Sarlat! Sampling the Perigord!

Tempted to stay home by the pool, we headed off instead on this very warm day to Sarlat, in the Perigord-Noir, famous for its Saturday market – the most extensive in the Lot-Dordogne area. Sarlat also has the best preserved precinct of medieval and renaissance buildings (with cobbled streets) of anywhere in France. You feel that if you opened a door into one of the buildings around the edge of the Place, or in one of the little streets, you would suddenly not just be trying to converse in French, but hearing a medieval version of Langue D’Oc with people dressed very differently, though perhaps engaged in similar gastronomic pursuits or seeling cheese, wine, foie gras, truffles, girolles, and the other wonderful novelties the Perigord is known for.

The crowds were as huge as the markets, spilling all through the streets and laneways of the town, then out along the main road. They seemed to go on forever. There is always something new at these markets. For a start, the new things currently in season, or in this region (walnuts were being harvested) other things like linen, clothing, home and kitchen wears. Handbags – anything you could possibly think of. Street musicians added to the atmosphere as did dogs with their ‘families’ waiting patiently to move on…

It became really hot during the day and even intrepid shoppers like Sharon and I got weary in the end. We found a quiet little courtyard with and gratefully sat in the shade while we had lunch and gathered strength and fortitude to complete our mission of seeing the whole market, though alas we weren’t successful – we left with the stalls seeming to go on forever. And people (customers and vendors) still seemed to be arriving as we were leaving.

In spite of the crush though, people were really friendly. There queues at some stalls but they were quite social and festive rather than people being crotchety. One chap was selling roast poultry – chickens of various varieties, ducks, and turkeys. He told us the two turkeys were Bush and Sarkozy… and that we could have the real Sarkozy for free – maybe we could even be paid to take him away? There was much merriment amongst the crowd. Maybe standup comedy in his day job. And maybe everyone seemed to be in a good mood because we realised how lucky we were to be there!

Heather, Tina and Sharon

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Sorcery, magic and simples…

There is a wonderful world of secret gardens in Cahors that take you into its medieval history in a way that architectural remnants can’t by themselves. We collected a map from the tourist office on Diny’s recommendation and followed the bronze markers embossed with an acanthus leaf design on our magical tour.

Each garden evokes its own specific medieval past. There are the gardens that recall the various orders of monks and nuns, their herbariums, vegetables and bee keeping. There are the scented gardens of delight of the ladies of Cahors, the spice gardens recalling the spice merchants, the Crusaders and their military post and courtyard garden. An Italian inspired garden reminds us of the bankers from Lombardy and their glory – and later infamy. There are little gardens – only a planter pot or two, and big gardens – like the one climbing all the way down the hill to the riverside by way of four terrace gardens honouring the ferrymen. There are gardens recognising pilgrims who’ve been travelling through here even before it became a stop on the way to St Jacques de Compostela. And they still travel through here. There are gardens for contemplation, and gardens for lovers. And being back in the Middle Ages, there is the witches’ and dragon’s garden.

The pictures only tell a very small part of the story, and in fact we weren’t even able to visit all of the secret gardens, but here are some of them to pique your interest. It’s a bit of a walk, so don’t rush. Smell the roses if you can…

Heather and Tina

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Cahors – ancient stories, modern jazz

Cahors is the capital of the Lot Department with a very long history but very much a part of the present as well. It sits on a peninsula formed by the River Lot running around it, between Paris and Toulouse, with Bordeaux to the west and the Massif Central to the east.

As far back as 800 BC it was inhabited by Celts. Then of course the Romans marched in and took over building in their inexorable fashion, leaving a bridge specially for UNESCO’s list, and even more interesting to lots of people, planting the vines to produce the ‘black’ wine Cahors – and the Lot in general – is so proud of and renowned for.

But Cahors’ real glory days came to its glory during the Middle Ages. This was when Pope John XXII, a local Cahors boy, came to power. Although the seat of the papacy at that time was Avignon, he kept his contacts and power in Cahors encouraging trade, finance and architectural development, and enticing an influx of Lomard bankers and merchants. Cahors was now on the map as a financial centre for Europe. Alas, history so often repeats itself. They had their own GFC as bankers became usurers (by now called Caorsins), who gave the whole city a very bad rap, and were immortalised as a very bad bunch by Dante in The Divine Comedy.

