Every time we go to Figeac I ask myself why we don’t go more often. About 50 minutes’ comfortable drive from here through attractive countryside, it’s no particular hardship to get there. You often need an incentive to do these things and having visitors to entertain this week provided just that spur.
Figeac straddles the River Célé at the boundaries of the Lot and Aveyron départements. It’s effectively a crossroads where all points of the compass meet and, as such, the traffic can be irritating. However, a bypass to the southeast has alleviated at least some of this.
A bit of history
Like so many places, the town grew up around an abbey that was founded in the 9th century. Figeac prospered during the early Middle Ages from international trade. Well-to-do merchants displayed their wealth in the embellishment of their mansions, some of which still stand. However, the Hundred Years War and the plague put the brake on economic development in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The Renaissance saw renewed prosperity and construction. But the Wars of Religion in the late 16th century brought conflict to the town again and it was held by the Protestants between 1576 and 1622. The Église Saint-Sauveur, which was badly damaged during the Catholic Reformation and restored in the 17th century, is all that remains of the original abbey.
The best way to see the town is to follow the marked trail that starts from the Tourist Office. The latter is housed in a medieval mansion known as “la maison de la Monnaie”. In my opinion, it’s not an especially beautiful structure, but it is one of the best preserved in Figeac.
The circuit leads you around some of the most interesting buildings. The centre of the town is compact, the streets are twisting and narrow and parts of the medieval ramparts remain. Many of the buildings are examples of styles of architecture dating from different periods. Half-timbered Renaissance upper floors were often built on top of a medieval ground floor. Some of the houses are topped with an open loft – a solelho – which was used for drying and storing fruit and vegetables.
The write place
Figeac’s main claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832), who deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs. The house where he was born, right in the centre of Figeac on the Place Champollion (what else?), is now a museum that celebrates the evolution and history of writing.
Behind the museum, the Place des Écritures contains an enlarged reproduction of the Rosetta Stone, of whose hieroglyphs Champollion published the first translation in 1822.
Above it, steps lead up to a peaceful square from which you can gain access to the town’s Heritage Centre. This is a permanent exhibition relating Figeac’s history.
Right at the top of the town, l’Église Notre-Dame-du-Puy dominates and you get a fantastic view of the jumbled rooftops and the hills on the other side of the Célé. The church became a fortress during the Protestant occupation and was rebuilt during the Catholic Reformation.
Figeac is a bustling little town. It’s far enough away from Cahors, the Lot Préfecture, to have a character and a life of its own. And, to the SF’s great delight, it has a museum celebrating the manufacture of aircraft propellers, a long-standing industry in Figeac that continues today. We didn’t have time to visit le Musée Paulin Ratier this time but will save it up for the next visit.
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