EASTER IN SARLAT LA CANEDA
The past week had us reflecting on how we spent Easter last year in Sarlat La Caneda, France. At the time, Jamal felt a little lonely, because Easter was such a family time for him, and we were halfway around the world, away from it all. How strange then, that 12 months later COVID-19 has made us feel the same way! Fortunately this region of France is beautiful and home to many joyful festivities, so last Easter is a time we can look back on with happy memories.
When I visit Sarlat for the first time it smells like truffles and mud baked on ancient stones. The summer truffles are laid out like diamonds in the marketplace, men in bottle-green aprons offer a taste of regional foie gras on a circle of bread, and there are musicians breathing life into every corner. Summer is the time for festivities in this medieval town of Perigord Noir.
Midday is for sleeping, escaping the heat that radiates from the yellow sandstone buildings, and evening is for celebration. The town has hardly changed since its medieval hey-day and as you wander the maze of alleys towards the Place de la Liberté it is easy to think yourself lost in another time. Pass by the frilled roofline of the house of renowned philosopher, Etienne de la Boétie, see the wisteria clambering up the Manoir de Gisson, and enjoy the sound of your footsteps on the cobbles.
For the summer season, musicians and street performers come from surrounding regions, and the calibre of talent is beyond measure. You will see fire-breathers, contortionists, magicians, acrobats, and musical ensembles that will give you goosebumps. Like any seasonal spectacle, there will of course be a glut of other tourists to negotiate during a Sarlat summer - but the vibe doesn’t lend itself to a quiet sojourn, and you will most likely find that the crowds of (mainly French) tourists just adds to the festivities in the best possible way.
During my second visit to Sarlat at Easter, the town was much sleepier. It felt softer and more laid back. You could walk into the best gastronomic restaurants without booking, sip your rosé leisurely without feeling bad for taking up a table and not ordering a whole meal.
At first, I admit, I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t share its festive nature with Jamal, but then we realised it was Easter, and of course, celebratory Sarlat was going to do something special…
Every year Sarlat La Caneda hosts ‘la chasse aux œufs’: a giant Easter Egg hunt, and it’s ridiculous fun. Traditionally, in France, Easter eggs aren’t delivered by a bunny, but by flying bells. The village church bells are silenced on Good Friday to commemorate the death of Christ, and the story goes that they then fly to Rome to be blessed by the Pope. On Easter morning, the bells return, bringing with them the chocolate eggs to be scattered in the gardens of all the children of France before they begin to ring again.
In Sarlat, in the wee hours of the morning before the church bells begin to chime, it is 20 municipal employees that hide over 2000 goose eggs in the 5 districts of the town. The hunt starts around 10am, and we join the small clusters of families making their way towards the centre. It is an overcast day with the threat of rain in the air, but there are still plenty of children with their plaid overcoats, rosy cheeks and straw baskets clutched in excited fingers. The dogs, too, are out in full force, whipping their tails and their ears in all directions. Playful music is chirping from the anachronous speakers positioned on various street corners, and the atmosphere is one of joy.
The eggs are everywhere. They’re big and shiny and bright. Each district is assigned a ‘colour’, green, blue, red, orange or yellow, and they are an exciting way for visitors like us to explore the different parts of the town. Hunt participants (children only, unfortunately for us) must visit all 5 districts to collect one goose egg of each colour. They may exchange their collection for a chocolate goodie bag in the Place de la Liberté at the end of the hunt. In addition, there are 25 golden eggs which, if found, may be exchanged for a giant hamper of regional gastronomic delights. The hamper, filled with foie gras, truffles, and cheese, has us hunting frantically for the flash of gold and considering stealing someone’s child for legitimacy.
Unfortunately, despite exploring each district, we don’t find a golden egg. We return to the Place de la Liberté where the sun has come out at last and a market is in full swing. There is music, face-painting, egg-painting, carts selling fresh tarte tatins... and donkeys. Sleepy Sarlat La Caneda has woken up again, and it is as beautiful as ever.