August 29, 1999
Figeac's Flair for the Egyptian
By NANCY BETH JACKSON
With a native son who deciphered the Rosetta Stone, the town in southwestern France feels at home with hieroglyphics
owe apologies to all the houseguests I
hustled through Figeac, which has
been a trading center for southwestern France since at least the 11th
century. My excuse is that I was so
busy renovating a water mill in a nearby
town that I missed what was right next door.
The town for me was pork chops, pâté and
nut cake from the busy Saturday market
under a pavilion that looks like the old Les
Halles. I never thought to play tourist. When
guests came, I chose Cahors, Souillac and
Rocamadour for their outings unless we
were shopping for dinner or needed a bank.
Not that tourists don't stop in Figeac. The
interminable traffic lights at a bridge over
the Célé make sure motorists at least brake,
but now I know that travelers who pause
longer can find themselves on a slightly
discombobulating detour into Egypt.
Gary Gunderson for The New York Times
|An entrance to the Saturday morning market in Figeac.|
Here men in berets play boules next to an
obelisk, an optician's billboard shows Nefertiti in aviator glasses, chocolate boxes and
baguette wrappers display the portrait of a
19th-century Egyptologist and hieroglyphics pave a Romanesque courtyard.
Bookshops, too many it seems for a population of
10,000, fill their windows with translations of
The Book of the Dead and pharaonic art on
papyrus. The compact local museum displays mummy cases worthy of a Cairo
Even in the early 1800's, only a hiccup ago
by both Egyptian and local standards, Warburthon's work on Egyptian hieroglyphics
was available at a village bookstore, established in 1773 by an itinerant Dauphinois
bookseller who set up shop after marrying a
local girl from nearby Faycelles.
The peddler was Jacques Champollion, a shadowy
figure who may have been just wandering
through with his cart when he slowed for a
pretty face. What is known is that his youngest child, whose fame was predicted before
his birth by a local seer, was Jean-François
Champollion. Fascinated by Egypt since
childhood, Champollion broke the Rosetta
stone's hieroglyphic code and opened up
millenniums of history to scholars and tourists.
What Champollion has done most recently
for Figeac under a socialist mayor is help
revitalize a burg that suffered declining
population and a decaying town center --
until national politics and local pride worked
together to revitalize the economy and refurbish a local hero. For over a dozen years,
starting in 1984, as I renovated the mill
about 30 minutes north of the town, I
watched Figeac spruce up and develop what
amounts to a Champollion cult. But only
after I moved to Egypt myself in the early
1990's did I begin to appreciate Figeac's
favorite son and the town.
Freed from chipping away old stucco and
irrigating vegetable patches, I have since
returned to Figeac on vacations to learn
about Champollion, his birthplace and nearby archeological sites where he and his
much older brother, Jacques-Joseph, labored. Like them, I became enchanted with
the prehistoric burial chambers that resembled pyramid construction and a fortress
town where the brothers dug in search of
Uxellodunum, the legendary site where Caesar finally defeated the Gauls.
Charles Boyer, the actor born here in
1899, has only a modest plaque on the stone
building where he was born. Champollion
has his own square, a museum in the renovated family home and a gargantuan Rosetta stone created by the American artist
Joseph Kosuth that covers the floor of a
medieval courtyard near the museum. It is
hard to walk through town without seeing
Champollion's dreamy-eyed three-quarter
profile staring out of shop windows.
merchants even issue a credit card in hieroglyphics.
But Champollion, who left Figeac for
studies in Grenoble when he was only 11,
was not always so honored here. Three
years after his death in Paris in 1832, an
obelisk in his memory was erected in Figeac's Place de la Raison, a graveled space
occupied by an abbey's cloister before the
Nothing came of plans approved
by Napoleon III in 1867 to add a statue.
