Dordodge (1 to 6 August 2023)


The medieval town of Sarlat in the southern Dordogne grew up around a Benedictine abbey established here in about the late 900s.  It experienced a boom as a market town during the Renaissance, then largely fell out of view.  Of little strategic importance and untouched by the industrialisation and modernisation which caused the destruction of so many other similar towns, it stayed essentially unchanged for centuries.

Sarlat’s cultural value as one of the most intact examples of a 14th century French town was recognised in the 1960s.  It was chosen as a pilot project for restoration under new legislation which provided for the preservation of whole urban areas instead of just individual monuments and their surrounds.  The result: a meticulously restored town of honey coloured limestone buildings, remarkable in its completeness.  There’s little of the jarring inconsistency you see in towns where restoration is incomplete or interrupted by modern elements.

It has the highest density of ‘Historic Monuments’ and ‘Classified Monuments’ of any town in France and it’s on France’s Tentative List for future nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We have to say it upfront.  This makes Sarlat ridiculously over-loved.  The town of 10,000 receives 1.5 million visitors annually.  It’s the height of summer and especially on market days, it’s packed with people.

The only sane way to see the place is to stay here and  explore it in the early morning when day trippers are largely absent.

Then, it’s quite something.

Here’s our apartment with the balcony above the foie gras shop and a view of the action below.

Which came in handy for listening to the musicians who set up across the square in the evenings.  When they pumped out The House of the Rising Sun in French we just had to go down and donate to their cause.

We’ve read that 44% of French people believe the Perigord region has the best food in France.

Sarlat is in the sub-region Perigord Noir, ground zero for foie gras production.  Foie gras is on every menu and there are lots of specialty shops selling either large production or artisanal foie gras.

Place du Marche des Oies (the Goose Market) where geese and ducks were once traded, even has a statue honouring the birds.

French political theorist Etienne La Boetie, one of the earliest advocates of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance as a solution to political tyranny, was born here in 1530.  The house still stands.

As does the original abbey church, now Cathedral Saint Sacerdos.

In the grounds of the cathedral is the curious Lanterne des Morts (Lantern of the Dead).  It has two storeys but no means of access to the upper level.  No one is quite sure of its original purpose but it came to be used as a funerary place.

In contrast, the Church of Sainte-Marie was damaged during the French Revolution and stood unused from 1794 until recently converted into a covered food market.  Internationally acclaimed architect Jean Nouvelle, winner of architecture’s highest honour, the Pritzker Prize, spent his childhood in Sarlat, which may explain why he was prepared to take on such a tiny project.

It’s an imaginative re-purposing of the church with monumental 2 tonne metal doors – which many locals initially hated for being so ‘wrong’ for the building’s character – and a glass lift cunningly integrated into the former bell tower, rising up to give a bird’s eye view over the town.

Sarlat’s main square, surrounded by the town hall, old merchants’ houses and another church becomes a marketplace twice a week.  It pays to go early.  An hour after we took these photos, the streets were jammed.

The primary pastime for visitors to Sarlat seems to be strolling around the shop-filled lanes, buying a few goodies and eating in the street side restaurants to watch the world go by.

The French have a word for this.  Loosely translated as ‘gawker’, a badaud is someone who goes out looking for something to look at.  He “is astonished by everything he sees, he believes everything he hears, and he shows his contentment or his surprise by his open, gaping mouth”.

Installed in 2002, this statue called Le Badaud sits on a ledge gazing at the crowds in the busy lanes below.  He could be a subtle joke at the expense of the tourists who shuffle by, looking for something to look at.

When the crowds get too much, there’s lots to do outside town.


On 12 August 1940, a boy and his dog were walking in the countryside outside the town of Montignac, about 20minutes drive from Sarlat.  The dog, Robot, chased a rabbit and by the time the boy caught up to him, the dog had his nose stuck in a hole created by an uprooted tree.  Freeing the dog, the boy realised the hole went deeper.  Much deeper.

He returned a few days later with three friends.  An old local legend says there’s a gold treasure hidden somewhere in these hills.   They thought they’d found the entrance to the hiding place.  They hadn’t.  It’s just a myth.  But what they found was so much more valuable.

