Saturday, September 3, 2016

Homing in on Sarlat...


Sarlat-la-Canéda is a medieval town that developed around a large Benedictine abbey. A wealthy trade centre during the Renaissance, it was later forgotten by history thus remaining essentially unchanged. It is today the French town that boasts the largest concentration of historical buildings by the square meter.

The town’s central streets are car-free, the scars of modern life are accurately hidden, and night comes with the glow of gas-lit lanterns. As in medieval times, Sarlat comes alive with sprawling weekly markets and imaginative street entertainments – jugglers, magic acts, organ grinders and so on.

People tend to be sensitive, often dogmatic, about boundaries - in particular those not set in stone. Historical Périgord – coinciding with the modern province of Dordogne – is loosely divided into four color-coded parts: green for its bucolic scenery in the north; white for its chalky hillsides in the center; purple for its vineyards in the south-west; and black for the thickness of its forests in the south-east.

When you look at a map the colors blend at their margins, making it hard at times to determine where to locate a particular village. And yet realtors are very trenchant in that regard. There is only one Périgord they speak of – black! – and the Sarlat area is its epicenter, home to the most spectacular course of the Dordogne River, to the most impressive castles, to the most beautiful villages, and the most sensational food.

I realize that we skirted Sarlat during our earlier Périgord years – especially in summer – because of its tourist appeal. La Placette Haute, our first project in France, was found in frenzy for authenticity and seclusion, set in the exact middle of thirteen hectares of forest. It was therefore odd to consider buying in Sarlat, even if we were now aiming at something a bit less ‘undiscovered’. Yet when a hotel particulier of the 17th century, tucked in one of the narrow streets of the prized protected enclave, came on the market we could not help reviewing our criteria.

Dan saw the building first although he could not visit entirely because the agent did not have all the keys. ‘There is no garden,’ he told me on the phone.  ‘But it has a delightful balcony large enough for a table for four.’ We visited together on Easter Monday when the town was showing off in spring colors and swarming with the first flow of the season. As we studied the composite façade – slightly curving along the street and defensively compact at its end – and roamed around the vacant rooms inside I was taking photos. A good sign compared with previous house visits when we would exchange gloomy looks behind the agent’s back.

The honey color of the stones cut from the local quarries is the house’s warmest welcome. The irregular pattern of its tall paned windows opens with an impressionist effect of the wavy glass onto the stony lauze roofs and the spire of the cathedral. No garden, but the balcony solidly resting on medieval corbels and fenced with a wrought iron railing of naïvely entwined hearts is where the house takes a breath of fresh air and mixes with the smells of nearby bakeries and the cries of swallows.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

What's in a Name?

Admittedly I too have always been under the spell of a name, capable as it is to capture the essence of a place. The name works both ways. Either it crystallizes its character for us or we can form a complex impression of a place by assimilating its name alone. In other words, which of the two comes first? Which one lends its magic to the other?

In my childhood, two places contended for my small world: the village of Collevalenza, one third of which was taken up by my family home, and Rome. In between the two, before the construction of the highway, a long torturous route twisted along river gorges and climbed countless hills, often making me sick. Returning to Collevalenza hinted at the aches and pains of the journey to reach that single hilltop, colle, whereas Rome – built on no less than seven – was easy to transit, and great was my incredulity that so short a name could contain such immeasurable city.

Later my family moved to a country estate called La Cervara. No other place-name was more evocative than that, its final large vowels suggesting some pastoral grandeur. The word cervo (deer), a noble animal that was never seen in the environs, added an exquisite exoticism. It was like admiring a 17th century Italian engraving where the vista is gracefully framed by oak trees whose leaves are rendered by repetitive finger-like pencil strokes.  La Cervara, 'home' for almost twenty years, was seldom referred to as such. We would not go 'home' as much as we would go to La Cervara.

My life there made me unquestionably sensitive to the beauty of a toponym. Even before seeing Fossemagne – where we bought our previous property in the Dordogne – I knew I was in for a bad surprise. The big ditch that its low Latin root calls to mind, and the sense of staleness that its series of consonants imply, materialized before our eyes on our first visit to the village, with its row of sad houses clad in colorless resignation.