Until 1934, when masons renovating a
store uncovered a stone painted with the
word "Librairie" and the Champollion
name, local people weren't even sure of the
location of the bookshop, which was run by
the sisters of the family while the brothers
reached intellectual heights in Grenoble and
Now the storefront at the site is a bar
called the Sphinx.
The family's home was only a few degrees away from ruin when a group of
Figeac citizens decided to rescue it in the
After François Mitterrand was
elected president in 1981, the socialists
adopted Champollion as one of their heroes,
perhaps because he had once been sent back
to Figeac in internal exile for supporting
Napoleon, the people's emperor.
Champollion, however, is an unlikely political icon.
He spent his exile setting up free
classes for children, excavating Roman
ruins at Capdenac-le-Haut and puzzling over
a rubbing of the Rosetta stone, which had
been discovered by Napoleon's soldiers.
Champollion never saw the stone itself, a
hunk of black basalt carved in Greek, hieroglyphics and an ancient Egyptian script. A
French Army officer had uncovered it at an
old fort at Rosetta near Alexandria in August 1799 during Napoleon's invasion of
troops and scholars. The British claimed it
as booty when they ousted the French in
For nearly 20 years, while the stone sat
in the British Museum (where it remains
today), scholars across Europe followed one
false lead after another as they tried to
match the two Egyptian inscriptions to the
|A huge sculpture of the Rosetta stone created by the American artist Joseph Kosuth, in a medieval courtyard near the Musee Champollion.|
Before I lived in Figeac, I had heard only
vaguely of Champollion, whose claim to
deciphering the Rosetta stone I later
learned had been challenged by an English
physician and scholar named Thomas
The two men were remarkably
alike: child prodigies who grew up with
family members other than their parents.
But while ancient Egypt consumed Champollion from boyhood, Young explored it as
one of many intellectual diversions, publishing his preliminary findings anonymously.
Aware of Young's research, Champollion
discarded some of his own theories, suffered
a fit of inspiration that left him in a coma
and revived to announce that he had broken
the hieroglyphic code after years of investigation.
Young never visited Egypt, but seven
years after announcing his key to the hieroglyphics, Champollion launched a major
expedition up the Nile paid for by the King of
France and the Grand Duke of Naples with
a spirited crew of French and Italian scholars, including the artist Nestor L'Hôte.
read Champollion's journal in a 19th-century edition at the American University in
Cairo. A librarian in the rare books library
laid the book like a jewel on a green felt
tabletop and left me alone with Champollion, who whispered in my ear from the
antique pages. More than 150 years separated our stays in Egypt, but the only thing
dusty about his words was the cover.
His journal shares his joy in seeing all
that still remained of ancient Egypt. He and
his cohort sang arias and danced across the
sands at midnight on their way to the Temple of Dendera, scaring the wits out of a poor
Egyptian peasant who thought he had met
up with devils. Champollion's delight is obvious as he describes setting up camp in a
Valley of the Kings burial chamber and
arranging for an obelisk to be moved from
Luxor, ultimately to the Place de la Concorde in Paris. His journal is full of exhilaration, but the trip left him exhausted and ill.
He returned to Paris in March 1830 and died
two years later in his 42d year. His grave in
Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris is easy to
find under an obelisk, but it is in Figeac that
he is met at every turn.
To avoid the annoying traffic lights, I
usually park above the town in the Place de
Foirail, the old animal market near Notre-Dame du Puy, an impressive church reconstructed in 1658.
I amble down and huff back
up cobblestoned streets with gutters down
the middle. I pause at hidden gardens behind heavy wooden doors with the traditional iron knocker of a woman's hand. Until I
came as a tourist, however, I rarely considered the towers, arcade facades and half-beamed architecture all around me. Now I
always stop at the Champollion museum,
pause in the Rosetta stone courtyard landscaped with papyrus plants and appreciate
the museum's small but exquisite collection
of Egyptian antiquities.
