Perched on a hilltop in Southern France lies the enchanting bastide, Cordes sur Ciel. The cobblestone streets, ivy-covered stone homes, and sky blue shutters will make you think you were transported into Charles Perrault’s fairy tale world of Cinderella.
History of Cordes sur Ciel
Cordes was built in 1222 by Raimon VII, Count of Toulouse. That alone is enough to amaze me considering that America’s oldest settlement (St. Augustine, Florida,) was established only in 1565. Our oldest town is only a baby compared to Cordes sur Ciel.
As I was saying, Cordes is a bastide standing 100 meters above the surrounding valleys. Although the town experienced enormous growth in its first years, it was not immune to the devastating reach of the Black Death (1348) and later the Hundred Years War (1337 -1453). In 1870, peace and prosperity returned to the town. The population and economy began to recover, as it became a haven for painters, sculptors, poets and writers. It remains today a heritage center for tourists and artists.
Cordes was officially renamed Cordes-sur-Ciel in 1993, meaning “rocky heights in the sky”. This name was meant to reflect the seasonal phenomenon in which the spring and autumn fog gathers around the foot of the Puech de Mordagne, making the town appear as if it is floating among the clouds.
What is a bastide?
A ville bastide is a fortified town built in the south of France, for the purpose of sheltering those who had been displaced by the ongoing Albeigensian Crusade and Hundred Years War. Cordes sur Ciel, like most other Bastides, is situated on top of a steep hill, with stone walls and gateways just wide enough to allow a cart to pass through. The narrow passages and grid-like pattern of the town allow for gateways to be closed as necessary to ensure the safety of the people within.
Exploring the walkways of Cordes sur Ciel
As we drove toward Cordes sur Ciel from the la ville Rouge (Albi), the view of the village slowly came into view. It was exactly how I had seen it in pictures: a cluster of sand-colored stone structures, piled in tightly on top of one another, perched high up on a hill. It was magnificent and intriguingly medieval.
We parked at the bottom and started making our way up toward the top. Although the town was originally designed like a grid, the cobblestone pathways follow the curves of the mountain. The unique and unpredictable layout make the village like one fun maze, of which all possible routes lead toward the central plaza at the top of the village.
The streets are cobblestone and the walls are covered in ivy. Shop fronts and homes are accented with sky blue shutters and colorful potted plants. Shops are identified by cloth flags and banners hanging above the doorways with words such as “boulanger” “cordonnier”, and “boucher”. We had visited Cordes sur Ciel during January which is a low time for tourism. The streets were virtually empty, so Scott and I made it our playground and explored all of the tiny alleyways and stone steps. Little cats would come out and walk alongside us everywhere we went.
Things to know before you visit:
- When we travel, we try our best to speak in the local language when we can out of respect; but if you have a heavy American accent, as we do, no one will understand you when you try to pronounce Cordes sur Ciel.
Us: “We are trying to find Cordes sur Ciel.”
Frenchman with strong French accent: “What, what is it you are zaying?”
Us: “Cohd. Coohhd – es su Cee-el”. You know? Coooohhhd (trying so hard to replace the “r” with an “h” sound, but failing miserably.)
5 minutes later….
Frenchman with strong French accent: “Aa oui! Cordes sur Ciel!”
This was EVERY time we tried to talk about how much we loved Cordes sur Ciel. I do love the French accent, but man is it hard to pronounce!
- High time to visit Cordes sur Ciel is in the July – August when they have guided tours available.
- Make sure you walk all the way to the top. This is where you will find their weekly open market (on Wednesdays), and a most incredible view of the French countryside.
- It is advised to rent a car when traveling to Cordes sur Ciel. The nearest train station (Cordes-Vindrac) is about 3 miles away and finding a taxi from there may be difficult. Last time we checked, there are also no buses from Toulouse to Cordes. Renting a car is your best bet, but it is well worth it!