbered houses.
As I wandered through the labyrinthine streets of the old town, I couldn’t help but feel as though I had stepped into a storybook. At night, the gas-lit lanterns that line the roads add to the magical atmosphere, casting a warm glow and illuminating the town’s rich history.
A Historic French Region
Often called just Sarlat, the town is actually twinned with its less famous neighbor and is more correctly called Sarlat-la-Canéda. It’s located between the Dordogne Valley and the Vézére Valley in SW France’s Nouvelle Aquitaine.
One of France’s most beautiful medieval cities and best preserved, it offers a unique blend of history, natural beauty, and gastronomic delights; it feels like a journey into the past, where you can experience the charms of a bygone era.
Getting to Sarlat is a breeze, thanks to its excellent train connections and user-friendly schedules.
For those arriving by air, the nearest airports in Bordeaux and Bergerac offer convenient access. Once there, renting a car is the ideal way to explore the region.
Sarlat’s Early Beginnings
The town dates to the 9th century with the founding of the Benedictine Abbey, which has been beautifully restored. Many fabulous stone houses were built in medieval times when the town grew more prosperous as an important market center.
The town is steeped in history and filled with remarkable landmarks and monuments. As if a character in a time travel novel, Sarlat seems to transport you to a mesmerizing depiction of 14th-century France.
Immaculately restored stone structures grace the streets and squares, lending a sense of timelessness to the town.
Initially, Sarlat flourished around a grand Benedictine abbey with roots tracing back to the Carolingian era.
As a bustling market town until the 18th century, it thrived with lively trading activity, only to be forgotten for 150-year period of neglect and obscurity.
City of Art and History
Sarlat is considered one of the most beautiful medieval towns in Europe, preserving the picturesque character of its narrow streets and the beauty of its monuments. Classified as “Art and History Town,” it holds the record for the density of classified or listed historical monuments with 65 protected monuments and buildings.
In recognition of its exceptional cultural value, Sarlat-la-Canéda has been included on France’s list for a future UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.
The Malraux Law Saved Sarlat
By the mid-20th century, many of these structures had fallen into disrepair. With a history dating back to the Middle Ages, Sarlat was France’s first protected historical district to have been restored thanks to the Malraux law of 1964.
The Malraux Law, officially known as the Law for the Protection of Historic Monuments and Sites, was enacted by France in 1962.
It was named after the French Minister of Culture at the time, André Malraux, who played a crucial role in its development.
The Law aimed to protect and preserve the country’s cultural heritage by providing financial incentives to restore and rehabilitate culturally significant buildings.
Thanks to this Law, Sarlat underwent a significant transformation and continued for several decades. Many buildings were restored to their former glory,
Wander The Medieval Streets
Sarlat beckons visitors to leave the map behind and explore its medieval center’s charmingly car-free cobbled streets and alleyways.
Picturesque glimpses of French country life can be found around every corner, from quaint little cafes with traditional red-and-white striped awnings to vibrant squares teeming with life.
Don’t forget to gaze skyward to see ancient half-timbered houses when wandering through the streets and alleyways.
One of the most iconic landmarks in Sarlat is the Cathédrale Saint-Sacerdos. This stunning cathedral dates to the 9th century and is a beautiful example of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Step inside to admire its intricate stained-glass windows, ornate altar, and peaceful ambiance.
The Sarlat Tourist Office is a valuable resource for visitors, providing maps, brochures, and recommendations on attractions, activities, and restaurants in the surrounding area. They can provide information about the best places to visit, hidden gems, and insider tips to maximize your stay.
Sarlat’s Delicious Weekly Market
I was lucky to be in town during a bustling market day where locals and visitors gathered to explore many stalls selling fresh produce, local delicacies, and handicrafts.
The market, held twice weekly, is a vibrant showcase of the region’s culinary delights and comes alive with live performances by street musicians. It’s the perfect opportunity to engage with the vendors and learn about the regional culinary traditions.
The aroma of freshly baked bread was warm and inviting, wrapping around me like a comforting embrace. The colorful displays of fresh produce were so vibrant and luscious that it almost felt like the fruits and vegetables were begging to be eaten. Local walnuts were mounded high in baskets; the artisanal cheese was so creamy and indulgent that it was hard to resist taking a bite.
Local Delicacies and Gourmet Specialties
Sarlat is known as the foie gras capital of France. You’ll find whole foie gras, pâté, and terrines made of ducks and geese’ livers—I took a glass jar of foie gras home as a souvenir.
Duck is a popular ingredient in the region, and confit de canard (duck confit) is a must-try. It is made by slow-cooking duck legs in their own fat until tender and flavorful.
Many duck and goose farms dotted throughout the countryside also offer guided tours.
A life-size statue of three bronze geese stands in the center of the beautiful Place du Marché aux Oies (Goose Market Square), where live geese are sold.
The Humble noix (walnut) has been a prized product of the Dordogne for centuries. Walnuts are harvested in the autumn, but dried walnuts are available all year round. Products in every form are sold in the market, including Huile de noix (walnut oil), Nocino (walnut liqueur), and don’t miss the gateau de noix (walnut cake).
A Haven for Nature Enthusiasts
The surrounding area of Sarlat offers a myriad of outdoor activities. The Dordogne River winds its way through the region, providing opportunities for canoeing, kayaking, or leisurely boat trips. Several regional hiking trails offer picturesque countryside views and charming villages. The area is known for its beautiful cycling routes with options that appeal to all levels of expertise.
You can rent bicycles locally or join guided cycling tours. The cliffs of the Dordogne Valley provide opportunities for rock climbing enthusiasts, with several climbing sites in the area suitable for different skill levels.
Experience breathtaking views of the Dordogne Valley by taking a hot air balloon ride. From the air, you’ll get a bird’s eye view of the region’s stunning landscapes in a way that’s impossible from the ground.
The Perigord is Synonymous with Castles
Dotted throughout the Dordogne region are over a thousand castles and chateaux, each steeped in history. Perched on rocky outcroppings, they are guardians of the Dordogne and Vézère Rivers. These castles and fortresses are not just architectural marvels; they are living history. The area was a significant battleground between England and France during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), and the castles were used as strongholds for both sides.
Today, these ruins are a reminder of this turbulent past, and many are restored and open to the public. Some of the more famous include the Chateau de Beynac, Chateau de Castelnaud, and Chateau de Hautefort.
Sarlat on the Silver Screen
As you stroll through the streets, you’ll find yourself walking through the scenes of great classic films. The third most-filmed location in France, its timeless ambiance and well-preserved architecture make it a perfect setting for period dramas.
One of the most notable films shot in Sarlat is “Chocolat” (2000), directed by Lasse Hallström and starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche. Sarlat’s beautiful town square, Place de la Liberté, was prominently featured in the film, providing a picturesque backdrop for the story set in a small French village. Because Sarlat loves the cinema, it presents The Sarlat Film Festival every November.
Let Sarlat Weave its Magic
This timeless town is a history, culture, and gastronomy treasure trove. Every corner is filled with stories from the past, and every meal is a testament to the region’s rich culinary heritage. Come and lose yourself in the medieval streets, and let Sarlat weave its magic around you. Whether you are a history buff, an epicurean, or just simply in search of a fairytale setting, Sarlat is a place that should not be missed.