Yet one more reason why I love France: it’s Saturday morning in Périgueux during high summer and I’m meandering up from my hotel – the superbly spruced up Ibis beside the Isle River – around the side of the Dordogne capital’s Cathédrale Saint-Front. Although the original church dates from the 8th century, this imposing multi-domed beauty, Aquitaine’s largest, was remastered at the end of the 19th century, using Venice’s Saint Mark’s Basilica as inspiration.
However, I’m easily distracted from the Cathédrale’s considerable Byzantine and Romanesque charms as something else is about to launch itself, totally uninvited, into my box marked ‘Favourite French Experiences’… in the distance, I hear the unmistakable sound of a
party going on, with trumpets and everything. But it
isn’t even 10.30am – what French folie is this?
Emerging into the rammed market on Place du Cautre, where succulent, shiny fruits and vegetables lay resplendent in their sun-kissed glory, to tempt ‘buy local’ shoppers – is there any other kind here? – the frenetic party music becomes increasingly loud and said gathering more animated.
Shuffling past a lady of a certain age who’s craftily squeezing a canteloupe for ripeness, I spot the front of a conga-line of musicians and other folks dressed rather strangely. From fifty paces some look like honey bees, while others resemble strawberries. Swept up by the energy, I make my way to the heart
of the throng and stand next to a brilliant drummer. He’s leading the way – the ‘Pied Drummer of Périgueux’? – beating seven shades out of his skins with a fury matched only by the trumpeter behind
him. People are jigging and clapping; kids are
jumping around. They love it. I love it!
Suddenly, I’m halted in my tracks by a moustachioed policeman who’s seemingly intent on killing my joy. But despite my initial panic, I’m not in trouble as this poker-faced joker is part of the set-up, dressed like un flic à l’ancienne. He proceeds to put on his ‘narked’ face for an amusing photo and lets me on my way.
Next, I ask a man dressed as a fraise what the deal is – he tells me it’s the annual parade of local producers, an association called the Union des Confréries du Périgord. They’re here
to promote the local taste sensations and I’ve stumbled, erroneously and joyously, upon
a ritual that represents France’s unique regional pride in its produce and terroir.
The energy is palpable, both in the band’s musical vigour and in the delight with
which this colourful collection of growers, creators, rearers, pickers and pluckers – of everything from honey to walnuts, truffles to strawberries and poultry to pâté – are celebrating.
I follow this multi-coloured gaggle into the city centre before peeling off to explore, leaving the flamboyant gang to their speeches and further raucous promenading. I’m on Place de l’Ancien Hôtel de Ville, which is all pristine pale stone, and green and blue pastel shutters, then amble along the side streets to the Place du Coderc, the home of the daily market. Off one corner is a quite lovely shopping street, the Rue Limogeanne, which runs from north to south, parallel to the town’s other main artery, the Rue Saint-Front. Be tempted by ice cream, leather bags, enormous tins of confit de canard and foie gras – it’s all here…
All around is evidence of Périgueux’s grand standing, from its array of upmarket boutiques
and snazzy grocery shops to elegant courtyards with hidden restaurants that are slowly filling up for Saturday lunch. Talking of which, my shady spot at
Le Clin d’Oeil was quite a find – the restaurant offered great little tapas-style dishes, selected in a kind of pick and mix format, for lunchtime specials. All fresh and market-led, they were superb. I might give the duck andouillette a swerve the next time, though!
Périgueux is a clean, compact and easily walkable city that’s blessed with the green spaces. From outside the Cathédrale Saint-Front, I head up the Rue Saint-Front, cross the tree lined car park onto the Allées de Tourny and enter a 19th century quartier whose buildings were modelled on the Parisian designs of the time.
Behind iron railings lie the perfectly coiffed front lawns of elegant townhouses and grandiose local government buildings. Turning up the Rue Paul-Louis Courier, I arrive at the Parc Gamenson. Formerly part of the episcopal palace that was bought by the town in 1912, it’s a tranquil hideaway beautifully planted with cypress, oak, cedar and chestnut trees, boasting abundant magnolias and plenty of grassy picnic spots. In summer the natural bowl shape of one corner lends itself perfectly to concerts and stage plays en plein air.
ROMAN LIFE UNCOVERED
Next on my urban spaces list was the magnificent Jardin des Arènes, over in the Roman quartier west of the town. But first, I had a rendezvous with the 360-degree panorama offered from the roof of the Tour Mataguerre, which surely has Périgueux’s best view. It’s free to visit and offers a great perspective on the different parts of town, from Roman to medieval and Renaissance. Just pop into the tourist office next door for assistance on this or any other tour and visit – they’re super-friendly.
The 19th-century Jarden des Arènes is Périgueux’s green lung. Some 11,000 sqm in size and built on the site of an elliptical Roman amphitheatre, from which much stone was pilfered to construct the city itself. Strolling around, I give thanks that there are far fewer people enjoying the park’s benches, picnic areas and water features than the 20,000 for whom the amphitheatre
was first built during the 1st century.
After a quick coffee at a very quirky and original neighbourhood café, L’Amphore, I spy some more Roman goodies nearby: the Tour de Vesone, named after a mythological Italian goddess of water and once the heart of a sacred temple. But Périgueux’s pièce de résistance for visitors is right next door to this hollow, 25-metre tower: the Musée Vesunna.
Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and opened in 2003, this popular museum brilliantly showcases the extensive remains of a Gallo-Roman domus (townhouse). But what lies within the building is the real star of the show: framed by a high, brightly coloured ceiling, Vesunna’s a light-filled glass enclosure with raised wooden walkways that allow visitors to appreciate the expanse of the living quarters, while frescos draw the attention closer. A revealing video, intricate models, explanatory panels and exhibits of found objets give further insight into the life of Gallo-Romans.
In presenting the town’s Roman origins, the Vesunna is the perfect place to round off a visit to Périgueux, which proves to be a splendid short break destination that’s packed with historical intrigue, great restaurants, civilised shopping opportunities and all of the aesthetic elegance of a classy French préfecture. Plus, of course, trumpets on a Saturday morning!