The hilltop village of St-Cirq Lapopie, in France’s Lot département, is one of those places that makes you experience the stirrings of Stendhal Syndrome – the curious ‘disorder’ that makes tourists pass out in the presence of excessive beauty. Ancient stone houses scramble up the slope to a ruined castle overlooking green hills and the lazy River Lot below. It’s utterly swoon-worthy, and that’s even before you’ve had two glasses of Malbec for lunch.
Yes, the Lot Valley certainly delivers the quaint goods, I thought, as I stumbled up cobbled streets past shops staffed by good-lifers playing at being medieval artisans. I can only confirm Surrealist artist and poet André Breton, who lived in Lapopie for many years: “I have ceased to wish myself elsewhere.”
Lapopie is the high point of the Lot Valley; a place I return to whenever I can. Such as last summer when, after a drive from Toulouse to the Lot along verdant and empty roads, I turned to re-enter glorious civilisation at the Valentré Bridge, a blast of 14th-century Gothic pomp with three extraordinary turrets. This Unesco-gonged monster heralds Cahors, capital of the Lot valley and a pit-stop of considerable charm.
In Cahors a market was raging, full of herbs, honeys, huge ripe tomatoes and small producers of the local red wine made with Malbec grapes, often described as ‘black wine’ because of its dark colour and tannic character. This is the stuff that keeps you alive, if you believe the hype. I do… so bought a couple of magnums for later. Why not? They were only about a tenner each.
At Cahors Cathedral, children were singing. It was like walking into Joanne Harris’ Chocolat and enough to make the most ardent Francophobe reconsider. Beneath the flower-strewn pergola at l’Auberge des Gabares, a restaurant overlooking the river, I ate salted cod (brandade), the local rocamadour cheese and salad. I then headed out of town towards the Célé valley, a Lot tributary.er flowed, banked with fields and shepherds’ dry-stone huts called cazelles.
It was deep, empty and remote, a memorable driv On one side of the road, cliffs loomed vertically, some with troglodytic houses built into them. On the other side, the lazy rive, and the feeling of time travel was compounded at the Pech Merle caves, one of France’s key cave-painting sites, where visitors can see genuine cave art. I enjoyed the 25,000-year-old pictures of horses and hand-prints and emerged blinking into pine-scented air.
Down at the Célé I swam from a little weir. The Lot and its tributaries are full of bathing opportunities and this was wild swimming at its finest: warm clear water, pebbly bed, good views, local bar. I put my flip-flops back on, had a coffee and considered the next move: a canoe.
It’s a kind of tourist rule that all visitors to the Lot and its tributaries must hire a canoe. I went to one of the various companies located up and down the river, had a small and incomprehensible safety demo, then clambered into the canoe and paddled for two hours to a little river beach, where an enterprising Moroccan family had set up a shack selling crepes and mint tea. Bliss.
That night, in a village called Caillac, 12km from Cahors, I stayed in a boutique hotel of the sort you’d expect in Barcelona. Jean-Claude Voisin opened Le Vinois a few years ago, augmenting an acclaimed restaurant with chic monochromatic rooms: black and grey striped wallpaper and photography on the walls. It was mildly surprising to find such a hotel in a bucolic old stone village, but as an old church bell tolled from a hilltop and swallows swooped past the setting sun, I thought how well chic mixed with rustique in the lovely Lot département.
For further information about the Lot Valley, see the Midi-Pyrénées Regional Tourism website