Southern Belle – Figeac, France

World Culture Atmosphere

Market Day in Figeac

These intimate spaces for cultural events are dotted around the town. Le Matou dell’ Arte, a ‘cultural café‘ with a wonderful courtyard, hosts exhibitions, knitting workshops, discussions and musical and theatrical evenings, and has a ‘world culture’ atmosphere. Concerts take place in Les Terrasses du Puy, a grassy arena in the upper town, and open-air films are shown in various places. Figeac’s other famous son is Charles Boyer, the film actor who found fame in the 1930s. He doesn’t get much publicity in Figeac, maybe because he lived most of his life in the United States, although he does have a street and a cinema named after him.

Next to Les Terrasses is a gem with the slightly misleading name of Musee d’Histoire de Figeac. The three rooms were the former home of the prior of the adjoining Église Notre-Dame-du-Puy and the entrance is via an unprepossessing secondary school playground. But open the door and you will find a wood-panelled salon and bedroom, richly decorated with both Biblical and romantic scenes, in blue and gold. In the bedroom is another treasure, an ornate cabinet donated by a local family, which when opened up has similar painted panels. The third room houses an eclectic collection of fossils, presidential presents and paintings.

The real place to get an overview of the town’s history is the permanent exhibition l’Espace Patrimoine in the town hall behind the Champollion museum. Another small museum which shows a different aspect of Figeac is the Musée Paulin Rautier, named after a company that made propellers for aircraft in World War I. From these small beginnings, the company grew to become a major player in the aeronautics industry and one of the main employers in the region today.

Figeac’s history is the reason behind its vitality and vibrancy. In medieval times it was one of the most prosperous towns of the south, trading with ports and cities all over France and along the coasts of the Mediterranean. Many Figeacois travelled to Italy, England and Cyprus, but they never forgot their origins, often sending money home to build sumptuous hôtels particuliers and bringing back ideas and styles seen on their travels.

On Saturday mornings, a market spills out from the covered ‘halles‘ in Place Carnot on to the streets and squares. People come from afar to buy saucisson from the Auvergne, the local sheep’s cheese ‘cabécou‘, bunches of garlic and onions, courgettes, tomatoes and peppers, as well as baskets from North Africa and exotic spices. Market day is also the time to meet friends, to drink a coffee at the Hôtel-Bar on Place Champollion or a cold beer at Le Sphinx, opposite the market hall on Place Carnot. The former names of these two squares, Place du Froment (wheat) and Place de l’Avoine (oats), bear witness to the importance of trade in Figeac.

Terrace View

The exchange of goods and ideas shows an openness to other cultures which is still in evidence. Many of the people whom I met were not born and bred in Figeac. My guide Lisa, who has Belgian and Russian ancestry, left the north of France 30 years ago because she felt so at home here, and walking round the streets together and being greeted by so many of her friends, I can well believe it.

Looking down from the terrace in front of Notre-Dame-du-Puy at the rooftops, the hidden gardens and courtyards, picking out the Tour du Viguier and the church tower on the skyline, I mused on the attractions of this small but perfectly formed town. The green of the trees standing tall against the brown tones of the roofs and a deep blue sky made an enchanting picture; I too had been smitten at first sight and could easily join the ranks of those who had settled into this gem of a place – a real southern belle.


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