First, thank you and welcome to all the people who’ve signed up to the blog recently. Although France comes out of strict lockdown on Monday 11th May, I am continuing my series of virtual visits around Southwest France. It’s not yet clear how much tourism will be allowed in France this summer, so I am bringing you a virtual aperçu of places you might not be able to see in person.
This time, we’re in the Lot, a département next door to our own. There’s a lot of it (pun not intended), so I will split it into two posts.
We start in Figeac, a medieval town on the banks of the River Célé, which rises in neighbouring Cantal. Figeac was once the site of multiple traffic jams, but a bypass to the east of the town has eased the congestion.
Figeac is the birthplace of Jean-François Champollion, who deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics, including the Rosetta Stone. The house of his birth is now a museum dedicated to the history of writing, and you can see a replica of the Rosetta Stone in the place des Ecritures.
Figeac is a town made for wandering around, with its medieval streets and fascinating architecture. You can have lunch under the old market hall in the Place Carnot, surrounded by balconied houses, but it’s not time for lunch yet.
Onwards down the Célé Valley. The river is replenished mainly by rainwater run-off, so the water can rise perilously fast after heavy rain. It’s a beautiful, wild valley, through which the river has gouged deep gorges in the limestone. The caves are home to the hibou grand duc (eagle owl), whose booming cries echo off the walls of the valley. Owing to the virtual absence of light pollution, the night skies are among the clearest in France.
Next, we visit Marcilhac-sur-Célé, where we see the partially restored Abbaye de Saint-Pierre, which probably dates back to the 11th century. I have sung in Mozart’s Requiem in this setting. Those who sang with me will know the story. Enough said.
La Grotte de Pech-Merle
While our forebears were still hunter-gatherers, the Célé Valley was an important hunting route. The limestone rock is riddled with caves that afforded shelter for people. They also provided a blank canvas for prehistoric artists. Around a dozen caves with wall paintings exist in the Célé Valley, but only Pech-Merle is open to the public from February to November.
Unlike Lascaux in the Dordogne, you are seeing the original paintings, which date from around 25,000 BC to 16,000 BC. The number of visitors is restricted to protect them, and photography is not allowed. It’s a good idea to book in advance, which, of course, I have.
You may recognise the spotted horses and other paintings from pictures you’ve seen. My favourite is this handprint. I like to think the anonymous artist was staking a claim to these pictures. Its humanity speaks to us across the millennia.
Cajarc and Quercy’s red gold
We now travel east along the River Lot’s meandering banks to Cajarc. This pleasant riverside town is the headquarters of the local saffron-growing industry, Quercy’s red gold. We’re visiting the annual saffron fair in October. A safranier gives a guided tour of his saffron farm and explains the labour-intensive process of separating the stigmas from the flowers. These are then dried and conditioned. How many flowers does it take to produce 1 kg of saffron? Around 200,000 – hence its high price.
Calvignac and Cénevières
We retrace our steps to Cénevières, passing through the pretty village of Calvignac, whose position above the river once gave it considerable strategic importance. It has a beautiful fortified church, positioned right on the cliff edge. In fact, part of the cemetery disappeared down the hillside at one point, taking graves with it.
The château de Cénevières dates from the 13th century and overlooks the River Lot. I’ve booked a tour with the owner, Patrick de Braquilanges. The château has been in his family since 1793.
Among other things, Patrick shows us the wonderful, intricate painted ceiling he discovered in the salon, when he removed the plaster that covered it. Former 16th-century residents practised alchemy in a vaulted chamber reserved for the purpose.
Patrick kindly offers us a glass of wine before setting off for our next port of call.
Saint-Cirq is a plus beau village and thus a tourist honeypot. In summer, the narrow alleys throng with people, and the shops sell souvenirs and local produce. Fortunately, we’re visiting out of season. Long favoured by writers and artists, Saint-Cirq has a ruined château and once occupied an important strategic position above the River Lot. You get wonderful views of the river from up here.
We’ll wander around this picturesque village (a bit chocolate-boxy for my taste), but we won’t linger. Our last stop, the lovely town of Cahors, awaits us downriver.
Parking in Cahors is not for the faint-hearted. Fortunately, they have a park-and-ride on the other side of the river with a shuttle bus into town. But, as it’s a nice day, we’ll walk and enjoy the view of the many towers on the right bank.
Before we hit the town, we have lunch at Côté Sud in the Place Champollion (he gets everywhere) close to the river. This bustling restaurant opens only at lunchtime and serves locally sourced ingredients with a modern twist. The ambiance is lively, and the place is favoured by locals, which is always a good sign. Let’s have pumpkin soup, followed by pintade (guinea fowl), with a croustillant au chocolat to finish. Wine? Well, it has to be Cahors: a bottle of Château de Chambert.
Cahors occupies a loop of the River Lot. The Romans took over the site from the local tribe and planted the vines on which Cahors’ fortunes were founded. The town was also an important financial centre during the Middle Ages. Since there’s so much to see, we’ll stay overnight.
This afternoon, we wander around the old town and follow the secret gardens trail, marked by brass signs set into the pavements. These 25 small gardens, established in sites around the town, recreate medieval herb and physic gardens.
Now, we cross the busy boulevard Gambetta and head into the underground car park, beneath the massive Place François Mitterrand. Not a traditional tourist destination, but we are going to see Roman ruins unearthed when the car park was excavated.
The next day is Wednesday, so we start with the market, held in the shadow of the Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, which celebrated its 900th anniversary in 2019.
In addition to the colourful outside stalls, Cahors has a covered market. I guarantee you will be salivating after a trip around it.
We look inside the cathedral, and enjoy the peace of the cloisters, which seem far away from the market’s bustle. Cahors is a stop on one of the Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle pilgrimage routes, and scallop shells remind us of this.
We cross the town to look at the 14th-century Pont Valentré. The Devil had a hand in completing the bridge, apparently, but was duped by the architect. In revenge, he kept breaking off the top stone of the central tower every time it was replaced. Apparently, this is the only bridge in the world with three towers. If you know of another, please tell us.
There’s more to see, but that will have to do for this trip. You could spend several days doing justice to these places. Next time, I’ll take you off the beaten tourist trail to villages on the Causse de Limogne, where there are some hidden gems.
As ever, I would love to hear your experiences and suggestions for places to visit.
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