France: Medieval village wary of tourist influx

By Lucie Lautredou

The picturesque medieval hamlet of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie has been voted 'France's Favourite Village'. Photo / Thinkstock
The picturesque medieval hamlet of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie has been voted 'France's Favourite Village'. Photo / Thinkstock

Perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Lot River in southwestern France, the medieval village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie has survived wars and invasions since the 13th century.

Now the picturesque hamlet is facing a new and potentially more dangerous threat: tourists.

With its stone houses with brown-tiled roofs, narrow winding streets and a lack of modern buildings and amenities, Saint-Cirq seems hardly changed in hundreds of years.

Already playing host to about 400,000 visitors every summer, the town of just 217 residents is bracing for an even bigger influx after being voted "France's Favourite Village" in a public television programme in June.

Some fear the town, located about 30 kilometres east of Cahors, may lose the medieval character that has made it such an attraction, but local officials and residents say the tourists are more than welcome.

"Our village may look fragile, but it has survived for centuries," said Virginie Seguin, the head of the local tourist office.

"Our challenge is to maintain our authenticity, to welcome tourists while preserving our peaceful atmosphere."

From Richard the Lionheart's siege in 1199 to the Hundred Years War between the French and the English in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the French religious wars in the 16th century, Saint-Cirq has long been fought over.

But it survived largely intact and officials say they are ready to deal with this latest invasion.

"If these towns and villages have lasted, it's partly because changing them isn't easy," said Pierre Sicard, the architect in charge of local heritage, pointing to strict rules governing the preservation of listed historic sites.

"The challenge of reconciling conservation and tourism has been met in Saint-Cirq because for decades everyone involved has been paying attention, every day, down to the smallest detail," he said.

Officials said the biggest problem facing the village is limited space for traffic and parking.

"We do need to increase the facilities for welcoming (tourists), so that we can respond to them and so welcoming them remains a pleasure," Seguin said, adding that the town was expanding parking facilities to make things easier.

Residents say they are not bothered by the occasional changes or strict conservation rules. In fact many praise the flow of tourists for keeping people in work and allowing the village to thrive.

"The village is well-preserved. I live on tourism - it keeps people working, young people who want to find a job in the area," said Patrick Vinel, 56, a fifth-generation woodturner who makes souvenirs.

"We are not allowed to have big signs, outdoor displays, antennas... It's the rules, we respect them and that is what makes the village charming," said Anne-Marie Mandegout, a 56-year-old local businesswoman.

Like many recent visitors, couple Veronique and Casimir Herron, 51 and 52, discovered Saint-Cirq thanks to the television programme.

They only live 200km away in Carcassonne, another well-known medieval town, but decided to spend three days in Saint-Cirq.

"It's much more welcoming here, there are people but it's less suffocating than at home. Carcassonne has become too commercial," Veronique said.

- AFP

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