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.