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Explore its ancient streets and look out for the most unusual collection of 19th and early 20th century automata, a water park, the remarkable 12th century abbey, food markets, bars and restaurants galore… And don’t forget to try out some of the old plum brandy stuff…
Paying the Ferryman
The origins of Souillac-sur-Dordogne are intertwined with the monks who founded a monastery culminating in the construction of the beautiful 12th century abbey Sainte Marie.
The abbey brought newfound importance to the village of Souillac and saw it grow into an important town.
Like many major centres along the Dordogne river, Souillac served as a port for the river trade that dominated the region. Gabares (flat bottomed boats/barges) transported wood downstream on a route that stretched from the Auvergne to Bordeaux. In turn, wine, salt and exotic goods from the French colonies were brought back from Bordeaux into the Valley. It was perilous and back breaking work, as a team of men with ropes on either side of the river literally pulled the gabares back upstream.
Souillac - At the crossroads
At an important crossroads between Rocamadour and Sarlat, Souillac-sur-Dordogne is a gateway to many attractions in the Dordogne Valley. In the 20th century, as the railway then car replaced the river as the primary source of transportation of goods, the route nationale was built. Souillac became an important place to stopover in, located on this main road connecting the south of France and Paris before the A20 motorway was built.
A quiet drink and some shopping
This explains why a lot of the town’s commercial and residential buildings were built along this main road as hungry and tired travellers stopped off for a visit. Pretty multi-storeyed stone houses with painted wooden shuttered windows adorn buildings of various architectural styles. Hotels, shops and bars are sprinkled throughout. In summer months seek out a drink on a square or a relaxing lunch on a restaurant terrace near the historic bell tower, enjoying the shade of a wisteria.
Every Friday morning it's market day in Souillac. Centered around the old outdoor market hall near the abbey and in and around the Place du Beffroi, everyone strolls about collecting their particular style of pain for the weekend. This great little market has all the fresh and locally grown produce that you would expect. In July and August (Wednesday afternoons from 5-8pm) make sure you also check out the Souillac farmers’ markets selling local produce (often Organic and AOC accredited).
Abbey Sainte Marie
Architecturally, Souillac is known for the famed 12th Century abbey Sainte Marie. Traditionally designed in the form of a Latin cross it is an important example of the Byzantine/ Romanesque style. The Byzantine roof domes are alone well worth the visit. In July, the square, and the town of Souillac comes alive for a celebration of jazz. The highlight of this annual Jazz festival being the intimate outdoor concerts performed in front of the abbey. Lit up beautifully at night, the fantastic acoustics and leading international jazz artists make this an event not to be missed.
Another architectural highlight is the belfry of Souillac. Located behind the tourist office it is still standing, but partly in ruins, a result of damage sustained in the 1500s during the Wars of Religion.
Museum of the Automata
You won’t have seen anything like it. The museum has on display the largest collection of ‘automata’ (robotic toys) in Europe. These extraordinary examples of 19th and early 20th century automata are the ancestors of modern robots with some 300 exhibits dating back to the early 1900s. The collection celebrates the innovative Roullet-Descamps company whose works decorated the window displays of Paris and Europe’s most prestigious shops. It’s fascinating because you can still see them moving as they once did. Check out the gyrating Jazz band -really unusual. . Who would have thought you would find something like this in the Dordogne Valley?…
La Vieille Prune - Louis Roque Distillery
If you want a real taste of The Dordogne Valley, and one not for the fainthearted or light of stomach make sure to visit this La Vieille Prune distillery. A popular favourite, this renowned digestive has been knocked back for generations. The distillery Louis Roque in Souillac is an artisanal family enterprise reputed to make some of the best varieties of this one man’s poison and is sold in only the best restaurants throughout France. Three generations have passed on the secrets of bringing this brandy to life. A visit to the distillery itself is a fun learning experience as you discover not only the unique history of its production but also free sampling of the end result! Watch out, it’s a real taste sensation and one that will put hairs on your chest!
Hidden away from the centre of town is the Dordogne river and you can stroll beside it, jump into it or picnic beside it. The kids will love the local waterpark too. Quercyland has a variety of pools, water slides, hydro slides and bouncy castles galore. They also sell food and drinks and of course ice-cream.