A brief history of local towns we visit
Tournon d’Agenais is a lovely village stretched along a hilltop with fantastic views over the Lot-et-Garonne. Like many historic towns in the region it was originally founded as a bastide town in 1270. At the top of the steep steps that take you up to the village, where the Place des Corniers is, you’ll find the centre of the historic village. This charming central square is surrounded by houses and café’s above arched stone arcades. The 17th century bell tower on the edge of the square has an attractive lunar clock below the bell, in copper with a deep blue background, which was added in the 19th century.
Further on is the original 13th century gateway into the town. From here you can follow other ‘rues’ to see medieval houses and on to the Place de l’Eglise to the church and the Convent of the Recollets. Originally a castle stood in this location. To the other side of the main square there are more streets to explore, with the 13th century bishop’s house called ‘Abescat’ (on Rue de l’Ecole) being the highlight. This building was used as a church from the 17th to the 19th century.
Penne d’Agenais is a small pretty village to visit and was once a stopping point on one of the pilgrim paths to Santiago de Compostella. Start your walk at the bottom and continue upwards where there are some interesting small alleys and passages to investigate en-route. There are many attractive houses and buildings, most of them carefully renovated in recent years. You will find a few tourist shops, galleries and nicely located café’s where you can stop and enjoy the local atmosphere. At the top of the village is the substantial basilica of Notre-Dame du Peyragude, surrounded by plenty of open areas suitable for a picnic.
The basilica itself looks quite impressive from the village below, but when you arrive you find it is a 20th century construction that attempts to combine elements from roman architecture with elements from the byzantine style. The view from in front of the basilica is very far-reaching and, unexpectedly, there are also some caves containing shrines at the top of the hill.
The church is the most recent of several to stand here, with earlier churches destroyed in the Albigensian Crusade and the Wars of Religion. It was following the second of these destructions that a miracle was reported here, with the Virgin Mary appearing and providing food to a shepherd boy sheltering in the ruins, as a consequence the church is still a place of pilgrimage. Ruined again after the revolution, it was at the end of the 19th century that the decision was made to erect a new church here.
Monflanquin is a bastide village on top of a hill with lovely views of the surrounding countryside. It is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France. Towards the top is the central square which is flanked by stone arcades and during the summer months this area is alive with people dining at one of the many restaurants. There is evidence of the town’s past at every turn; from museums or simply the array of the ancient and medieval architecture.
Monflanquin was founded in 1256 by Alphonse de Poitiers, and you can still see the home of the Black Prince (Son of Edward III, then Prince of Wales and Prince of Aquitaine) at the top right corner of the main square. The village is very proud of its medieval past and has gone to great lengths to make information available to visitors.
During August there are various Medieval festivals and markets. There is a highly recommended guided tour of the town, which although is in French, the humour and interest is apparent even for non-French speakers. There are also a range of other shops and facilities to peruse.
Domme is a very attractive bastide town founded in 1283 and situated on an exceptional hilltop location. It had an unstable early history and changed hands several times between the English and the French during the Hundred Years War. The turbulent times continued in the later Wars of Religion. During the Second World War the caves in the centre of Domme were used as a hideout.
The town is entered by a large fortified gate at the bottom of the main street, which is unusual for a bastide town to retain its fortifications as Domme has done. It has huge towers either side of the entrance that also once served as prisons where you can see the religious symbols scratched like graffiti on the walls by the Templar prisoners during the 14th century.
After being distracted by the side streets a little, at the top of the hill you will find a large open area with magnificent views, several cafes, and the entrance to Domme caves. The original open market hall, with impressive carpentry and stone supporting pillars, is also in this square, overlooked by the fine 15th century ‘Hotel du Gouverneur’.
The position of Domme at the top of a fairly steep hill is a large part of why the village is so special. There are 180 degree views across the Dordogne river and surrounding countryside from the terraced belvedere area at the top of the village, from where you can also see other picturesque villages including Beynac and La Roque Gageac.
SARLAT LE CANÉDA
The most famous town in the region called the Perigord Noir and one of the most renowned and visited in France. Often just called Sarlat, the town is actually twinned with its less famous neighbour and is more correctly called Sarlat le Canéda. The old town, dating from both medieval and renaissance times is a pleasure to visit. It is also one of the most attractive and well restored.
The cathedral was originally the Church of Sarlat Abbey. Over the centuries it has been added to and transformed and is now a mix of Roman, Gothic and other styles. The Cour du Cloitre and the nearby Cour des Fontaines and the Cour des Chanoines were all originally part of the abbey. The Jardin des Enfeus just above the cathedral is the ancient abbey cemetery and there are several sarcophagus and ‘enfeus’ which are tombs that are built into the church wall.
Up above the cathedral and the Jardin des Enfeus is an unusual structure – La Lanterne des Morts, ‘lantern of the dead’. This bullet shaped building has had various roles over time including a funeral chapel.
Cahors is a lively town which also has a small historic centre. Above all there is one attraction in Cahors that is unmissable and that is the famous bridge the Pont Valentré. The 14th century bridge is simply beautiful and has three towers each with large arched gateways due to its historical role as a defensive bridge. The bridge is also recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cahors shares the dubious distinction with Sodom of being mentioned in Dante’s Inferno as a wicked place! Virtually the whole of Cahors is squeezed onto a small peninsula in a loop on the river Lot.
