Timeless Monument: The Cathedral of Cahors 900 Years On

2019 marks the 900th anniversary of la Cathédrale Saint-Etienne in Cahors. The cathedral is even older than the ill-fated Notre-Dame de Paris. Yesterday, 27th July, was supposed to be the official anniversary, since it was on that day in 1119 that Pope Sixtus II consecrated the high altar. Unfortunately, after weeks with no rain at all, the heavens opened, and the Tourist Office website says that the fête has been put back to Tuesday 30th.

Intimate but busy square

Unlike many cathedrals, which are fronted by wide, open spaces, this one is tucked into the old town at the edge of the Place Jean Jacques Chapou. Lacking the soaring grace of some other French cathedrals, it’s probably best seen from above to appreciate the size of the twin domes, said to be the largest in Europe.

The cathedral presides over a busy market every Wednesday and Saturday, held in the place, which is well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Multi-coloured stalls sell a variety of regional produce: Rocamadour goat’s cheese, Quercy lamb, every conceivable part of the duck, melons, walnut oil and the local apple pastry called Pastis.

La Place Chapou is also distinguished by being the home of Peter May’s fictional character, Enzo MacLeod, a Scottish forensic scientist who solves cold cases. He has a flat overlooking the square.

Contested altar

Successive churches probably existed on the same spot, but no trace of these buildings survives. Work on the present cathedral began in the early 12th century and it was still far from complete when the Pope visited on his way north from Toulouse and consecrated the altar. Like most of these buildings, it was constructed over many years, rebuilt and restored several times, so that it’s now a mixture of Romanesque, Gothic and Byzantine styles.

North door tympanum

The original high altar is no longer there. During the Wars of Religion, the town was sacked in 1580 by the Protestant Huguenots, who seized the high altar, a symbolic prize. One of the Huguenot leaders, the Vicomte de Gourdon, decided to ship it along the Lot to the Château de Cénevières. However, the barge capsized under the altar’s weight and it fell into an underwater cavern. Attempts to find and retrieve it for this year’s celebrations have proved unsuccessful so far.

We last visited Cahors on an extremely hot day in August last year, when the SF had a dental appointment. In the meantime, I wandered around the market and the market hall, but was so wilted after a while that I took refuge in the relative freshness of the cathedral and the adjoining 16th-century cloister.

Once inside, you appreciate better the height of the domes. The 14th-century paintings inside one of the domes were uncovered and restored in 1840 and represent Saint-Etienne praying, surrounded by St. Paul and 13 medieval figures. They in turn are surrounded by eight prophets.

Trails and gardens  

I’m rather fond of the unassuming back of the cathedral, the east end. Here, you can see one of the 25 secret gardens that are linked by a marked trail around Cahors. Nearly all of them are in the old town and highlight plants grown in the Middle Ages.

Secret garden in 2018
Secret garden, as it was when we visited in 2010, complete with medieval wickerwork gardener

The town is also on one of the Chemins de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, whose route is marked by brass scallop shells set into the pavements. The route passes in front of the cathedral, traverses the town and then crosses the River Lot by the Pont Valentré.   

Pilgrim on the route de St Jacques de Compostelle in the cathedral cloister
Pont Valentré

It’s time we revisited Cahors, but perhaps we’ll wait until the autumn when it’s cooler and less busy.  

You might also like:

Black Wine and Secret Gardens in Cahors

More of Cahors

Every Château Tells a Story #13: Le Château de Cénevières, Lot

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