25 km from Albi, in the Tarn département, you'll be seduced by the enchantment of Cordes-sur-Ciel. This village, steeped in legend, sits on its rocky outcrop like a stone nest. It's among the most precious of Gothic architectural treasures.
Cordes-sur-Ciel lies at the crossroads of the Gaillac AOC —Appelation d'Origine Contrôlée— vineyard (you'll get a chance to taste the wine), and the huge 4,000-hectare Grésigne forest.
It's also in the midst of a historic area where other treasures may be found such as these medieval villages, Puycelsi, Castelnau-de-Montmiral, Penne, and Bruniquel, along the Aveyron gorges.
Cordes-sur-Ciel is one of the oldest walled towns found in Midi-Pyrénées, a town whose blooms were a feature of the region during the Middle Ages.
History of Cordes-sur-Ciel
The town was founded in 1222 by Raimon VII, Count of Toulouse, during the Occitan re-conquest after the death of Simon de Monfort. Cordes was the first and most important bastide, built to welcome refugees after the Cathar wars. Originally it was half-encircled by white limestone cliffs. The surrounding area had certainly been inhabited since pre-historic times.
Much later on, the Roman Gauls occupied the area and built their comfortable villas here. At the beginning of the 12th century, two small villages existed in the valleys; in the middle of them was the small church of St-Pierre de Crantoul to the north and St-Jean de Mordagne to the south. To the west, halfway up to the rocky peak, a small group of houses were built on flat land around the church of Our Lady of the Vaysse. Who would have thought that up there, at the top of those steep slopes difficult to climb, a town would be built that would transform the cliffs into a fortification?
In the lands of the Counts of Toulouse, a new Christian religion was formed which soon became popular and began to be widely adopted in a climate of tolerance: Catharism. However Rome declared it to be heretical and in 1209 launched a crusade that soon to become a war of conquest. By the means of sword and fire, pillaging and massacres, the northern barons; the “French”, seized these vast lands.
In 1218, Simon de Montfort, “the Lion of the Crusade” died in Toulouse which the Count had just recaptured. This was a great triumph and was followed by the Occitan reconquest. But in 1222 nothing remained of Saint-Marcel village, a few kilometres away, which had been laid siege to and razed ten years earlier by the troops of Simon de Montfort.
The new Count of Toulouse, Raymond VII, who had just succeeded his father, decided for two reasons to build in the north of his lands a new town: to defend his north-facing lands from where the enemy would come from, by replacing St Marcel fortress, which had been burned and destroyed, and to accommodate the local population, which had been scattered by the crusade and the demands of the French barons. It was to be Cordes, built on the top of the Mordagne rock, because it had all the qualities required. This isolated hill, extending from east to west, was more than 100 metres higher than the valleys of the River Cérou and its little tributary, the Aurosse. Its slopes were steep and its chalks cliffs made the summit almost inaccessible, the reason it had not been inhabited before.
The Cordes bastide was founded in 1222 during the so called “Albigensian Crusade”. Seven years later, building had been completed. The incredible work was accomplished in seven years, when the town and its two fortified surroundings walls were built, made Cordes, sometimes called the “Albigeois key”, an essential stronghold for Languedoc in 1229. This is why, in the treaty of Paris, the king demanded that it should be handed over to him along with several other towns. It was the return of peace which encouraged industrial activity in the whole of Languedoc. Although the founding of Cordes coincided with a turning point in the history of Languedoc, it was also part of a movement responsible for hundreds of new villages in this region. Cordes made great progress during its first century of existence. Cordes grew rapidly. Attracted by the advantages offered by the Count, such as parcels of lands to future inhabitants in free and individual property, people came from the Albi region, from Rouergue and from Quercy to live in the new town. Homes were built and craft shops opened.
Cordes was to become one of the major Cathar centres. It would experience the cruelty of the Inquisition, the Bishop of Albi’s repression and be actively involved in the revolt against the Inquisition’s methods. The legend says that in 1233, revolted by the fact that a follower was condemned to burn at the stake, the inhabitants of Cordes are said to have thrown the three inquisitors down the well in the market place where there is a plaque to commemorate the event.
Only in 1321 would it finally submit.
In spite of all this, Cordes was to experience, during this period, a phenomenal growth. The early walled town —bastide— spread out beyond its ramparts and new fortification lines were required —five in all—.In three generations it became an important town numbering more than 5000 inhabitants. Its prosperity sprang from the cloth, wool and leather industries, trading and finance. The merchants prospered and some noble families built, between 1280 and 1350, magnificent residences with Gothic frontages for which Cordes is renowned.
In 1348 the black plague hit the town. It was to wipe out a quarter of the population. Seven years later, the Hundred Years War led to the English occupying the land as far as the neighbouring hills. Cordes emerged weakened and drained, because of the dynastic rivalries between England and France. The people of Cordes defended themselves by reinforcing the fortifications. They experienced difficulties, especially with highwaymen and mercenaries, who took advantage of the many truces to wage their own wars. From 1450 the town returned to a calmer period and undertook great building and reparation projects. Added to the cloth and leather industries was the new pastel industry, which was to produce huge fortunes.
From 1562, the Wars of Religion, that saw Catholics and Huguenots —Protestants— fighting each other, were to bring continued difficulty. The fortified town, which was considered to be the best stronghold in the Albi region, became the object of jealousy by the Huguenots. In 1568 it was besieged, plundered and partly burnt.
The plague epidemics,which had been occurring since the middle of the 14th century, had exhausted the town, draining its will and emptying its coffers. At the end of the 17th century, the construction of the Canal du Midi completely changed the major trading routes and brought a collapse of trade in Cordes, accentuated by poor harvests. On the eve of the French Revolution, Cordes’ population numbered 2500 inhabitants.
The town now found itself off the beaten track. Stuck on its rock, it sank into oblivion but the people of Cordes retained the independent character that their history had taught them. During the 1848 Revolution, it was renowned as a “ Republican town”. It was a rural town away from the main communication routes, and was not part of the industrial revolution of the 19th century.
At the end of the 19th century the town was given a new and incredible boost because of mechanical embroidery. In 1870, after the war, a Cordais, Albert Goorse, brought back to Cordes four of the embroidery looms from St Gall in Switzerland which he himself had seen in operation. Very quickly, the rattling of 300 looms could be heard in the Goorse factories or private houses. The lower town, at the crossing of the departmental town, developed at that time. Fifty year later, the workshops and their machines were no longer competitive and at the end of the 1930s, there was a drop in activity. The first crocodiles of the Lacoste trademark were embroidered in Cordes and in the 1960s they were also the last embroidery works in the town. But Yves Brayer and his friends, the sculptor Bizette-Linder and Albert Bouquillon, were amazed by Cordes beauty and authenticity and moved there in 1940. Other painters, sculptors, poets and writers came to join them. They founded the Cordes Academy whose exhibitions are well known throughout the south-west of France. These days there are about fifty artists and craftsmen. They have turned Cordes into an artistic centre, but since they love its old stones, they have also ensured that the wonderful art of the medieval builders has been rescued from the ruins. It now attracts an ever-increasing number of visitors.