The main road that runs through Cahors is the Boulevard Gambetta. This broad street was built in the 19th century on the line of the moat that surrounded the original town fortifications and is now the central route through Cahors. Many of the townhouses and buildings (the theatre, town hall, palace of justice) were built around the same time as part of the towns restructuring. In the historic town you will find the Cathedral, as well as a large number of impressive medieval townhouses on a warren of narrow lanes. Head South from the Cathedral along Rue Nationale, and get drawn into the side streets. Tourist classifications for Cahors include “Secteur Sauvegarde”, “Town of Art and History” and “Ville Fleurie 4*”. It is unusual for a town to have 3 awards, which shows how important Cahors is.
Although the history of the village dates back to prehistoric times, it is as a medieval pilgrimage destination that Rocamadour is best known, with the first church here being constructed in the middle of the 12th century.
The story starts in 1166 when the preserved body of a hermit, reputed to be Saint Amadour, was discovered in what was to become Rocamadour. Saint Amadour is reputed to be Zaccheus, the inn keeper who climbed the tree to see Jesus and whose wife St. Veronica wiped the face of Jesus with a handkerchief whilst he carried the cross.
After the death of his wife, Zaccheus came to Rocamadour as a hermit. He built a sanctuary in the rock and locals called him Amator (’the lover’) because of his devotion.
Hence Rocamadour was named after the rock of Amator. Within a few years of a body being found (which was perhaps his) numerous miraculous healings were attributed to the saintly remains. Pilgrims started arriving – and to this day, keep arriving!
The Black Madonna and the shrine became the main attraction for pilgrims and the town grew wealthy under the important patronage of kings and nobles of the time. Henry II of England was one of the first to come and donate a lot of treasure. The hospitals and churches, and the village of Rocamadour itself, grew to cope with the influx of pilgrims, as did the 216 step ‘grand staircase’ which pilgrims climbed on their knees to reach the village.
This town sits on a steep slope above the river, with narrow lanes winding between the ancient houses and lots of small courtyards, many of which have a particular feature that will catch your attention such as a small fountain, a medieval house with a tower or a traditional raised balcony.
These lanes soon lead you down to the riverside in Puy l’Eveque. Before going back up the hill be sure to cross the modern bridge and follow the steps down to the right at the end of the bridge. This is where all the ‘famous’ pictures of the town are taken from, and is really the best view of historic Puy l’Eveque as a whole.
Among the individual buildings of interest are the Convent of the Capucins, the 14th century Château de Lychairie and the Saint Michel Chapel. Towards the north of the town is the market square, Place de la Truffiere. The market is held in the square in front of the town hall, and there is a 13th century tower here as well. A couple of hundred metres to the west of the market place, continue through the Place Docteur Demeaux and its ancient fountain to reach the Church of Saint Sauveur, a 14th century fortified church with an attractive entrance.
Also above Puy l’Eveque you can see the remains of the town fortifications including the donjon (castle keep) and a part of an ancient castle. There is a marked path that helps make the most of a visit by highlighting the importance of individual houses and features.
This medieval town was originally a collection of ramshackle buildings huddled around a fortified castle, known as La Cité. The Pont Vieux (Old Bridge) which crosses the River Aude was the original entry road to La Cité, the medieval walled town that has witnessed so much of the Languedoc’s bloody history. The Pont Vieux takes you onto the Rue Trivalle, a narrow lane lined with ancient houses, some of which are now restaurants and antique shops.
From there it’s a short walk to the Porte Narbonnaise, the main entrance to La Cité. Once inside Carcassonne old town you are treated to a maze of winding, cobbled streets, and wide-eyed tourists: la Cité holds World Heritage Site status and is one of the most visited sites in Southern France. From the outside, its towers and slate roofs make La Cité look as if it’s from a film set.
The walls which enclose it were extensively restored in a massive programme of rebuilding which began in 1844, and this does account for its pristine, recently built appearance. This restoration has come in for some criticism, but the restorers have attempted to adhere to its original XIIIth century appearance.
There are 52 towers and two miles of double, concentric walls encircling this unique fortification. A walk along the battlements provides wonderful views of the town of Carcassonne and the flat plains of the Languedoc. The fortress was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1997, and is also a listed National Monument of France.
In 1801 the Basilica was replaced as the city’s cathedral by the elevation of the XIIIth century church of Saint Michel to cathedral status. Both buildings are open to the public but the Cathedral of St Michel does not have the historical interest of the Basilica. The origin of the Basilica is the oldest in France and has been expertly restored to its former glory.
The Château was built in the XIIth century by the Trencavels, who were the ruling family in the fortification for two centuries, and supporters of the Cathars. This unfortunately brought them into direct conflict with Simon de Montfort and the Knights Templar.
The medieval town of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, with thirteen listed historic buildings, is one of the most beautiful villages in France. Perched on a cliff three hundred feet above the river Lot, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is one of the most important sites in the Lot Valley.
Chief town of one of three viscounties of Quercy, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie was divided among several feudal dynasties in the Middle Ages whose dominant families were the Lapopies, the Gourdons and the Cardaillacs. As a result, several castles and fortified houses were built, each ever stronger, dominating the feudal village.
Below the fortress, the village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie , enclosed by fortified gates, includes many beautiful old houses whose facades of stone or wood were built between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. The various châteaux in the area are overflowing with history and were once the great houses of the Lords of the Lot. At the ruins of the fort you will discover one of the best views in the Lot valley where three noble families built their castles in the thirteenth century.
At Cénevières, open the doors of the Renaissance castle and pass through it admiring the amazing authentic decorations. The terraces offer you an absolutely exceptional view over the Lot valley. Towards the cliffs, along the valleys of the Lot and the Célé, you will be able to admire the extraordinary fortifications hewn into the rock, known as the “Châteaux des Anglais”.