If I shopped until lunchtime, I used to
have few choices. Today, a welcome addition to the town's wide selection of fast-food
places and restaurants is La Cuisine du
Marché, run by Joël Centeno, the son of
Basque immigrants, who worked his way up
in Toronto and Palm Beach before returning home to the Lot with his Canadian wife,
Nathalie. In a region of rustic inns, La
Cuisine du Marché has sunlight streaming
through plate glass filling medieval arches,
chefs chopping in full view behind yet more
glass and plats du jour worthy of a photo.
But the noontime crowd is totally local.
The restaurant is midway between the
market pavilion and the 17th-century gilt
wood sculptures in the chapter house attached to St.-Sauveur, a treasure so ignored
it is usually in the dark unless someone
pushes the light-timer. How had I missed
the chapter house all those years? Now I
never go to town without dropping by to see
the infant Jesus sleeping on the cross or
contemplating the strangely contemporary
faces of 17th-century workers the sculptor
used as models in the 13-panel series on the
passion of Christ.
I knew more about Conques, the dramatic
Benedictine abbey isolated high in the hills
almost due east, than I did about Figeac.
Figeac was probably a Roman site, but just
when the town's own Benedictine monastery was established is suitably clouded in
Supposedly a flock of doves flying in
cross formation led Pepin the Short to the
site in 753, but more likely it was a great-grandson who ordered the monastery built
nearly a century later as a supply base for
A rivalry soon developed between the
sister abbeys -- Conques, possessor of the
relics of Ste.-Foy d'Agen, and Figeac, a
prosperous market and a more convenient
stopover on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
It took a Council
of Nîmes edict in 1096 to separate them
officially, Conques taking the high road of
pilgrimage and Figeac going on to trade
woolen cloth, wine and honey with England,
Cyprus and the Middle East by the 13th
century. One merchant, Guillaume de
Bonnes Mains, set forth on his own personal
crusade, sailing to Alexandria to buy Jerusalem.
He failed, but the importance of
Figeac's medieval merchants is remembered in the bourgeois architecture.
In the early 14th century, the church
handed Figeac over to Philip the Fair, who
established a royal mint; today a building
called the Hôtel de la Monnaie houses the
tourism office and a small museum of Roman artifacts.
The town pasted itself up the
cliff between St.-Sauveur near the river and
Notre-Dame du Puy, whose aerial views
were said to have been selected by the
Today facades, bastardized over the centuries, are being returned to their original
design as architects transform medieval
houses into apartments for both rich and
The result is not Disney's Epcot but a
small city with an often unlikely mix of
young and old, panhandlers and bourgeois
tourists, jazz and Gregorian chants, Rollerblades and cobblestones. It remains a major
market town, not just for the Saturday fair
where vendors sell everything from live
rabbits to rubber shoes and clowns parade
on stilts, but also the big Leclerc discount
store across the Célé near Capdenac-le-Haut.
In addition to getting to know the town, I
used Figeac as a base for exploring the
Roman wells at Capdenac and the strange
Needles of Figeac, 13th-century obelisks
that may have been erected to mark the
boundaries of the Benedictine territory. One
Sunday drive led me to a dolmen, a megalithic stone construction dating probably
from about 2100 B.C. to 1700 B.C. Three of
them can be seen near the village of Faycelles, where Champollion's mother was
Gary Gunderson for The New York Times
|A bust of Jean-Francois Champollion.|
Not long before he died, Champollion visited Figeac in search
of the fresh air he thought
would cure him and to visit
with the sisters in the bookshop. Already the lane, not much more than
an alley, where he had been born, had been
renamed Rue des Frères Champollion.
"I am happy to be breathing air less
impregnated with the miasmas of high civilization; my lungs are better and my work,
too," he wrote in the autumn of 1831, the
year after returning from Egypt. Anyone
who has ever gathered chestnuts or
searched the forest floor for trompette des
morts mushrooms in the Lot fall knows the
feeling. Before returning that November to
Paris, where he had established the
Louvre's Egyptian collection, he did what
would be his last work -- adding to his
hieroglyphic dictionary and reclassifying
the sequence of pharaohs after seeing a
hieroglyphic chronology on site in Abydos.
