I’d forgotten what a long way up it is. Seventeen years had obliterated our memory of the steep hike up to the cité of Cordes-sur-Ciel perched on its hilltop, which was long considered inaccessible. But we weren’t going to wimp out and take le petit train, which deposits less athletic, but maybe more sensible, tourists at the top. The effort is worth it to see one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the region. Luckily for us, by the last weekend in August the tourist hordes had largely disappeared, but it was busy enough.
One of the great things about writing this blog over the years is that it has brought me into contact with so many interesting people. We were in Cordes thanks to a kind invitation from a couple who have left their country of origin to live there, and who have family links to the region. Since I had never written about Cordes, it seemed a good opportunity to refresh our memories and take some photos.
The town was founded in 1222 by Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse, as a fortress to repopulate and defend his northern territories, ravaged by the Albigensian Crusades against the Cathar heretics. It replaced the town of Saint-Marcel, which Simon de Montfort had destroyed. Although the crusade continued, it was running out of steam, and Raymond had regained virtually all the territories lost during the earlier years.
Cordes is said to be the first bastide, although Montauban predates it (founded in 1144). These were medieval “new towns” built on a grid pattern around a large central square. Despite the technical difficulties of building on the hilly site, it was completed in about seven years. The well under the market hall, which is 114 metres deep, is a reminder of the importance of water in establishing a settlement.
Raymond offered the first settlers land in perpetuity, and the town experienced huge population growth in its early years. The defensive walls had to be moved further out five times. As you pass under each gate, you go back in time.
Merchants moved in and built impressive Gothic-style palaces from the proceeds of trading in leather, cloth, wool and finance. These buildings are remarkably well preserved, having survived the various calamities of the medieval period.
Fortunes and fortifications were no defence against the silent invader that sneaked into the town in 1348 and cut a swathe through its population: the plague. And the Hundred Years War seriously affected the region’s economy. Even so, Cordes bounced back temporarily and its merchants grew rich again on the pastel dye industry until its decline in the face of cheaper imports and substitutes.
In common with so many towns in the region, Cordes’ prosperity was transient. Parts of the town were burnt by Huguenots during the Wars of Religion. It suffered periodic outbreaks of plague and successive poor harvests, and the development of other trade routes left Cordes in an economic backwater. The population shrank. The town had a brief renaissance in the 19th century owing to the introduction of mechanised silk embroidery, but the last workshop shut its doors in the mid-20th century.
Today, tourism is one of the main industries, but Cordes is also a cultural and artistic centre. The town boasts various museums, including a Musée des Arts du Sucre et du Chocolat, founded by the veteran chocolatier Yves Thuriès. And it has an all year-round Saturday market, augmented by a truffle market in the winter months. In 2014, Cordes was elected “French people’s favourite village”.
Cordes-sur-Ciel? The sur-ciel suffix is a modern sobriquet added in the 1990s. The town hovers ethereally on the sky above the autumnal mists that collect in the river valleys below.
Coming from our direction, you see the town on its rocky pinnacle well before you arrive. It must have been an impressive sight to medieval travellers and a symbol of the authority of the Counts of Toulouse. It didn’t remain in their hands for long, though, and passed to the kingdom of France in 1271, along with the rest of the comté de Toulouse.
Have you visited Cordes? What stood out most from your visit?
This post is taking part in the #AllAboutFrance blog linky, where you’ll find interesting posts about travel in France and French culture generally.
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