When a travel website says that in one town you can see examples of the oldest writing known to humans plus perhaps the oldest house in France, in fact a collection of them, it sounds like a place you want to visit. Figeac is only 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of Carcassonne as the crow flies but since we like to ride the rails, and this journey was going to take 2 trains plus a bus, we’d put it off. Now that any Covid travel restrictions had been lifted, and we were already going to be in that general area (Thiers in 1 day), it was time to see where, in the year 838, an abbey was constructed that resulted in the founding of Figeac.
Although known as the Hôtel de la Monnaie (apparently given that name that we would call “The Mint” to save it from destruction over a century ago) it was actually a merchant’s house from the Middle Ages. The Office of Tourism, located here, says that it is “characteristic of the residences of the rich bourgeois of the century of Saint Louis” who was king of France from 1226 to 1270.
The largest medieval residence in town is the Palais Balène constructed for the wealthy Balène family who had connections to the King. It indeed became royal property in 1345 when it was confiscated because in a duel between the two owning brothers, one was killed and the other condemned for shooting his brother.
The Place de la Raison is the largest open square in Figeac and that is where you’ll find the largest church, Abbey St. Sauveur, that got this city started. Although begun in the 9th century, construction took at least 300 years so there is a mix of romanesque and gothic styles. The tourist brochure said that next door is the “must-see”, Notre-Dame-de-Pitié chapel, the former chapter house where the officials of the abbey met, is decorated with sculpted panels from the 17th century.
To see what was listed as “secreted…(and) the most charming” place in town we walked on to Place Gaillardy and its numerous maisons à pans de bois (half-timbered houses) from the 15th-16th centuries.
We knew the name “rosetta stone” for two reasons: 1) we’d been to the British Museum in London to see the fragment of granite on which an Egyptian decree from 196 BC is written in three languages and 2) we’d used the computer program with that name while learning French. What we didn’t know was that the person who decoded the Rosetta Stone, Jean-François Champollion, was born in Figeac in 1790 and that his birth house has been turned into a museum highlighting 5000 years of writing. In the courtyard behind the house a giant replica of the stone covers the ground and there is a stairway to a small garden dedicated to plants used in paper making.
From the oldest examples of writing in the world we moved on to the oldest house in town. Built around 1175 the Maison du Griffon, named for the carved griffin–body of a lion, head of an eagle–that graces its facade, served as a shop downstairs in the characteristic archways of the time and living quarters on the floors above.
Our final stop on a day filled with “the oldest” we went to see a church that may predate even the 9th century abbey on which the city was founded. Although the current church Notre Dame du Puy was built in the 13th century, a chapel was known to have existed in the same place for centuries before that.
If you go: Figeac has done a great job of creating a walking path with numbers to follow around town. Below is a link to a pdf version of the map. Most of the numbers are attached to the identified building while a few are close by and require a little searching.