The pleasures of southwest France are as satisfying and substantial as the region’s cuisine du terroir, like its people, pleasant and hearty. Everyone knows that drinking and fatty food is bad for you. Yet the region, renowned for its red wine and duck fat, is the home of many of the world’s longest living people.
The Lot’s capitol is conveniently located on an international train line, yet the region is too often overlooked by tourists who race through the Loire Valley on the way to the grand sights of Italy or the sunny beaches of Spain. Since Cahors sacking in the 16th century by Henri IV, the lazy Lot contently missed the rush to modernity and settled into moderation. Its current population is nearly identical to that of its Renaissance heyday, when it was the darling of cash-flowing Bishops.
All of which creates its special charm and laid-back friendliness. Driving down tourist traffic jammed N20 from its livelier neighbor, the Dordogne, one gratefully finds as one crosses into the Lot, that the sole traffic is the bucolic bovine profiles, who look up in curiosity as their owner tips his beret, as you pass his tractor.
The colors of the Quercy region are simple and primary; blood red roofs, sunflower yellow, rose pink, clear blue skies and verdant vineyard green.
The Capitol, Cahors
Begin your tour in understated Cahors. Grey and bleak, it hides its treasure for those who are willing to search. For a seldom seen but splendid start, enter backwards from Pont du Cabersat to get a panoramic view of the medieval skyline.
Arrive early on Saturday and stroll down Rue du Chateau du Roi to the bustling colorful market in front of Cathedral St-Etienne. Consecrated in 1119, this Romanesque-style church is crowned with two 18 meter-wide cupolas, the largest in France. Follow the cheery locals to the timber-covered market, a great stop for a slice of goat cheese pizza, picnic supplies, or bring your own bottle to fill with the hearty local wine, for under $5.00.
Continue south along rue Nationale through old Cahors, where alleys narrow and wind past boucharies, bakeries and exotically scented ethnic food specialty shops.
At the river, turn right past the old men playing boules, to find Cahors most famous tourist attraction, Pont Valentre. Once one of three, it now stands alone, believed by many to be the most beautiful medieval bridge in the world. It survived the discovery of wrought iron, in 1867, and the removal of the even more magnificent others, simply because it was seldom used. With its mate’s destruction, Cahors once again missed being a tourist photo-op. Perhaps the devil made them do it. According to the bridge's legend, the builder deceived the devil that in retribution daily stole a cornerstone of the tower's center. Climb up to Diable and note the creepy metal cage, used to dunk adulteresses in the river.
Now travelers explore the area on river barge cruises through the locks below.
Satisfying Day Stops
The regions laidback ways make for stress free day trips, and delights are found in each direction.
Chateau de Mercues sits prominently on a hilltop just north of Cahors. Turn south on D72 to Caillac to begin your wine tour. Enjoy the excellent wine and setting of Chateau La Grezette, home of Cartier head, Alain Perrin. The Avignon pope transplanted vines from here that became the famous Chateauneuf du Pape.
Cahors full bodied black (noir) wine was a favorite of Julius Caesar, Peter the Great, Pope John XXII of Avignon, and Eleanor of Aquitaine (who acquired some as part of her dowry). The areas vineyards, uprooted by jealous Italians in 96 AD, ruined again by the phyllerna epidemic in the in the 1870ís, then spoiled by cheap production, have enjoyed a comeback in the last decade.
Follow the river west through lovely Luzech and visit the many nearby wineries. Chateaux Caix is the summer home of the Queen of Denmark, and is a perfect picnic spot. Turn north for an art stop at tiny Les Arques, home of cubist sculpture at Musee Zadkine. Le Recreation restaurant, located in the towns old school house, is a delightful place to dine. The 23 Euro, 5-course feast is a tasty bargain. American author Michael Sanders wrote about this restaurant in the charming and informative book, From Here You Can’t See Paris.
East of Cahors experience history, spectacular settings and the provinces only crowds. The Grotte du Pech Merle is the finest prehistoric cave still open to tourists. The 1200-meter-long cave tantalizes visitors with thousands of stalactites and stalagmites, and dozens of drawings left by Cro-Magnon people, 16,000 to 20,000 years ago.
Lunch at nearby St. Cirq-Lapopie; set spectacularly 300 feet above the Lot. Meander its medieval streets to the ruins of a 13th century chateau at the top.
Work off your meal at Kalapea, near the precarious one-way bridge. They arrange canoeing, kayaking and rock climbing outings.
Cuisine du Terroir
Fine food at reasonable prices can be found at the local farm restaurants or ferme-auberge, sprinkled throughout the province like the cepes sprinkled on the omelets.
Start your day with that breakfast of champions, initially consumed by locals to ward off the black plague a tureen of onion and garlic soup, scooped up with crusty bread and washed down with the area's famous black wine.
Force-fed fowl provides the department its famous foie gras; pork and chitterling sausages swim in cassoulet, while pork and prunes stew in wine.
Start dinner with a Fenelon, a cocktail of walnut liquor, cassis and red wine. Duck and geese dominate the menu, from the starter pate, rillettes (potted minced meat) to the main course of magrets (breast of duck) or confit (meat preserved in its own fat). Side dishes include pommes de terre sardalaise (sliced potatoes in goose fat) or a salad of dandelion leaves and walnuts topped with gizzards.
Leaving the Lot
A new major roadway and a TGV (high-speed train) to nearby Toulouse have stirred up traffic, but are they moving in or out? My guess is that little will change. People are happy with their Lot.
A visit to southwest France is a lot like settling into a favorite armchair, after a satisfying meal. You give out a contented belch. It’s a pleasure you will willingly repeat.
Carmen Myers is a psychiatric nurse for the major trauma center in the Northwest, Seattle area.
Fourteen years ago she formed a cooperative of friends to buy a 300 year old farm house in the Lot of France. The purchase of this simple stone home,standing at the peak of the hamlet Lapeze, remains a highlight of her life.
She has written for Transitions Abroad and Prime Time, and manages two web sites, focusing on the Francophone who is interested in traveling not as a tourist but as a traveler. Her sites, www.frenchcountrydreams.com and www.budgetfrenchproperties.com, also offer consultation service to people interested in purchasing their own holiday or retirement home in France.
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