Lauzerte boasts the title of ‘one of France’s most beautiful villages’ – one of only three villages in Tarn et Garonne region to claim the accreditation. In fact the ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’ association honoured Lauzerte with this prestigious nod to protect its local heritage and prevent a rural exodus to nearby urban areas. We visited Lauzerte from Montaigu de Quercy when we stayed earlier this year – just a short 30 minute ride away.
Perched on a hilltop, our car wound through the outside suburbs which fell away to reveal the central old town, with its traditional bastide features. The Counts of Toulouse made Lauzerte a bastide town in 1241 due to its strategic importance and the village has the tell tale rigid layout. Rather than the winding narrow streets of many medieval towns, like Mont St Michel, for example, bastides are laid out in a square or rectangular pattern with straight streets that intersect at right angles – more like Manhattan!
The central focus of the bastide was the main square and the Place des Cornieres houses the senechaussee, the administrative heart. Couverts or arcaded galleries frame the main square. Lauzerte is littered with the half timber framed houses stereotypical of bastides. Usually filled in with cob, baked earth or bricks, these houses were normally two stories high – the upper floor providing living quarters and the ground floor housing a store or workshop. It’s quite easy to imagine the large arched doorways acting as shop windows.
We took up residence at Cafe du Commerce to sample a local grape juice made of Chasselas grapes. My Rough Guide describes Lauzerte’s pace of life ‘as equal with that of a turning sunflower’ and the empty square certainly reflected that. Eventually walking parties and hikers of all nationalities filled up the square waiting for the tourist office to open and clearing retracing the route of the Santiago de Compostela – a famous pilgrimage route than runs across France in to northern Spain.
It’s clear that Lauzerte has a lively creative community from the geckos that covered Le Puits de Jous cafe to the local sculpture ‘Paving of the Place’ created by local ceramic artist, Jacques Buchholtz, which provides a Dali like vision in the corner of the Place des Cornieres.
The Jardin au Pelerin, which starts behind the tourist office, runs along one of the carreyrous, an alleyway that runs along the back of houses. The garden trail offers amazing views across the patchwork Quercy valley. Up until the aftermath of the Wars of Religion, Lauzerte served as the capital of Bas Quercy (lower Quercy) as a reward for overthrowing the English. You certainly get a feeling for Lauzerte’s historical dominance surveying the countryside from this hilltop.