Cordes-sur-Ciel: Dramatic and Timeless

I’d forgotten what a long way up it is. Seventeen years had obliterated our memory of the steep hike up to the cité of Cordes-sur-Ciel perched on its hilltop, which was long considered inaccessible. But we weren’t going to wimp out and take le petit train, which deposits less athletic, but maybe more sensible, tourists at the top. The effort is worth it to see one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the region. Luckily for us, by the last weekend in August the tourist hordes had largely disappeared, but it was busy enough.  

One of the great things about writing this blog over the years is that it has brought me into contact with so many interesting people. We were in Cordes thanks to a kind invitation from a couple who have left their country of origin to live there, and who have family links to the region. Since I had never written about Cordes, it seemed a good opportunity to refresh our memories and take some photos.

Starting at the bottom

Prosperous beginnings

The town was founded in 1222 by Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse, as a fortress to repopulate and defend his northern territories, ravaged by the Albigensian Crusades against the Cathar heretics. It replaced the town of Saint-Marcel, which Simon de Montfort had destroyed. Although the crusade continued, it was running out of steam, and Raymond had regained virtually all the territories lost during the earlier years.

Grande Rue Raymond VII, named after its founder

Cordes is said to be the first bastide, although Montauban predates it (founded in 1144). These were medieval “new towns” built on a grid pattern around a large central square. Despite the technical difficulties of building on the hilly site, it was completed in about seven years. The well under the market hall, which is 114 metres deep, is a reminder of the importance of water in establishing a settlement.

Market hall

Raymond offered the first settlers land in perpetuity, and the town experienced huge population growth in its early years. The defensive walls had to be moved further out five times. As you pass under each gate, you go back in time.

Porte de l’Horloge
Porte du Vainqueur
Almost there – Porte de Rous

Merchants moved in and built impressive Gothic-style palaces from the proceeds of trading in leather, cloth, wool and finance. These buildings are remarkably well preserved, having survived the various calamities of the medieval period.

Varying fortunes

Fortunes and fortifications were no defence against the silent invader that sneaked into the town in 1348 and cut a swathe through its population: the plague. And the Hundred Years War seriously affected the region’s economy. Even so, Cordes bounced back temporarily and its merchants grew rich again on the pastel dye industry until its decline in the face of cheaper imports and substitutes.

14th-century Maison du Grand Fauconnier on the right, now a museum of modern and contemporary art

In common with so many towns in the region, Cordes’ prosperity was transient. Parts of the town were burnt by Huguenots during the Wars of Religion. It suffered periodic outbreaks of plague and successive poor harvests, and the development of other trade routes left Cordes in an economic backwater. The population shrank. The town had a brief renaissance in the 19th century owing to the introduction of mechanised silk embroidery, but the last workshop shut its doors in the mid-20th century.

Today, tourism is one of the main industries, but Cordes is also a cultural and artistic centre. The town boasts various museums, including a Musée des Arts du Sucre et du Chocolat, founded by the veteran chocolatier Yves Thuriès. And it has an all year-round Saturday market, augmented by a truffle market in the winter months. In 2014, Cordes was elected “French people’s favourite village”.

View of the church tower, which dominates the landscape for miles around

Cordes-sur-Ciel? The sur-ciel suffix is a modern sobriquet added in the 1990s. The town hovers ethereally on the sky above the autumnal mists that collect in the river valleys below.

Coming from our direction, you see the town on its rocky pinnacle well before you arrive. It must have been an impressive sight to medieval travellers and a symbol of the authority of the Counts of Toulouse. It didn’t remain in their hands for long, though, and passed to the kingdom of France in 1271, along with the rest of the comté de Toulouse.  

View from the top: the Tarn countryside
View from the bottom: Cordes on its hill

Have you visited Cordes? What stood out most from your visit?

This post is taking part in the #AllAboutFrance blog linky, where you’ll find interesting posts about travel in France and French culture generally.

You might also like:

Getting the Blues: the pastel trade in southwest France

Trip Along the River Aveyron

Noses to the Grindstone? La Meulière de Clayrac, near Cordes

Copyright © Life on La Lune 2019. All rights reserved.


  1. Un super petit village que j’ai eu la chance de découvrir ( en quelle année… 2015 je crois) grace a une amie qui habite pres de Toulouse. J’en garde de bien beaux souvenirs. J’ai eu la chance d’aller en France ..2015, 2017 et 2019… et j’espere bien retourner quand cela sera possible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry, took a while to reply. Yes, it is a fabulous place – and all the better when visited out of season as it’s less busy. Cities have their plus points, but I’m a country girl at heart!


