A walk around the Lot Valley on a luminous autumn day

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

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.

Cliffs on the opposite bank from the car park, shrouded in mist at the top.

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.

Lock at the end of the channel that runs parallel to the river and avoids the weir further upstream.

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.

Weir between Bouziès and Saint-Cirq with the limestone cliffs on the right bank reflected in the water

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.

Arriving in the village

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.

Main street up into the village

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.

Saint-Cirq from above

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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15 comments

  1. Vanessa, what a wonderful description of your lovely autumn walk. This looks truly heavenly. I loved walking along with you and I greatly enjoyed sharing your picnic. I do the same….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Vanessa does it again! Despite trawling the tourist websites and my walking guides last year I had no idea about this stunning place. After a fruitless internet search (I couldn’t identify the walk from your link,sorry) I dug out my ‘le Lot, a pied’ guide and there it is. My excuse is that in the walk’s description it only gives a nod towards the towpath and the photo is a tad muddy. But it is now on the list of walks to do before/after the ‘saison estival’. Thank you for alerting me to its existence.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your photos brought back memories for me. I looked up my diary from our 2018 trip and found we walked along the chemin de halage on Friday October 12. We were not as energetic though and after lunch in the picnic area at Bouzies, drove on to St Cirq Lapopie which we first visited in 2006 on our first trip to France. I cannot remember where we parked that time but know we did not pay. It was 4 euro in 2018. It is a gorgeous little village and was busy when we were there on a warm day.

    Your mention of picnic tables made me smile. We always take a picnic lunch and over the years of travelling around France have observed that there is always a suitable table at 10.30 or 3.00 but come 12.30, often not one to be found. Then after standing by the car for our picnic, we drive on and five mins later, Voila! the perfect spot. Never mind. We have lunched on some perfect stone walls and even used a large rock as a table in the Pyrenees.

    Take care,
    Rhondda

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a coincidence: you did the walk at the same time of year as us. I don’t know when they introduced the parking fees, but Saint-Cirq has six separate car parks at the top of the village. A bit of a shame, but I don’t see how else they could manage the crowds. I don’t think I’d like to live there!

      You obviously have the same experience of picnic tables! Usually, we find somewhere suitable, but we were reduced to sitting on a doorstep once in Northern Spain. We are sometimes bemused by French people who set up their own picnic tables by a busy road and proceed to eat their lunch with juggernauts thundering past.

      Stay well.

      Like

  4. Vanessa,I have had the good fortune to do the walk you describe twice, both in the heat of mid summer….mad dogs and Englishmen and all that! I bet Autumn is a beautiful time along the river with a blue sky and trees turning colour.
    Maybe I will be able to get across next year but only if things are getting back to some sense of normality.I love the relaxed atmosphere in rural France and not sure I would like to visit if restrictions are in place.Makes me appreciate my previous visits even more.
    Best wishes
    Stuart

    Liked by 1 person

    • You were brave! I’m not sure I’d do it in summer, partly because of the heat, although there is some shade on that walk. But also partly because of the number of other people doing it.

      I hope you can get over next year. The restrictions have been eased gradually. We have gone from museums and tourist attractions being closed completely to them being virtually all open but with a requirement to show a pass sanitaire, i.e. proof of vaccination or recent PCR test. Those restrictions might have gone by next summer, but of course one can’t guarantee what will happen.

      Like

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