Figeac, on the River Célé, 71km east of Cahors, is a beautiful town with an unspoilt medieval centre not too encumbered by tourism. Like many other provincial towns hereabouts, it owes its beginnings to the foundation of an abbey in the early days of Christianity in France, one that quickly became wealthy because of its position on the pilgrim routes to both Rocamadour and Compostela. In the Middle Ages it became a centre of tanning, which partly accounts for why many houses’ top floors have solelhos, or open-sided wooden galleries used for drying skins and other produce. It was the Wars of Religion that pushed it into eclipse, for Figeac sided with the nearby Protestant stronghold of Montauban and suffered the same punishing reprisals by the victorious royalists in 1662. The church of St-Sauveur, near the river, maintains its lovely Gothic chapterhouse decorated with heavily gilded but dramatically realistic seventeenth-century carved wood panels illustrating the life of Christ.
Jean-François Champollion, who cracked Egyptian hieroglyphics by deciphering the triple text of the Rosetta Stone, was born at 4 impasse Champollion, just off place Champollion. The house now forms part of the excellent Musée Champollion, dedicated to the history of writing, from the very earliest cuniform signs some 50,000 years ago. The most interesting exhibits relate to Champollion’s life and work, including original manuscripts tracing his and others’ progress towards cracking the hieroglyphs. Beside the museum, a larger-than-life reproduction of the Rosetta Stone forms the floor of the tiny place des Écritures, above which is a little garden planted with tufts of papyrus.