French Heritage


Medieval Magic in the Sky

"The traveller who looks at the summer night from the terrace at Cordes knows that if he wishes it, the beauty of this place, day after day, will banish solitude."
                                                                  Albert Camus, 1954

Hundreds of medieval towns known as Bastides are scattered throughout the Midi-Pyrenees.  From high on rocky hill tops, villages like Puycelsi, Penne, Bruniquel and Vaor have kept watch over their surrounding countryside for centuries.  Of all, the medieval fortified town widely considered the finest in France, is Cordes sur Ciel.

Long before it would become part of France, Cordes received its charter as a Bastide from the Count of Toulouse in 1222.   The name by the way,  is thought to be a derivative of the Indo-European root "corte" meaning "rocky heights."   And as names go, its certainly appropriate because on many a day, Cordes sits  above the clouds that blanket  the valley below.  Rather recently, the name of the city was appropriately changed from Cordes to Cordes sur Ciel. 

In the Middle Ages, most settlements were typified by narrow, winding streets cluttered with a jumble of buildings, all gathered around a church.  The Bastide town brought order to community planning.   Bastides are characterized by well proportioned houses built on streets that intersect at right angles to form residential blocks.  The public square in the town centre was the central point of community activity and where trade took place. 

While Bastides were built to serve many purposes, their most important role was to protect its inhabitants from marauders or in times of conflict.   Indeed ,Cordes endured its share of hostile times.  First, came the religious crusades against the Cathars.  Later, France and England, both of whom were outside rival powers, struggled for control of neighboring Aquitaine during the Hundred Years War.

Legend has it, that the original site chosen by the Count of Toulouse for the village to replace Saint-Marcel, was on Puech (hilltop) Gabel.   Foundations for the walls were laid out, workmen gathered materials, mixed mortar or carried stone to the site.   After the first day's work they retired for the night.  The next morning, they arrived at the building site only to find the previous day's work completely demolished. 

This continued for 30 days, when a workman, in his frustration threw his trowel in the air.  Once he regained his composure he searched for it, but to no avail.  It was found days later by a shepherd on a neighboring hilltop. This was taken as a sign that the village should be built on that site.  This is how Cordes came to be built on the heights of Mordagne.

There is an excellent view of Puech Gabel from La Place de la Bride, an esplanade adjacent to the market square.  It also offers a panoramic view over the northern valley and the Cerou River.   The view, east to west, extends over the Saint Marcel heights toward the Gresigne Forest.

Cordes grew quickly.  Attracted by advantages offered by the Count, new residents arrived from the Albi region and surrounding areas.   Phenomenal growth would continue through the Inquisition waged against the Cathars.  Town growth spilled over the unfinished ramparts and no less than five new lines of fortifications were required.  In three generations, the population of Cordes grew to 5,000 inhabitants.

Cloth, wool and leather crafts, as well as trade and finance, brought prosperity to the city.    Between 1280 and 1350, merchants and some noble families built the magnificent Gothic residences for which Cordes is famous.

In later history, Cordes would thwart efforts by the Huguenots to occupy the city, but its population would be devastated by the plagues.  At the end of the 17th century, trading routes in the region changed drastically with the opening of the Canal du Midi.  As a result, Cordes ceased to be  a trading center, and  its population dropped to 2500 by the time of the French Revolution.

Cordes would experience two eras of  Renaissance.  After the 1870 War, a burst of activity in the embroidery trade gave Cordes fifty years of prosperity.  In the 1940's a group of artists led by Yves Brayer, settled there and gave new life to the village.   Today, around 50 artists and craftsmen are in residence throughout the year.  You may appreciate their creativity in their studios where they employ traditional skills. 

The splendid gothic houses for which Cordes is so famous,  were built in the golden age of the city.  They were constructed using the grey, ochre or mauve sandstone from villages like Salles, 5 kilometers from Cordes.  Important buildings or structures include gothic houses, the Market Square, two chapels and the church of Saint-Michel.  Some highlights follow:

La Maison du Grand Ecuyer - early 14th century
The sculptures on its exterior are in exceptional condition and have fared well over the centuries.

La Maison du Grand Veneur - early 14th century 
This is the most popular of the gothic houses and the only one to have three floors.   On the façade of the building is a hunting scene with rider, boar, dogs, archer , deer, rabbit and a bugler.  In response to previous religious persecution, the hunting scene is surrounded by sculpted frightened faces of women protecting children and other characters in torment.   There are those who say this house was inspired by the Tolomei Palace in Siena.

The Colen Tower - Les Rampes
The building dates from the end of the 13th century, when it was built as a private residence into the first line of fortifications. 

La Maison Gorsse - 15th century
Built in the period of prosperity after the Hundred Years War, it is an excellent example of the transition from Gothic to Renaissance style. 

La Maison Carrie-Boyer - 13th century
La Maison Prunet - 13th century
La Maison du Grand Fauconnier - 14th century
These three marvelous buildings in a row readily reveal their superb condition and provide an opportunity to compare the grey and ochre shades of sandstone.   The Maison du Grand Fauconnier is notable as the most recent Gothic residence in Cordes.

Other architectural treasures in Cordes include well preserved half-timbered buildings, fortifications and the gates which residents and visitor use  to enter of leave the city.  A stroll along Grand Rue Haute or Rue Saint-Michel is a series of pleasant discoveries that offer memorable interludes in shops, studios restaurants or bistros. 

Further historical insights are available at local museums:  Y. Brayer Museum, Sugar works Museum, Museum of Embroidery, and the Crystal and Precious Stone museums.   A well maintained tourism office on  the high street is stocked with helpful literature and offers displays on the history of Cordes.   You will find the members of staff, like the residents of Cordes, friendly and helpful.

We think you will find that a visit to Cordes sur Ciel  is a truly marvelous experience.

Points of interest in the surrounding areas of Cordes sur Ciel

Albi - just 15 miles away this city on the River Tarn is the home of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.   We recommend a visit to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum where over 1000 of his works are housed, including all of the 31 posters he created.  The museum is located in the Berbie Palace.   Just across the road, in the heart of the old town is Sainte-Cecile Cathedral.  This Gothic masterpiece is made entirely of brick.  Remarkably, frescoes dating from the Middle Ages have never required restoration.  Albi offers a good representation of mansions from the 14th to the 16th centuries, the cloisters of Saint-Salvi, 11th to 15th century, the Old Bridge and other historic treasures.  The local cuisine is superb.

Campes - church 12th-15th century with bell tower/keep

Salles - fortified village, towers, square keep roman/gothic church

Gaillac - center of vineyards, wine museum, Church of Saint-Michel (10th-14th cent.)  Church of Saint-Peter (13th cent.), Pierre de Brens House (15th cent.), Park and Chateau of Foucard (17th cent.), Museum of Natural History

Lisle-sur-Tarn - one of the finest fortified towns in South West  France

Tecou - Fortified village, wine cellars

Our thanks to the Tourism Office of Cordes sur Ciel for the information used in the article. 

Further information is available on-line by using this link . . .