  2. We visited Cordes-sur-ciel in our first French summer after arriving in France. Our trip was brought about as we had nowhere to stay in Annecy (our rented house was tenanted for the summer) but how grateful we were to have this forced trip. We were staying in a friend’s house at the top of the hill and there for the July 14 festivities. I do remember the parking was a challenge and we did come away with a parking fine but the rest of our memories are of beautiful family times. #allaboutfrance

    Liked by 1 person

    • It must have been fun to be there on 14 July. I’m sure they take full advantage of the setting for the festivities. A shame about the parking fine, but at least they didn’t tow the car away!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Another interesting and stunning place to visit. Must add it to my ever extending list! We are in Castelnaudary, so I’m guessing it will take about two hours to drive there. #AllAboutFrance

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well worth a trip. Depends which way you go, but from you it’s either autoroute via Toulouse or come up the more scenic route through the Tarn via Albi and Gaillac. I’d allow a couple of hours. Thx for visiting via #AllAboutFrance.

      Liked by 1 person

    • We are fortunate to have a number of these amazing hilltop villages in our region. All very much worth a visit – but best out of season, since they weren’t built for cars and crowds. Thanks for visiting via #AllAboutFrance.


  4. There are so many gorgeous villages all over France but I’ve never come across one with 5 layers of walls/gates before. It’s amazing they’ve all survived. Thanks for your historical tour; I haven’t been to Cordes but I’d very much like to having read your description. And thank for linking to #AllAboutFrance again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We have quite a high concentration of them in this region. Cordes is really a gem. In my opinion it’s best visited out of season. In summer it’s heaving.


  5. One day I’ll get there – thanks for reminding me that this is a place I must visit!! Do you know when is the best time to experience the village floating above the mist/fog effect?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t actually seen the effect myself, but I would suggest autumn might be the best time. Probably late October or early November, when the weather can still be good. You’d have to be there fairly early in the morning, though!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I prefer to visit these places out of season, since they get so crowded in the summer. But you can’t blame people for wanting to see Cordes!


  6. Not sure when I was there but i don’t recall a ‘petit train’. I was statying at a hotel at the foot of the hill and walked up to visit the village. Two things in particular I remember: seeing a flambé butterfly close-up for the first time, sunning itself on a bush (buddelia, perhaps?) just beneath the wall that overlooks the vista beyond; and then standing stock still in the street listening to wonderful violin music pouring out from a window above me.

    I discovered there was to be a chamber music concert in the church that evening – it was very likely the soloist I had heard practising – so I set off again after dinner at my hotel, up the hill to hear the concert.

    It started late, as French concerts always seem to, so it was very late and dark as I walked back steeply down the hill with no torch under those tall over-arching trees, guided only the faintest of glimmers from the slightly lighter bark of the trunks on either side of the narrow road.

    Very early next morning I was on a plane back to England, but that day and evening at Cordes I have remembered as magical.

    Liked by 1 person

    • These magical moments are so precious. I had to look up a flambé butterfly and then saw that it is a Scarce Swallowtail. We see them around fairly often. It probably was a buddleia. which is where we see them most often, but they like lavender, too.

      They hold some lovely concerts in Cordes and have a music festival every summer.

      Every plus beau village now has a petit train – or several – to ferry people around. You usually get a running commentary on the sights, so it can be worth doing. I prefer to walk, though, and drink in the atmosphere, as you did.


  7. I am still breaking ou5 in a sweat thinking of my visit in/of Cordes. No train then; I’d be more than happy to use it now…. wd have used it then, that hot hot June, with a group of English ‘customers’, all older than me but full of enthusiasm and joy of discovering one of the 100 plus beaux villages de la France…..
    Yes, it was well worth the effort, it was most beautiful and full of light, with oodles of history and lovingly made restorations.
    Am a tad jealous as I don’t think I will ever get another chance to visit. But it’s also less tireing than actually struggle the long winding path up to it…. Always look at my wine glas as half-full !

    Liked by 1 person

    • All these villages have petits trains these days – sometimes more than one! It was quite hot last Sunday, but we persevered. I think I got better photos that way than if I’d taken them on the way down. We didn’t have long to spend there, since we were invited to lunch, but we’d done it all before years ago. Nice to refresh our memories, though.
      Never say never! But a virtual visit is a reasonable substitute. And you can enjoy the glass of wine at the same time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We were there before the trains. The crazy stuff was the ‘goodwill’ and energy of these elderly people. They were clients of the Alliance Française in UK.

        Liked by 1 person

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