Sarlat, France - Standing in the cobblestoned town square of medieval Sarlat, you expect to see Hansel and Gretel come running around a corner, or Jack showing his mother the magic beans for which he traded their cow. That fairy tale setting is evoked by a haphazard sense of order, of buildings piled next to and behind one another in a way that shouldn't work. It does, though, in part because of the homogenous golden sandstone of the structures, all capped by high-pitched limestone roofs. These planes and angles blend rather than clash. Their textures and aged patinas can't be reproduced by a Disney-built attraction.
Inhabited since Roman times, the town has been both venerated as a holy place and torn apart during various wars. The medieval section thankfully escaped the 20th-century modernization of the rest of Sarlat when, in 1962, author and minister of culture André Malraux chose it as one of the experimental national restoration projects intended to preserve the old quarters of France's cities.
In North America there are clear borders between street and sidewalk; space is contained. Here, the boundaries are softer, more organic, flowing into one another. Yet there's a clear and unspoken understanding of how space is used, by pedestrians or vehicles. There's a comparable blend of private and public, where a café becomes an outdoor living room and its customers share the promenade with friends and passersby. A genuine hospitality, a small-town openness, pervades the atmosphere of the square.
Ironically, the medieval section is bifurcated by the Rue de la République, a modernized central street - still cobblestoned, but with multicoloured travertine sidewalks - that divides the busier, sophisticated east side from the sleepy, undeveloped western area. It's here that you find a few upscale clothing shops and perfumeries as well as banks and ATMs, but you only have to duck down one of the many angled, zigzagging sidestreets to be transported back 500 years.
Sarlat is no place for a vegan. This is duck and goose country, with the stores selling expensive foie gras, various flavoured pâtés, sausages and different types of innards. Salads are hard to come by in the daily market or restaurants.
The various goat cheeses are wonderful, some mixed with the walnuts that are one of the area's big exports. Dozens of food items are processed from walnuts, including oil, liqueurs ranging from light aperitifs to sweet, heavy after-dinner drinks, candies, breads, cakes and even beer.
The five days I spend here are cloudless from morning to night. Because the light is clear, the edges of the buildings are always sharp, seen in intense outline against the blue sky.
Roses and grapes love the region's dry, sandy soil. Against one ochre wall I count six different colours of roses - yellow, red, white, pink, orange and purple - espaliered so that each catches as much light as possible. The plants thrive here; even the new shoots are 2 centimetres thick, and for each flower that's open, 10 more buds are about the burst and show their rich, satiny petals.
In this climate, a three-storey, centuries-old white wisteria grows next to perfect, pinhead-sized purple wallflowers, impossibly emerging from the cracks of a building. Next to them are tiny sedum, mossy green and small as drops of water, shimmering even further with feathery red tendrils of flowers.
In a parallel way, the people thrive with a joie de vivre. They understand that a civilized day includes a leisurely, two-hour lunch break and a later dinner - it's bright until near 10 pm.