He died the following March.
"Thus, the little town, cradle of his mother and himself, had always been destined to
be the place of his last discoveries," wrote a
German biographer, Hermine Hartleben.
"It was there that the pioneer of Egyptian
studies traced his last lines of faith for the
future development of the science he created." And nobody in Figeac is about to let the
world forget it.
Planning a visit to the town
Figeac is about 350 miles south of Paris
by car, most of it by autoroute. There are
trains from Paris (usually taking five to six
hours) and Toulouse (about two hours). The
city center is a short walk from the station.
The Toulouse airport is a two-hour drive
A well-marked self-guided walking tour
starts at the Musée Champollion, 5 Rue Colomb. Follow the keys.
The Tourist Office, Place Vival, (33-5)
65.34.06.25, fax (33-5) 65.50.04.58, open all
year, offers guided tours in French with
English audiotapes available. It also has
tours to nearby villages, including Faycelles, where Champollion's maternal relatives lived.
The Musée Champollion, a few steps from
the market square, varies its hours according to season, but is always closed for a
lengthy French lunch and on Sundays and
holidays. It also closes on Mondays except in
July and August.
The big market of the week is Saturday.
Gary Gunderson for The New York Times
|The Saturday market.|
The city's well-designed Web site at
www.quercy.net/figeac has information on
sightseeing, as well as tour schedules and
Click on the British flag for information in English.
Figeac is a good base for exploring the
Lot, Célé and Dordogne valleys as well as
for visiting its splendid sister abbey-town,
Conques. The region has endless vineyards,
prehistoric sites, caves, Gallic-Roman and
Romanesque art and outdoor activities. Outstanding summer music festivals are held
in St.-Céré and at the Château de la Rauze in
Le Bourg northwest of Figeac.
Hôtel du Château du Viguier du Roy, 52
Rue Émile Zola, 46100 Figeac; (33-5)
65.50.05.05, fax (33-5) 65.50.06.06, is top of the
line in the center of town, with 21 rooms and
suites, pool and cable TV -- and a medieval
Be sure to ask about the gargoyles.
Doubles, $107 to $208 (based on 6 francs to
Breakfast is $13 to $16.
Liffernet Grange, Lunan, 46100 Figeac;
(33-5) 126.96.36.199, fax (33-5) 65.50.06.24.
six-room bed-and-breakfast with pool is on a
hillside four miles south of town toward
Anthony Nielson, who is
English, and his French wife, Dominique de
Lamothe, also run a wine exporting business. A double costs $58 with breakfast. Dinner with wine is offered for $25 a person.
Places to Eat
La Cuisine du Marché, 15 Rue Clermont,
(33-5) 188.8.131.52, run by Joël Centeno, specializes in fish, fresh daily. Menus range
from about $11.50 to $38.
La Puce à l'Oreille, 5 Rue St.-Thomas, (33-5) 65.34.33.08, has tables by a walk-in fireplace in winter and in the medieval courtyard in summer. When I started going there
in the late 80's with small children and elderly aunts equally pleased by the menu and
ambiance, I paid around $7 for a prix fixe
lunch. Menus start at $12.50 today. I still favor the pork chops.
For the best in traditional menus, drive
north a few miles to Chez Marcel, Rue du 11
Mai 1944 in Cardaillac, (33-5) 184.108.40.206,
whose dukes left behind a chateau well
worth a look.
Menus are $13 to $30 with five
rooms to rent upstairs if you just can't go
any farther after a copious lunch of foie
gras, duck confit, Quercy lamb, garlicky
green beans and hot apple pie -- and plenty
of Cahors wine. Why the Marcel of Chez
Marcel became a legend among local antiques dealers is obvious in the décor.
-- NANCY BETH JACKSON
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company