Blog TWHS Visits

Sarlat at Night

The Historic Center of Sarlat has been on France’s Tentative List since 2002. It lies in the Dordogne, in the same general area as the already inscribed Vézère Valley. Sarlat is considered to be one of the towns most representative of 14th century France, as modern times largely have passed it by and its historic district was ‘saved’ from destruction in the 1960’s by then French Minister of Culture André Malraux.

My visit was a very short one: I stayed there overnight during my visit to the Vézère Valley, but had little time to explore Sarlat itself. I did a quick dash into the city center on Saturday evening, just to get a feel for it and search for a restaurant. I wasn’t succesful with the latter: about half of the restaurants were closed for winter season and the other half were fully booked. The regional specialities here are duck breast and foie gras (the town even boasts a statue of 3 geese), so I can’t say this was really a disappointment as both food options do not appeal to me much.

What stood out was how dark the historic centre was. Except for the main shopping street, the other streets in town are barely lighted (they use fake / vintage gas lamps for this). The medieval stone town houses are mostly high and narrow, adding to the somewhat spooky atmosphere. One can surely film a medieval costume drama here, or a historic detective series.

Sarlat’s notable sights include the Cathedral, several Maisons (town houses) and a so-called ‘Lantern of the Dead’ (dating from the 12th century) – a “small stone tower pierced with small openings at the top, where a light was exhibited at night to indicate the position of a cemetery”. Unfortunately I missed out on that one while I wandered around in the dark! It may have been a "lantern of the Moors" instead of "lantern of the Dead" anyway

The TWHS has a very short description on the UNESCO website, as if it would be clear enough why Sarlat should become a WHS. But it’s not the “cute small town with medieval roots” where the focus lies. Criterion vi (the link with events and living traditions) features prominently here; for its theatre festival and even being a “laboratory of democracy in our country” thanks to the French humanist La Boétie. I had never heard of the guy, but apparently we should remember him as “one of the earliest advocates of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance” (wiki).

As a conclusion I give it a ‘Thumbs down’ – it is pretty but what does it add to what’s already on the List? Some of us have already expressed our doubts about Provins and this feel similar in value. Sarlat also already draws huge numbers of tourists in summer, so it’s not that it needs the extra attention. To my knowledge France never has seriously considered bringing it forward - in the long run I see this being dropped from a cleaned up Tentative List.

Els - 1 March 2020

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