To amend the sense of stagnation, we added the adjective haute to the name of our property. Yet despite being in the heights of Fossemagne, at a convenient distance from the village, La Placette Haute still had a diminutive ring to it, inexorably rhyming with words like launderette or luncheonette. During our stay there, I must confess that this was a sore point for both of us. Under the fiction that part of our land fell to the jurisdiction of the neighboring commune of Ajat – a gem of a hamlet congregating around its chateau – Dan adopted it as his address. How much would I have preferred to make Auriac-du-Périgord mine – only fifteen minutes away, with a name sounding deliciously hollow like a cavity dug by prehistoric waters in sandstone.

Later on, while looking for a new property, we would enquire about its name first. The manor house of Montchoisi was a palatable option for a while. Not only did the house appear like a neglected yet noble country repair amid century-old trees, its very name contained the idea of both elevation and exclusivity, bringing to mind Watteau-esque scenes of rustic bacchanalia.

Another property caught our attention in haughty Hautefort, most regrettably sitting along the Allée de Bastard, named for the family that ruled the village and its phenomenal castle for centuries – and must have thus compensated the unsavoriness of its name with the glamour of its landed prestige. But for us it was too close a reminder of the Umbrian town of Bastardo that Dan and I always call the town-that-dare-not-speak-its-name. Sarlat-la-Canéda is the most appetizing moniker of all. Whatever cooks in your mouth when you utter the name is redolent with the southwestern aromas of duck fat and truffle.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

New logo in an ancient heraldic style

I have overheard various people, in a variety of languages, talking down on the street about our new logo coat-of-arms that Francesco and I devised and that is now displayed on a painted ceramic plaque on the weathered stonewall outside our front door.

The plaque was painted and fired in Todi by an artist friend of Francesco’s named Orietta Giammarroni from a stencil sketch we got to her at her little jewelery and ceramics shop there. 

It is rewarding to me, a lifelong hobbyist in heraldry, to hear able recitations of the design elements and historic background of each part of the motif. I am especially happy when I hear parents relating these to their children. There are five components, each representing the mascots and namesakes of our five rental suites.

At the top of the shield in gold on red, La Salamandre – the official heraldic symbol of Sarlat granted by the king of France at the close of the 100 Years War. This replaced the plain letter ‘S’ on the town’s coat-of-arms and honored the city folk for their stalwart and unswerving loyalty to the French crown during that long struggle against the English (1337-1453). The so-called ‘fire salamander’ was often found lurking, still alive, in the ashes of burned logs and became synonymous with lack of fear and its imperviousness to danger.

In the top left corner of the lower four spaces is Le Griffon, gold on blue and red, the mythical beast that is part lion and part eagle. We display it rampant, or in a fighting stance as it was a symbol of manly battle against evil, warding off foes foolhardy enough to approach one’s sacred family hearth.

Next to it, white on blue, is peaceful Le Caladrius, a wondrous bird said only to dwell in royal households where it served its monarch by purging, through its flight, all troubles, vexations, and ill health.

On the left of the lower tier, also white on blue, is beautiful La Licorne, the fabled unicorn of the middle ages. This endearing creature gently protected girlhood innocence but could, rearing into righteous anger, spear away un-wanted advances and uncouth suitors.

Lastly is majestic Le Phenix, dating back to Greek myth, the miraculous bird arising from the ashes and symbolizing rebirth and new beginnings.

The whole design is surrounded by a white leather strapping embossed with the business name Les Suites Sarladaises. In ancient times, this heraldic motif - drawn from the trappings of a knight's horse - was often used for family mottos or to record membership in honorary orders of chivalry.

Welcome to our new blog!

We are now open for business in the heart of old Sarlat, capital of the Perigord Noir area of the Dordogne. An urban 'gite' - self-catering vacation rental - in one of the most popular tourist destinations in France.

We spent three full years renovating this property and will now share some of our stories. A few of our frustrations for sure, but also the joyous moments too.

We have three studios and two spacious apartments, each with kitchen facilities and nice bathrooms, all within a few steps of the center city and its ancient cathedral. Sarlat is a beautiful and exciting town, all year round. We hope to see you here!