The medieval village of Cordes sur Ciel surprises, in more ways than one.
Granted, it is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France, but what awaits is truly breathtaking.
Arriving on the road from Gaillac, another not-to-miss town, seeing the signs running-down the kilometers to Cordes sur Ciel one would expect to see this hilltop village on the horizon at any moment.
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As the road twists and turns and leads up and down gentle rises, bordered by the lush green leaves of the vines with their coal-black grapes against the sun-baked red gravelly earth, the expectation rises only to be dashed at the next meander.
Seeing Cordes from a distance would at least prepare the visitor for what was to come, but it isn’t until the last bend, turning left onto the junction of the road from Albi (yet anothet not-to-miss city) that the first glimpse of this magical site is finally revealed.
At first it is not visible, as it rises above the low-lying road and then… and then, it’s an almost pinch-yourself moment as the village reveals itself from the foliage of the trees that shade the road.
Anybody who does not let out a knee-jerk « wow ! » at the first sight of Cordes – well, basically, nothing, or at least, very little, will surprise them and you may as well turn the car around and go home and sit in the garden.
Albert Camus, famously said of Cordes, « Tout y est beau, même le regret » – Everything is beautiful at Cordes, even regrets.
Even the name has a beauty – Cordes sur Ciel – Cordes on the sky (the suffix, « sur ciel » being added in 1993 – although many will tell you that it is the original name.
Cordes sur Ciel is the very archetype of what a medieval village should be – a steep hill leading up to a fortified village, as if it had just been designed for a Hollywood set – only ten times better.
One cannot help but ponder the the difficulty that was undergone by assailing soldiers during the village’s bloody past, or imagine the hubub of village life during the middle ages as one wanders the steep and narrow cobbled streets.
If you are lucky enough, or forward thinking enough, to visit on a sunny morning when the mist still shrouds the valley, just revealing the village in its silky cloak – then you had better prepare yourself for the jaw-dropping scene laid out before your eyes … do not be surprised if it takes you a minute or so to regain the power of speech.
When I first set eyes on the village, I was unable to hold any sort of conversation, until I stopped for a spine-straightening espresso in the café at the foot of the village, that didn’t include expressions such as wow, amazing, fantastic, sublime or beautiful.
In fact these words are a bit weak for the site of Cordes sur Ciel against a violet-blue sky on a beautiful August day.
It isn’t until you enter the village at the bottom of the hill that it dawns on you how this village – has been overtaken by the commercial-opportunism that is often found in beauty spots all over France.
All parking places are metred, although it is at a modest sum, the price decreases in respect to the amount of energy the visitor is willing to dispense – €2.50 at the foot of the village rising to €3 at the top.
There is the ubiquitous tourist train, or a van with carriages decked-out to look like a train, that ferries the less-able-bodied and the lazy-bones to the top of the village, forming a completely incongruous and noisy addition to this beautiful site.
The first challenge, if you accept it, is to find a parking space, then a trick in the tail at the end of the day is to try to decipher the confusing one-way system.
Whilst pausing to admire the breathtaking view from the ramparts of the village I saw many cars that I guessed were driven by people trying to get as close to the top of the village as possible.
I later realised that they were part of the lost population that is sucked into the one-way system at Cordes, never to return to their past life, as a modern day Tiresias – well there are worse places to be lost.
Houses on each side of the narrow ascent are « de l’epoch » at least on the face of it, although closer examination reveal that they are 18th and 19th century – very quaint though, giving me the opportunity to photograph one of my unusual passions – old doors and shutters… don’t ask.
The walk to the top of the village is steep and winding, on shiny cobbles that must have also been trod by knights and peasants through the centuries, the imagination starts wandering wildly as the first glimpses of the portcullis gate come into view.
Take away the plastic sword sellers, the pancake and ice-cream sellers and the craft shops, and it is clear to see that Cordes has lost little of its Medieval charm – dating back to 1222.
Indeed Cordes is known as the « village of the artists » some of the galleries are amazing, bedecked with beautifully creative artwork depicting the moods and hues of the Tarnais seasons, whilst others peddle shoddy prints and pseudo-art to attract the tourists.
We conformed and joined the line of other visitors shuffling up the narrow streets, shaded by the overhanging half-timbered houses, in a quest to polish the cobbles to a higher shine and to drink in the heady atmosphere of the old village – and drink we did.
At every turn, there is a steep winding cobbled street dotted with quaint medieval houses, away from the main street that is.
Cordes was a « bastide » built by Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse to gather together the sparse populations in the surrounding countryside after the first crusade against the Albigeois Cathares, led by Simon de Montfort in 1215 and to guard the northern frontier of his « comté ».
The magnificence and the solitude of the ramparts of Cordes was such that Humbert de Beaujeu refused to attack the village during the second crusade, which resulted in Cordes never being conquered and it became a part of the Kingdom of France in 1370.
6,000 people lived in the village during the 14th and 15th century, where the main activities were commerce and weaving.
The village was attacked during the wars of religion but never completely ceded to the attacks, which is quite remarkable for the region, where châteaux and fortified villages were sacked and burnt at random.
The main square with its huge covered café or the cafés close to the ramparts, provide a great place to bask in the sun and to indulge in some people watching – or just gazing over the gently rolling hills of the Tarn.
There is, or rather there was a nice restaurant in the old village – it has been closed by the courts as the chef, Yves Thuriès, was condemned in court for using fresh white truffles in a dish « veau truffé » in summer, instead of the preserved or frozen black truffles, which he refused to use as he believed that only fresh ingredients in season should be used.
The long and the short is that a complaint was made by a customer who claimed that Thuriès was trying to con his clients, and who believed that a dish « truffé » should contain the black Périgord truffle (which was out of season at the time) instead of the white truffles (which were in season).
The judge in the affair admonished Thuriès, who was twice decorated as the best chef in France and who has had the Michelin starred restaurant for over 30 years. However, Thuriès was deeply hurt by the affair, which called his reputation into question and has put the restaurant and hotel up for sale.
Past guests of the hotel include Albert Camus, President Pompidou, President Mitterand and the Queen Mother.
We ventured back down the cobbled streets stopping at the gate with the portcullis before eventually running the gauntlet of the one way system, and as it was quiet, went down a one way street to escape the almost Minoan labyrinthe before having a cool drink on the terrace of a café with a view of the village of Cordes sur Ciel in the setting sun – days do not get much better than this.
|«On voyage pendant des années sans trop savoir ce que l’on cherche, on erre dans le bruit, empêtré de désirs ou de repentirs et l’on parvient soudain dans l’un de ces deux ou trois lieux qui attendent chacun de nous en ce monde. Le voyageur qui, de la terrasse de Cordes, regarde la nuit d’été sait ainsi qu’il n’a pas besoin d’aller plus loin et que, s’il veut, la beauté ici, jour après jour, l’enlèvera à toute solitude.»
“One travels for many years without really knowing what we are looking for, we wander in the noise, entangled by desires and regrets, when we suddenly reach, in one of the two or three places that are awaiting us all in this world. The traveller, who, from the terrace of Cordes, looking at the summer night, knows now, that they don’t need to go further, and who, if they want, the beauty here, day after day, will take them away from all solitude”