Southern Belle – Figeac, France
The medieval centre of Figeac is now a bustling town with distinctive architecture and a link to Ancient Egypt
As soon as you arrive in Figeac, in the Lot département, you know you have reached the south – the narrow cobbled streets, the dusty squares shaded by plane trees, the café terraces, the age-old buildings, and the marketplace – a feast for all the senses.
I arrived on the last day of the school year to the sound of happy children playing on a hot summer’s afternoon, and in the background the gentle sound of a fountain in a cool garden. The soothing presence of water is close by, with the River Cele flowing along the edge of the historic centre. In medieval times there was a canal here, and mills and tanneries were commonplace. The canal ran through Place d’Estang and into the Cele until the 1950s, when it was covered up.
The square is a stone’s throw from the river and a couple of alleys away from the marketplace. This is one of the great things about Figeac; it is compact, but each street and building is worth savouring, with history oozing from every pore. A guided tour means you won’t miss the hidden gems, but if you prefer to wander around on your own, pick up a ‘keys to the city’ leaflet at the tourist office and look out for the numbered symbols on the walls.
The town’s architectural heritage is stunning. The majority of the buildings date from the medieval period, but they intertwine with Renaissance architecture – magnificent staircases and ornate doorways can be glimpsed next to half-timbering. The oldest house is thought to be the 12th-century Maison du Griffon in Place Champollion. It is typical of this period with its sculptured motifs of fantastical animals and leaves. Turn around and look up to see the ornate arched windows of a 14th century dwelling, no doubt once the property of a rich merchant, given the quality and sumptuousness of the craftsmanship.
On the same square is a museum dedicated to Jean-François Champollion, who was born in Figeac in 1790. Champollion was the famous Egyptologist who deciphered the hieroglyphics of the Rosetta Stone, and his birthplace is incorporated into the museum. By all accounts, he was a child prodigy gifted in languages, mastering Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit and Persian during his teens.
The museum also explores the origins of the world’s written languages, from runes to the development of the alphabet and the invention of printing. It is a fascinating mix of the personal – Champollion’s letters to his brother and his work notes are on display – and the global, with examples of writing from South America to Asia. There is even a mummy from the fourth century BC, miraculously preserved in its linen bandages in the Egyptian room.
The museum’s ultra-modern double facade, with its thousand letters, makes a striking impression. The stone exterior represents the traditional architecture of the town, and on top there is a modern `solelho‘, from which you have one of the best views of the square. Look up and on most streets you will see these upper, covered terraces which in days gone by were used to dry fruit and vegetables, and skins used in the tanning industry. The museum’s second, copper facade is set about a metre behind the original stone one and features symbols from 28 writings of the world, hinting at the contents within. It is an imaginative design which took five years in the making.
At the back of the museum is Place des Écritures, where a replica of the Rosetta Stone holds pride of place, and a stone staircase leads to a patio where three papyrus plants are growing. The square is often used as an exhibition area, and for small gatherings. The apartments overlooking the square are ‘social housing’, underlining the democratic feel of Figeac.