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Cordes-sur-Ciel, a Midi-Pyrénées heritage site

With its perfect geographical location and remarkable architectural heritage, Cordes-sur-Ciel is one of the most iconic medieval towns in the Midi-Pyrénées.

January 07, 2015
By: Juliette Galvan

A new town perched in the clouds

Overlooking the Cérou valley, the town of Cordes is built on the summit and slopes of a rocky outcrop, the "Puech de Mordagne". Its geographical location at the crossroads of Quercy, Rouergue and Albigeois explains why Raymond VII founded this castle town, between 1211 and 1222. The Count of Toulouse was keen to establish his power in the Northern Albigeois and create a commercial centre.

The name of Cordes has changed over the years. In the custom charter of 1222, the town was known as "Cordoa". It is possible that the Count of Toulouse named the town in reference to Cordoba, the original capital of the Al Andalous Spanish territory in the 8th century, which reached its cultural peak in the 10th century.

Cordes was long considered to be a bastide town due to its regular urban landscape and significant merchant trade. However, the town should be correctly identified as a "castelnau" or "castrum novum". After the Meaux – Paris treaty of 1229, Raymond VII multiplied the number of bastide towns in the Albigeois, Agenais, Quercy and Rouergue in order to establish his authority over the only part of the county still in his power.

The golden age of the merchant town

From the mid-13th century, the town entered a phase of great economic prosperity due to its thriving market, which had a large hall with 24 stone pillars. Cordes was a model of town planning for future bastide towns, designed on a relatively regular layout around the marketplace and the main street, La Grande-Rue. The town spread beyond its original ramparts and four new walls were built, along with new districts and plots outside the castle walls. At the time the town had as many inhabitants as Albi (6,000).

This prosperity was reflected in the development of the landscape: a number of construction projects were launched, such as the new parish church (Saint-Michel) as well as many private townhouses. The Maison du Grand Ecuyer, Grand Veneur and Grand Fauconnier are evidence of the wealthy merchants and middle classes in the town who traded in cloth and leather. These wealthy residences, built in the second half of the 13th century, have some architectural features in common: a ground floor with arcades and a shop, and a first floor with ornate windows, connected to each other by string courses.

The renaissance of the town as Cordes-sur-Ciel

The town's economic prosperity was interrupted by the Religious wars. It was not until 1870 that the machine embroidery industry, imported from Saint-Gall in Switzerland, gave new economic life to the town.

In the 20th century, Cordes also underwent an artistic revival. Many artists and craftsmen, led by the painter Yves Brayer, were attracted by the town and founded the Académie de Cordes. One of these was the local writer and poet Jeanne Ramel-Cals. In 1947, she invented the name "Cordes-sur-Ciel" (Cordes in the sky), a name evoking the sea of clouds that surround the outcrop in autumn and spring. The town's name was officially changed in 1993.

Cordes-sur-Ciel is still a town of artists, with many painters, sculptors, ceramists, enamel workers and so on, who have forged the town's reputation. It is home to the Charles Portal museum of art and history and the Yves Brayer modern and contemporary art museum, based in the former Maison du Grand Fauconnier. The town also boasts a number of contemporary gardens, known as the "jardins du paradis".

Musiques sur Ciel, the festival of classical chamber music and contemporary music, has taken place in Cordes-sur-Ciel for the last 43 years, featuring composers in residence, chamber music concerts and masterclasses etc. An internationally renowned festival, it is a wonderful opportunity for young people to meet professional composers, or for musicians to meet instrument makers.

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