Set in a privileged, fertile valley on the River Isle, the capital of the Dordogne département is a cheerful city of 31,600 people who print all the postage stamps in France. The old streets around its famous five-domed cathedral have been intelligently restored to give the city a lively and lovely heart. Another plus are two excellent museums, old and new, offering a chance to get to know what life was like here in the time of Asterix.
What to see and do in Périgueux
This is the fourth church built here, on the summit of the puy over the Isle. A 6th-century AD chapel holding the relics of St Front was replaced in 1074 with a much larger church, to draw in pilgrims on the way to Compostela. In 1120, when this new church burned down, it was decided to build something extraordinary with five domes on a Greek cross, similar to St Mark’s in Venice. By the 19th century this marvel was a rickety disaster waiting to happen. After the Huguenots had damaged it in 1575 and destroyed the tomb of St Front, a streak of thoughtless restorations exacerbated the typical problems of old age.
From Place de la Clautre you can see what survives from the church of 1074: the austere façade fitted with the odd Roman fragment, lateral walls that now form an open courtyard, the bottom two-thirds of the squarish 57m bell tower, built in a style unique for the Middle Ages that may have inspired Abadie’s eccentricity. There are two confessions (tomb-shrines of saintly confessors) – one under the bell tower and the other under the west dome – and the little cloister with a ‘pine cone’ at its centre, a copy of a common Roman motif (the Vatican has a famous one in a courtyard), that originally topped the bell tower.
Medieval streets around St-Front
The north door of the cathedral opens on to Avenue Daumesnil, the centre of a fascinating web of 15th- and 16th-century pedestrian lanes. Much of the stone of their urbane houses was quarried from ancient Vesunna, and residents often leave their gates open to let passersby admire their curved inner stairs. The Vieux Moulin, perched on a river wall on Boulevard Georges Saumande, is a relic of the grain monopoly once held by the canons of St-Front. Just down the street, the 15th-century Maison des Consuls, the old seat of city government, reflects Périgueux’s late medieval-Renaissance heyday; there are beautiful views of the ensemble over the willowy banks of the Isle from the Pont des Barris.
Back up in Place Daumesnil, enter the picturesque Galeries Daumesnil by way of Rue de la Clarté: these are a set of old courtyards opened up to the public, and named after Pierre Daumesnil who was born at 7 Rue de la Clarté in 1776. Long narrow pedestrian Rue Limogeanne has been Périgueux’s busiest shopping street since the Middle Ages and is lined with Renaissance-era houses; no. 5, the Maison Estignard, is especially lovely with its dormers, mullioned windows and carvings of salamanders – a way of flattering François Ier, whose emblem they were.
In pretty Place St-Louis surrounded by restaurants and cafés, the Maison du Pâtissier (1518) has a sculpted porch and an inscription warning that anyone who speaks badly behind people’s backs is not welcome inside, for ‘The greatest glory is to displease the wicked.’
Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie du Périgord (MAAP)
This museum has something for every taste. The important prehistoric section has one of the oldest complete skeletons ever found, the 70,000 BC Neanderthal homme de Régourdou. There are Upper Palaeolithic carvings and engravings on bone and stone, among them the strange, disembodied Parade of Bison from Chancelade and a disc carved with does.
From later millennia there’s Gallo-Roman jewellery, domestic items and mosaics, an Alemanni sword, Visigothic and Frankish blades, a 6th-century Visigothic sarcophagus, a lacy fragment of a Carolingian chancel, and strange faces and slatternly mermaids that once adorned St-Front, a jewellery box that belonged to Fénelon’s family, and ceramics and enamels from Limoges.
The paintings aren’t overwhelming, but there is the Diptyque de Rabastens (1286), a rare work painted on leather from Toulouse, a Canaletto and Dutch works, and 20th-century works by Périgourdins, including sculptures by Jane Poupelet. Much of the ethnographic collection (from New Caledonia, the Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea and Africa) was brought back by Admiral Bougainville, who sailed around the world in 1768 for King Louis XV and introduced Europe to the flowers that bear his name, along with masks, idols and other art, including a 5m seashell necklace used as money.
Tour de Vésone
According to ancient writers, this fantastical ruin once stood in the exact centre of Vesunna, in the middle of a peristyle square. It was the temple of the city’s tutelary deity, some murky Celtic goddess who didn’t like to be named. Today it stands alone in a park, an enigmatic stone and brick cylinder 20m high, with its breach attributed to St Front. Imagine this great cylinder as it must have appeared in the Middle Ages, still surrounded by some of its columns.
Note the row of sockets about 6m from the top; beams projected from here to hold up the cornice and roof, which would have been domed or conical – recalled in the unique, odd circular lantern on the top of St-Front’s bell tower. It’s the very image of the Tour de Vésone; this iconic, almost magical building must still have held Périgueux in its spell, and the Romanesque builders were able finally to capture it and Christianise it.
The centre of the old Cité is marked by Périgueux’s oldest church, founded over a Temple of Mars in the 6th century. In the 12th century it was rebuilt in a style that became the prototype of the Périgourdin domed Romanesque church, with wide Byzantine cupolas not only over the crossing but cupping the length of the nave. Originally St-Étienne had four of these, culminating in a huge bell-tower porch; those busy Huguenots unkindly, and none too neatly, tore off the front half.
The two surviving bays are not only an important lesson in the origins of Périgourdin Romanesque, but are steeped in shadowy medieval solemnity, an atmosphere so lacking in St-Front. The first dome, from the early 1100s, is solid and primitive, lit only by tiny windows; the second, from around 1160, is elongated, lighter, and supported by twinned columns.
Inside, the arch from the tomb of Bishop Jean d’Asside (d1169) frames the Romanesque baptismal font, and there’s a medieval curiosity: a carved 12th-century Easter calendar. Back in the age of slow communications, each diocese had to puzzle out the right Sunday for Easter by observing the moon and calculating from a chart like this one.
Travel to Périgueux
The train station (11 Rue Denis Papin) is on the TER regional train from Bordeaux to Limoges, via Mussidan and Montpon- Ménestérol and Libourne. It’s 4½–5 hours from Paris (change in Limoges), or usually quicker by way of the LGV to Libourne and then the TER train.
Another option is the 01 bus linking Périgueux (via Brantôme) to Angoulême, there to link up with the Paris–Bordeaux LGV. Another TER line links Périgueux to Agen via Les Eyzes, Sarlat, Villefranche-de-Périgord and Monsempron-Libos (where you can pick up the bus to Cahors).
Périgueux station is also the centre of the Dordogne’s bus network with buses year-round to Riberac, Mareuil, Nontron, Excideuil, Salagnac, Montignac, Sarlat and Bergerac, plus summer lines to Aubeterre-sur-Dronne, Les Eyzies, Domme and more.