Figeac, the metropolis of the Célé valley, has more than one feather in its cap. It gave the world Jean-François Champollion, the linguistic wizard who cracked Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Charles Boyer, the archetypical French lover of the silver screen (and the inspiration for Warner Bros’ cartoon skunk, Pepé le Pew). Near the frontiers of the Aveyron, Figeac is the second city of the Lot, with all of 9,000 people; it has more obelisks than Paris, and lays fair claim to flexing the Lot’s industrial muscle, thanks to the aeronautics manufacturer Ratier.

But for the casual visitor, it’s Figeac’s medieval heart of golden sandstone that comes as the most charming surprise of all – it’s arguably the most beautiful medieval French city that most people (including the French themselves!) have never heard of. There may be no canals, but there’s something vaguely Venetian about Figeac, beginning with its medieval plan, full of curving lanes and irregular, asymmetrical little squares, offering a wealth of visual surprises.

The stone houses are so tall and densely built that many are topped with covered rooftop terraces that the Venetians call altane and the Lotois call soleihos, which not only offered city-dwellers a breath of fresh air but came in handy for drying fabrics, fruit and nuts. As in Venice as well, the ground floors were given over to stocking merchandise, while the merchants lived upstairs on the piano nobile, usually lit with the most elaborate windows of the building.

What to see and do in Figeac

Hôtel de la Monnaie 

The tourist office occupies this elegant 13th-century palace, one of the finest secular buildings of the period in France. Philippe IV granted Figeac the privilege of minting its own coins, a dandy boost to commerce in those days; the ground floor with its pointed arches was used as a bank, while on top is a typical soleiho.

Hôtel de la Monnaie Figeac
Hôtel de la Monnaie is home to the town’s tourist office © Krzysztof Golik, Wikimedia Commons

Just west of Place Vival runs charming Rue Caviale, where the Hôtel de Marroncles at no. 30 hosted Louis XI in 1463. Rue Caviale gives into Place Carnot, Figeac’s ancient market square, although since 1988 sadly lacking its 13th-century grain halle. Note the well-preserved 13th–17th-century Maison Cisteron in the corner, with a turret: this was the residence of Pierre de Cisteron, master armourer of Louis XIV and a Huguenot. Just before revoking the Edict of Nantes, Louis sent down a special safeguard for Cisteron, to keep him from the persecutions he had in store for Protestants not so dear to his heart.

Place Champollion 

For centuries this held Figeac’s chestnut market; until the 19th century chestnuts were staple in the local diet, ground into flour for bread. The butchers had their stands under the ogival arches; note, too, the 12th-century Maison du Griffon at no. 4.

The square is named after the 14th-century birthplace of Jean François Champollion (1790–1832), who by age 14 could rattle away in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic. He was always fascinated by Egyptian hieroglyphics, and when he finally saw a copy of the British Museum’s Rosetta Stone in 1822, he made his great discovery and confirmed his belief that the ‘pictures’ were a form of writing.

Place Champollion Figeac
Place Champollion was once home to Figeac’s chestnut market © Krzysztof Golik, Wikimedia Commons

The alphabet-covered Musée Champollion–Les Écritures du Monde offers four floors of somewhat didactic displays; there are three mummies and a small but choice collection of ancient Egyptian and Coptic art, as well as a painting of our man in Egypt, dressed in native costume, looking for all the world like a brigand with his bushy black beard and scimitar. In the Place des Écritures, Champollion’s bicentenary in 1991 was celebrated with the installation of a giant facsimile of the Rosetta Stone in the pavement, designed by American artist Joseph Kosuth.

Notre-Dame du Puy

Figeac’s churches haven’t withstood the trials of time as successfully as its secular buildings. This much-tampered-with 12th-century church overlooking the town replaces an ancient chapel where the Virgin made a rose bloom on Christmas Day, and retains some 14th-century carvings on its portal and capitals. The ornate 17th-century rooms of the former seminary here house Figeac’s attic – the Musée d’Histoire de Figeac with a mix of prehistoric relics, paintings, gifts from President Pompidou and other odds and ends.

Abbaye St-Sauveur

Encased in a forgettable 19th-century façade and bell tower crowned with a giant bread box, only St-Sauveur’s large size hints that this was Figeac’s famous medieval church. The chapterhouse (now a chapel off the right aisle) was given its remarkable ogival vaulting in the 15th century; in the 17th century, to cover up some of the damage caused in the Wars of Religion, a local sculptor added the naïve painted reliefs of the Passion – including a Last Supper of roast hamster and a bizarre scene of baby Jesus sleeping sweetly on a cross, dreaming of his future torments. In the adjacent riverside Place de la Raison stands a small obelisk, a monument to Champollion.

Just before the river, Rue du Balène winds past the Hôtel du Balène with its huge ogival door and Flamboyant windows. From here Rue Orthabadial, once the realm of the medieval abbey gardener, returns you to the Hôtel de la Monnaie. The most picturesque descent from Notre-Dame is by way of Rue Delzhens, past the seat of the king’s judge, the Hôtel du Viguier (1300s, now a hotel), to Rue Roquefort, where at no. 12 are the elegant remains of the house built by Galiot de Genouillac.

Travel to Figeac

The nearest airport, Rodez-Aveyron is a 45-minute drive to the east. By train, Figeac’s station is on the Brive–Toulouse branch line, with direct services to Assier, Gramat, Rocamadour-Padirac, Capdenac, and to Rodez.

LiO buses link Figeac to Cahors via Cajarc, Tour-de-Faure (near St-Cirq-Lapopie) and Vers; other buses link Figeac to Cardaillac and Lacapelle-Marival. There are several free car parks on the northeast side of town and over the Célé at Jean Jaurès.