Exploring this lovely hilltop village in south-west France is just like walking on air, says Zoë McIntyre
Rarely can a view inspire such wonder as that of Cordes-sur-Ciel. Dramatically crowning a steep promontory in the northern reaches of the Tarn département, the bastide town is at its most enchanting early on a spring or autumn morning, when skeins of mist rise from the surrounding Cérou Valley and wrap themselves around the foot of the hill like a halo. When this occurs, the elevated settlement, glowing in morning sunlight, appears to be floating between heaven and earth.
The spectacle explains the suffix of ‘sur ciel’ (‘in the sky’), which was formally added to the town’s name by the mayor in 1993. Foreign visitors aren’t the only ones to be captivated; the French love Cordes too and last year it was voted France’s favourite village in a competition run by TV channel France 2. Curious to find out what all the fuss was about, I chose an early autumn afternoon to delve into its maze of medieval streets.
My group and I arrived long after the early mist had dispersed and the stone summit gleamed under blue skies. We left our car at the base of the village to explore on foot. The slightly ramshackle houses on the outer limits were eerily deserted as wood smoke hung in the air. We tiptoed under the graceful stone arch entrance of Porte de la Jane, feeling as if we were stepping into a fairy tale.
Within the central cité, the cobblestones came alive with fellow visitors. Many were moseying around Place Charles Portal, admiring the Église Saint-Michel and its looming bell tower that dominates the square. Inside the baroque-style church, we sat a while to take in the strikingly painted interior in its deep, regal blue. The centrepiece is the organ; a hand-me-down from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Paris in the 1840s.
The church was built during a turbulent period when, after being founded by the Count of Toulouse in 1222, the village became a Cathar stronghold against the papal Crusaders. Later, a thriving leather and cloth trade helped the town to prosper and its population swelled to around 5,000 inhabitants.
This golden age is evoked along the Grand Rue, crowded with magnificent merchants’ residences built in the Gothic style. We admired the elegance of the four-storey stone façade of Maison du Grand Veneur, the ‘House of the Great Huntsman’, embellished with ghoulish caricatures of beasts and hunters.
The old streets and honey-hued cottages – all bright shutters, creeping ivy and wide, wooden doorways – make a picturesque scene. An air of antiquity prevails; streets are lit with lanterns and the occasional medieval flag billows in the breeze above stained-glass windows. Every building has its own personality – some stout and in stone, others tall and timber-framed.
It was this timeless romance that inspired scores of craftsmen and artists to settle in Cordes in the 1950s. They breathed new life into a village that had suffered over the centuries from outbreaks of the plague, the religious wars of the 16th century and a decline in trade during the 1700s. Today, Cordes remains a vibrant arts-and-crafts town, with sculptors, jewellery makers, antiques dealers and art galleries lining the main streets.
Our calves strained as we walked up the alley that opens on to Place de la Halle, dominated by a covered market area. Restaurants and hotels flank its parameters with café tables scattered under the market’s elegant arched roof. A covering hides the 113-metre-deep well, which was a lifeline for the inhabitants of Cordes during the Crusaders’ siege.
We concluded our visit at Place de la Bride – an esplanade shaded by lofty plane trees. A look-out point gives stunning views of the valley and River Cérou. Perhaps this was the terrace which inspired writer Albert Camus to declare: “The traveller who, from the terraces of Cordes, looks at the summer night sky, knows that he needs to travel no further, because the beauty here, day after day, will remove any loneliness.”
CORDES AT A GLANCE
Stay the night at… the three-star Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes (tel: (Fr) 5 63 53 79 20, www.hostelleriehvc.com). The wisteria in the garden pre-dates the French Revolution and the back window affords gorgeous views of Cordes’ rooftops. Doubles from €62.
Stop for a coffee at… the Terrasse sur Ciel (tel: (Fr) 5 63 47 13 98,www.terrasse-sur-ciel.fr) and enjoy a café gourmand (€6.50) while admiring the vistas from the terrace.
Eat lunch at… the hotel-restaurant L’Escuelle des Chevaliers (tel: (Fr) 9 66 86 14 40, www.lescuelledeschevaliers.fr), situated in a 13th-century pink sandstone building. Dishes feature forgotten recipes inspired by medieval times. Menu €20.
WHAT TO SEE
Local chef Yves Thuriès, a Michelin-star holder and twice voted a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, is the driving force behind the Musée: Les Arts du Sucre et du Chocolat (tel: (Fr) 5 63 56 02 40, http://artdusucre.fr), which displays his weird and wonderful sculptures made out of sugar and chocolate.
The 14th-century Maison du Grand Fauconnier houses the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (tel: (Fr) 5 63 56 14 79, http://mairie.cordessurciel.fr). It exhibits works by French figurative artist Yves Brayer, a leading figure in Cordes’s artistic regeneration after coming to the village in 1940.
Opened in 1998, the Jardin des Paradis (tel: (Fr) 5 63 56 29 77, http://jardindesparadis.jimdo.com) was classified as a Jardin Remarquable in 2004 for its blend of Eastern and contemporary influences. Fountains, flowerbeds and exotic flowers are set within a series of themed gardens, and concerts are held on the terrace.
GETTING THERE: The nearest airport is Toulouse (85km); A high-speed train from Paris Montparnasse station takes about six hours to reach Toulouse. Change there for a local train to Cordes-Vindrac (5km), from where a shuttle bus runs to Cordes, http://tarnbus.tarn.fr
Cordes-sur-Ciel tourist office, tel: (Fr) 5 63 56 00 52, http://cordessurciel.eu; Tarn tourist board, tel: (Fr) 5 63 77 32 10, www.tourisme-tarn.com; Midi-Pyrénées tourist board, tel: (Fr) 5 61 13 55 55, www.tourisme-midi-pyrenees.com
IN THE AREA
Tarn’s principal town, Albi, lies 25 kilometres south-east of Cordes. A Unesco World Heritage site, the ville rouge is noted for its red-stone buildings, mighty cathedral and a museum dedicated to the artist Toulouse-Lautrec.
The same distance to the south-west of Cordes lies Gaillac, reputedly France’s oldest wine-producing area. Following this ‘golden triangle’ between Cordes, Albi and Gaillac makes an enjoyably varied round trip.
Alternatively, map out a bastide circuit from Cordes, visiting Castelnau-de-Montmiral, Puycelci and Bruniquel – all Plus Beaux Villages.
Two other fortified towns lie north of Cordes: Najac, strung out along a rocky ridge, and Villefranche-de-Rouergue, which has a busy market on Thursdays.
For a more rugged landscape, explore the vertiginous roads around the Gorges de l’Aveyron west of Cordes. You can canoe along the river before getting back on dry land to stroll through the medieval streets of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val.