Officially classified as one of the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France‘ in the Tarn department, the name Cordes-sur-Ciel appeals to the imagination. With its turbulent past set into the stone, it feels like you’re walking through the scenes of an enchanting storybook. It is a pure marvel to roam around the cobbled medieval streets to reach the highest- and oldest- part of town. And there, on top of the Mondargne rock, the world is at your feet.
Set on a rock in a valley overlooking the Cérou river, Cordes-sur-Ciel was built in different stages. That’s why there are several rows of fortifications, each distinguished by a town gate and its own architecture. I started my exploration at the Place de la Bouteillerie, a short walk from the paid parking lot ‘Saint-Crucifix’. Going up the Grand-Rue de l’Horloge brought me through the fifth fortification line. It’s the most recent one, dating from the 14th century. My eye fell on a beautiful little chapel called the ‘capelette de Saint-Jacques’. Cordes-sur-Ciel was a stop on one of the routes on the Saint James Way, the pilgrimage trail to Compostela in Spain. Inside the chapel, you will see Saint-Jacques immortalised in a stained-glass window. The French painter Yves Brayer restored and renewed it along with the frescoes in the 1970s.
Porte de l’Horloge
Going up further, I came to the first gate, the Porte de l’Horloge, marking the fourth fortification line. Looking back gave me a lovely view over the Bouteillerie neighbourhood. And fittingly, on my left was an artisanal watch and clockmaker with two men standing in front of the doors. I overheard them saying that Patrick Lerible used to be the best clockmaker around for a couple of decades. Unfortunately, his shop is closed now, but it shows that arts and crafts are still important in Cordes-sur-Ciel. The clock in the gate is one of the rarest around as it still has its 18th century mechanism that used to ring twice every hour. When the inhabitants of the lower neighbourhoods didn’t hear it the first time, they had a second chance.
Porte du Vainqueur
Cordes-sur-Ciel’s chequered past of ten centuries has left its traces, beginning at its foundation in 1222 by the Count of Toulouse Raimond VII. It is believed to be the first bastide in the Southwest of France, offering protection to Cathars against the Albigensian crusade. However, the bastide didn’t play a military role in the religious wars. Therefore, it experienced outstanding growth leading to great prosperity. I continued on my way along the Grand-Rue de la Barbacane, named after the former guard post. This Barbican tower is the largest construction in the third line of the fortifications, also known as the high bastide. Before going through the Porte du Vainqueur- the Conqueror’s Gate- I walked a bit further following the ramparts. From here, you have a magnificent view over the lower neighbourhoods in a greener than green setting.
Porte de Rous
Finally, I went under the last gate to reach the first line of fortifications: the Porte de Rous. This 13th century gate, also known as the Portail Peint, gives access to the upper part of Cordes-sur-Ciel. Between the 13th and the 14th century, industries like cloth, wool and leather found their way to the bastide. In three generations’ time, the population expanded to 5,000 inhabitants. Until the Black Death wiped out a quarter of the citizens, on top of the Hundred Year’s War and the crusades. Also, the arrival of the Canal du Midi wasn’t good news for Cordes-sur-Ciel. This new waterway excluded the town from being part of the major trading routes. It was only at the end of the 19th century that Cordes-sur-Ciel had a revival, thanks to the hundreds of embroidery jobs created.
In the 1940s, a couple of artists settled in the village led by the above-mentioned Yves Brayer. Even today, you can still feel the artistic vibe as you stroll past many workshops and boutiques. It was only in 1993 that the French government officially changed the name of ‘Cordes’ into ‘Cordes-sur-Ciel’, so named by the writer Jeanne Ramel-Cals. At the Place de la Bride, I gazed over the northern part of the Cérou valley, musing about the village’s troubled past. The highest part also houses an impressive covered market square, dating from 1276. And you will find some extraordinary Gothic facades built by wealthy merchant families. In this part of the village, I found the tourist office. I suggest you go here first and buy the informative walking guide for 2 euros. It describes six thematic walks, giving a lot of background information and making the visit even more interesting.