A 15 metre shaft led down to a cave system whose walls were covered in prehistoric paintings.  Almost 2,200 polychrome painted figures have been catalogued in the Lascaux Cave system, mainly bulls, horses and aurochs (a now extinct ancestor of the ox).

Just one human figure.  It has the head of a bird and it’s just an outline, lacking the colour, detail and realism of the animal paintings.

There are also hundreds of painted or etched symbols whose meaning is still unknown.

Why they were painted remains a mystery.  The caves show no evidence of human habitation or use as a burial ground, yet the painters descended the pitch black with grease lamps and built elaborate scaffolds to reach the roof and upper walls to paint.

The choice of subject matter is also curious.  No plants, flowers or landscapes and only a single depiction of a human.  Thousands of bulls and horses, but no reindeer which was Cro-Magnon man’s primary food source, and no mammoths despite the caves at nearby Rouffignac, painted in a similar era, having many.

The caves were opened to the public following World War II and crowds flocked.  Within a decade, exhaled carbon dioxide and temperature change from the more than 1,200 visitors shuffling through the caves each day was causing visible deterioration to the paintings.  In 1963, Lascaux was closed to the public.

A replica of part of the caves, named Lascaux II allowed a glimpse of what was down there, but we now live in the digital age.  In 2016, Lascaux IV was opened.  The entire 9,000 sq metre cave system has been digitally mapped and a replica, accurate to  a fraction of a millimetre has been formed and painted.  It has the same temperature – a cool 13 degrees Celsius – humidity and acoustics as the real thing.

It’s accessible by guided tour, following which visitors are free to roam around an exhibition hall with reproductions of individual paintings which an audio guide gives further information on.

That’s where our photos come from.  It may sound disappointing to only see a replica, but it’s so complete and accurate, it’s worth it, especially since there’s no way to see the original.


Walkers are spoilt for choice in the Dordogne.  Just in this general area there are more than 20 day hikes ranging from 7km to 30km.

The tiny village of Vezac is the start and end point of the Boucle les Moulins (Loop of Mills), a 10km circuit walk through the countryside past the sites of old water mills.

Most of the mills are gone now, but it’s a lovely walk and there are a couple of restored water wheels and pretty villages along the way.

La Roque-Gageac 

Built into the rock at the base of a limestone cliff on the Dordogne, La Roque-Gageac is one of France’s Les Plus Beaux Villages.

There’s an ancient troglodyte fortress dug out of the rock above, now supported by major modern columns after a near collapse years ago.

Canoeing is popular on this reach of the Dordogne.

And it’s the start point for a 10km circuit walk, Boucle les Chenes Vert (Loop of the Green Oaks) through the forest, sunflower fields and geese farms.

We picked blackberries and plums growing wild.  And as we reached the edge of town on our return, a friendly local had left some home grown plums out for passers-by to help themselves.

Local Castles 

There are many former castles within easy driving distance of Sarlat.  Some are now private houses, others are open to the public.  Here’s a small selection.

Chateau de la Malartrie

Chateau de Castelnaud-la-Chapelle

Chateau des Milandres

Milandres was once owned by American born jazz singer Josephine Baker who found fame in France in the 1940s and 50s when her home country was still deeply segregationist.

Chateau de Beynac

There are dozens more.  John’s observation?  “Seen one, seen them all”.

So we left Sarlat, one of the smallest preserved medieval towns in Europe and headed to one of the largest surviving medieval walled cities in Europe.  See our next post for details!

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  1. Alan Paul
    August 12, 2023 / 1:06 am

    I am truly a badaud – my mouth is open gawking at these photos.

  2. Therese Bowes
    August 12, 2023 / 7:57 am

    Loved the cave drawings & word for gawkers – we had the same experience with crowds in Croatia & did your trick re: get up early & experience the life if the village before the tourist rush

    • twotravelcats
      August 12, 2023 / 4:00 pm

      Thanks, T. Hope Croatia was all you hoped for.

  3. John Bowes
    August 15, 2023 / 5:45 pm

    We spent two nights and three days in Sarlat in 2011, those photos bring back great memories. Loved the markets there and we did some good walks and bike rides around the local countryside. Crowds seems to be much bigger these days!!

    • twotravelcats
      August 15, 2023 / 7:55 pm

      You’ve been everywhere! And we love swapping travel stories with you.

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