We set out from home in bright sunshine under cloudless blue skies. By the time we arrived in Bouziès by the River Lot, the cliffs were shrouded in mist. The sun was a pale disk struggling to break through. We were glad of our coats, although gloves and woolly hats would have been welcome, too. It was unusually chilly for October.
Bouziès is a tiny village situated on a particularly scenic stretch of the river, reached by a very narrow suspension bridge, wide enough for only one vehicle. You can imagine the traffic jams that must build up here in the summer, since people come from miles around to visit le chemin de halage (towpath) that links Bouziès with the even more popular village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie.
To cope with the summer influx, the commune provides several car parks. If you visit, note that there’s a fee of 3€ most of the year and a ticket machine that you need a degree in astrophysics to operate. At least it accepts credit cards as well as cash.
The commune also provides public loos, which are clean. And, joy of joys, they are proper ones, although seatless, not holes in the ground.
Having got the practical stuff out of the way, we set off, hands in pockets to keep them warm.
Just out of the car park, two art installations confronted us. The first is a stylised metal mammoth, created in 2013 by Eric Manes-Malmon and Yves Mathis. The second is a structure of tree trunks and stones by Laurent Reynès, entitled ‘les Herculéennes’, installed in 2017. The mammoth gets my vote. What do you think?
Chemin de halage
Before long, you come upon le chemin de halage. This was constructed between 1843 and 1847 to allow the gabares, flat-bottomed barges, which plied the river from Bordeaux to Décazeville, to be towed upstream. They transported wood, stone, tobacco, coal and phosphates downstream and dried fish and goods from abroad upstream.
This was a feat of engineering and hard labour. Here, the sheer limestone cliffs plunge down straight to the water, and so the towpath had to be hacked out of the rock, making a series of open-sided tunnels.
The gabares’ day soon drew to a close with competition from the railways and later from motor vehicles. In 1926, the Lot was declassified as a navigable river and is now the preserve of pleasure boats.
Another sculpture awaited us, although we almost missed it. In the 1980s, the sculptor Daniel Monnier created a bas relief depicting the life of the river. It’s not easy to get a good shot of it unless you are on a boat in the middle of the river: not a possibility for us in October.
The stone path was very wet in places, with moisture dripping from the roofs of the tunnels. I don’t know if it’s like this all year round, or if this was the effect of the September deluges filtering through the porous limestone.
All of a sudden, the mist evaporated and a cobalt blue sky appeared. It was going to be a glorious autumn day.
Plus beau village
We continued along the towpath until it left the river, and we walked in the shade of the cliffs before turning uphill towards Saint-Cirq-Lapopie. The steep and stony path bore the signs of the torrential September rains, which had carved a channel down the middle.
Classified un des plus beaux villages de France, Saint-Cirq is a tourist honeypot in the summer. It was much quieter in October. Even so, and despite it being a Monday, some restaurants and shops and the Tourist Office were open. We arrived at lunchtime, when it was starting to get busy. Most of the visitors were not French. Our cheery “Bonjour” was sometimes greeted with bemusement. We have become so used to greeting everyone in shops, restaurants or in the street, that we had forgotten that not every nationality does this.
After a couple of false starts, when we lost le balisage jaune, yellow waymarking, we made our way upwards out of the village in search of a suitable spot to eat our picnic. Our fate is usually to install ourselves on an uneven rock only to find picnic tables 50 m further on after we’ve eaten. This time, we were in luck. Next to the upper car park, a view point offered two unoccupied tables and a fabulous view over the village and the Lot Valley. A group of French people took the other table, and we wished one another an amiable “Bon appetit!”
The weather was perfect: warm and sunny and not a ripple of breeze. In summer it would have been much too hot.
Suitably restored, we marched away on the second half of the walk, leaving the visitors to enjoy a luminous autumn afternoon exploring the village.
The first part of the walk is more interesting, with more to see. Nonetheless, the next part offered a pleasant walk through oak woods, just beginning to turn, and glimpses of the cave-riddled cliffs on the opposite bank of the Lot. We didn’t meet another soul. Instead, the sounds of robins twittering their distinctive song and bees foraging among the flowering ivy accompanied us. The strong, honeyed scent of the ivy flowers mingled with the dry, almost burnt, smell of fallen leaves.
At one point, the path traverses a farm where they cultivate fruit according to organic principles. Two artificial ponds capture rainwater for use in irrigation. You must close the gates carefully, but a sign at either end of the footpath welcomes responsible walkers.
After that, it was a steep downhill hike to Bouziès, which certainly worked our thigh muscles.
Decommissioned railway line
Before arriving back at the car park, one final sight awaited us, the former railway that ran along the Lot from Cahors to Capdenac. The line was inaugurated in 1879, thus offering an easier and quicker means of transporting freight than the river. Rendered less viable in its turn by competition from road haulage, it was closed to passenger traffic in 1980 and to freight in 1989. The line had been spared in the 1970s because President Georges Pompidou had a house near Cajarc, which the railway served.
During the 1990s, an association, Quercyrail, ran tourist trains along the line. However, it could not meet the costs of maintaining the infrastructure, and the line closed definitively in late 2003. We have always regretted not taking the opportunity to ride on the tourist train while the line was still open.
If you’re interested in doing this walk, you will find it on the Cahors-Vallée du Lot tourism website, among a list of other walks in the Lot (scroll down the list to ‘Randonnées dans le Parc Naturel Régional des Causses du Quercy’ and then down to Bouziès ‘Sur les traces d’André Breton’; the link to the pdf file describing the walk is only in French). I don’t advise it in the summer, when the tourist sites will be heaving. But on a fabulous autumn day, it was perfect.
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