The Musée de Cahors Henri-Martin houses archeological artifacts as well as fine art. What I will never forget was a work by Henri Matin (a post-impressionist painter who studied under Delacroix). He retreated to La Bastide du Vert in the Lot after spending time in Paris and winning varioius awards. Here he painted a large triptych that takes up a whole wall in gallery alcove where it is now situated. It was commissioned by the mayor to commemorate WWI and shows a memorial day with the townspeople gathered around the memorial. What is so poignant is the absence of the generation of men who were obviously lost in the war. Their wives and children are there – remembering them…

And there was something else really special about Cahors…

Heather and Tina

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Castelnaud, the fortress

After leaving Josephine Baker and Milandes, seeing we were in the area, we decided to check out Chateau de Castelnaud (the original seat of the Caumont family responsible for building Chateau de Milandes.)

Overlooking the Dordogne River and guarding the little town of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, this very imposing chateau today houses a museum full of ‘war weapons’ and anything else thought to be a good way of disposing of other human beings or at least making them suffer. Among the many 13th Century weapons and war-outfits of mass destruction there’s a huge catapult known as a ‘siege engine’ (not to be confused with today’s ‘search engine’) which would be used to hurl rocks at the walls of enemy fortresses or just reek havoc generally. There’s also a thing known as an ‘organ gun’ the ancestor of the Gatling Gun. It was based on one of Leonardo da Vinci’s designs.

Built in the 13th Century the chateau was owned by a Cathar called Bernard de Casnac, it was taken over by one Simon de Montford who set up his garrison only to have the chateau reclaimed by the very annoyed Bernard who decided to hang Simon’s lot to teach everyone a lesson. The chateau was the scene of many a gruesome battle over the centuries. During the 100 Years War the English and French pummelled each other relentlessly in various areas of France and this particular chateau was no exception.

During the 1300’s it was taken over by the Caumont family who ruled fiercely and wouldn’t take any ‘lip’ from anyone. However the chateau was lost and won it seems many times until the Caumont’s managed to take charge for once and for all, increasing the fortifications. This ‘fortress look’ didn’t appeal to Mme Caumont, deciding that she’d prefer to live in a place more in tune to a ‘fairytale’ castle. Mr Caumont obliged by building the gorgeous Chateau des Milandes (already mentioned in reference to Josephine Baker). By the French Revolution the Chateau-de-Castelnaud fell into total disrepair but since then it has become privately owned and open to all and sundry.

However by now, fatigue was setting in and none of us were in the mood to check the ancient gadgets of mass destruction. We preferred to wander about the picturesque lanes and take in the magnificent views of the river and surrounding countryside from this wonderful high vantage point. After a while we found a great café in the perfect viewing spot and decided to have an early ‘happy hour’ with sumptuous desserts – to revive our energy levels!


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Finding Josephine Baker in the Perigord

After calling in at our little Puy-L’Eveque market and buying some good sharp knives, local saucissons fresh fruit and vegies, including our first lot of local chantrelles one day, we set of for the Château de Milandes. The closer we got, the more the weather closed in til it was drizzling and quite cold for a summer’s day.

At one time this was the home of Josephine Baker, the famous American dancer who came to Paris, took it by storm, fell in love with France, (which was reciprocated enthusiastically) and she made it her home for the rest of her life. We were surprised to find that this château was not far from where we were staying.

The château itself was built way back in the 15th century by the Lord of Castelnaud to please his wife. (She liked romantic castles rather than fortress castles.) Over the centuries the castle went through various ups and downs, until one day, while visiting the Perigord (no doubt sampling the delicious delicacies as well as admiring the fabulous countryside), Josephine discovered the Chateau des Milandes, fell in love with it, rented it, and eventually bought it, calling it her ‘Sleeping Beauty Castle’. With its magnificent sweeping views over the surrounding countryside it also became home to the two daughters and ten sons she adopted – her ‘Rainbow Tribe’. Her loyalty to her adopted country was proven during WWII when she worked with the Resistance. For her contribution she was awarded the prestigious Croix de guerre. She was indeed a remarkable woman.

The château at Milandes now celebrates Baker’s life – her life on the stage, her children and private life, and her Resistance work. There are many original costumes which she wore for her shows including the famous ‘banana skirt’ which is, as it sounds, just a very skimpy skirt made out of a continuous row of artificial bananas. And that’s all that particular costume consisted of – no top – so she danced and sang and girated all over the stage with bare breasts and bananas swinging. Risque then and probably risque now – can’t see Madonna wearing this kind of thing on stage. But its not all showbiz. Her army uniform is also there. And the room and furniture – both hers and some used by her children. You’ll have to go there yourself, as photographs aren’t allowed inside.

Reluctantly we left the beautiful grounds and went to JB’s memorial park in the little town of Milandes – a lovely picnic area – where we had another one of our sumptuous repasts – (and weeded the beds of Josephine Baker roses).

Heather, Tina and Sharon

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