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Perfect peace - Visiting the Lot Valley

Perfect peace - Visiting the Lot Valley

Few things are quite as rewarding as following a river through deepest France and, for simple natural beauty and relaxed leafy seclusion, the Lot valley is unsurpassed

When the A20 Limoges-Toulouse autoroute bypassed Cahors some years ago, the old town became an accessible gateway to a particularly idyllic stretch of the Lot valley. Better still, you can make a circular tour of both the north and south banks of the river Lot by leaving the busy D811 east of Cahors just after Mercuès (whose splendidly sited 13th century chateau is now a prestige hotel) and turning south onto minor roads. As the valley opens onto the fertile plains of the Cahors AOC wine region, whose vines are sheltered by the rich green forests which cloak much of the valley sides, you can now relax and enjoy the scenery.

The river’s meanders, like those of neighbouring Dordogne, are known as ‘cingles’, one of them embracing nearby Luzech, which thus sits between two bridges spanning the same river. During the Lot’s great age of navigation a 100m-long canal was driven through the sleepy small town to avoid vessels having to negotiate the meander, but today the only clue is an avenue known as the Place du Canal. Long ago the town was enclosed by defensive ramparts, and a narrow, vertiginous footpath winds its way up to a sinister looking square donjon. Climb three storeys of near vertical iron ladders and you’ll be rewarded with bird’s-eye views of the town and the surrounding valley. A neighbouring hilltop – l’Impernal – has another viewpoint from the site of a former Roman settlement and the citadel of Richard-Cœur-de-Léon.


After Luzech comes Castelfranc, which has an iron suspension bridge and was a thriving port until the arrival of the railway, whose eventual closure dealt the town a second blow. Now the historic bastide has been sensitively restored, and there’s shaded bathing on a beautiful stretch of riverbank. Beyond Castelfranc the route climbs beside a ragged limestone escarpment overlooking the broad, fertile valley, en-route for Puy l’Evêque, built on a rocky headland and appropriated during the early 13th century by the Bishop (Evêque) of Cahors. The English fortified it so effectively during the Hundred Years’ War that it resisted both siege and artillery bombardment during the Wars of Religion. A town discovery trail behind the Mairie takes an inspired route down to the riverside via less obvious but characterful corners of the old town. Try to see it at dusk, when its dramatic outline, warmed by the waning sun, shimmers like a fading dream in the gently flowing river.


Cross the river and beyond another graceful meander lie more lush landscapes bursting with vines and forests. Heading eastwards brings you to the hilltop village of Belaye, whose orientation table makes sense of near panoramic overviews of the valley. Next come the peaceful riverside villages of Anglars, La Rivière-Haute and then Albas, whose narrow streets are worth exploring. A skeletal iron suspension bridge spans the river – cross it and you’ll pass through more gentle landscapes of vines and woodland, plus the occasional stone farmhouse or pigeonnier.


Ahead lies Cahors, an old town with an unmistakably southern character, particularly beneath the giant plane trees of Boulevard Gambetta, named after Cahors’ most famous son, Republican statesman Léon Gambetta. The narrow streets nearby have a mysterious, medieval atmosphere and each evening Rue Clemenceau’s restaurants fill with al fresco diners. The big attraction, though, is the Pont Valentré, a huge early-14th century bridge created as a military stronghold to protect a vital river crossing.


East of Cahors the vineyards give way to fields and meadows of tobacco, maize and walnut trees. Beyond the little 12th century Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Vêles, and a long tunnel punched through the valley sides, you’ll pass one of the many caves with which the cliffs are honeycombed – le Défilé des Anglais, fortified and occupied by troops during the Hundred Years’ War. Cross another iron bridge suspended high above the Lot and you’ll reach a riverside car park, near which lies le Chemin de Halage – a reminder of the Herculean efforts which established vital infrastructure through remote and otherwise inaccessible terrain. Faced with a section of river with no usable banks for a barge towpath, engineers drilled deep into the sheer rock face, creating a gallery too low for horses or oxen. Instead, teams of strong men were employed to haul barges laden with plaster, salt, dried fish and spices. Now a relaxing elevated riverside footpath, the Chemin became even more haunting when a huge bas-relief was carved from the limestone some years ago by artist Daniel Monnier. Visible nearby is a series of locks used by leisure craft, which now have the river to themselves.


Beyond Bouziès the Corniche-like road blasted through rocks above the valley overlooks a series of meanders before reaching Saint-Cirq Lapopie, which proved so resistant to siege that Louis XI and Henri de Navarre (the future Henri IV) systematically dismantled its defences, leaving the melancholy ruins. At their feet, though, is one of the best-preserved medieval villages in all France, with steep streets and alleys lined with ancient Gothic and Renaissance facades.


Continue eastwards and eventually you’ll reach Cajarc, a pleasant, un-pressured spot much loved by President Pompidou, who had a house here. The Musée Georges Pompidou sits below a rocky escarpment with panoramic views of one of the river’s more pronounced meanders. Cajarc’s contemporary fine arts exhibitions have established quite a cultural reputation, and you can explore a fortified mill, a former leper hospital chapel, plus remains of the old town ramparts. We’re also in the homeland of Quercyrail, which has long hoped to restore summer services on the railway line which once brought passengers from Cahors, taking in Saint-Cirq Lapopie along the way. Perhaps one day one of its classic Renault railcars from the 1950s will offer a nostalgic journey through bridges, tunnels and all the wonderful scenery along the way. Until then, we at least have the great pleasure of being able to explore by road some of the very finest touring country that deepest France has to offer.



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Words & Photos: Roger Moss

© Living Magazine - all rights reserved. First published in August 2014