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by Tim Dickens
Monday, September 19, 2011
»“Here is a map, now go and get lost,” said Virginie Séguin, the elegant tourist office boss in the unimaginably quaint Saint-Cirq-Lapopie.
In this pristinely preserved village, perched on limestone cliffs above a wide river, it was hard to get really lost apart from in one’s imagination.
This place, steeped in history, was my introduction to the secret delights of the Lot Valley, just a short hop from the better-known Dordogne. Virginie took us on a lazy wander through narrow streets, telling stories of the 13 artists who now live in the village – their houses marked by red flags – and of those who came before.
She introduced us to a short, fat man named Patrick Vinel, a fifth-generation wood turner whose dim, cavernous workshop is always open to visitors.
Saint-Cirq so enchanted poet and artist André Breton in 1945 that he fell in love with it, came to live here and brought his surrealist chums with him, cementing the village’s arty credentials.
Perched on the valley’s opposite flank, with views of the Romanesque chapel from its pool, our boutique hotel Le Saint Cirq was an unexpected treat.
Recently renovated by owners Eric and Adeline, it sits among newly planted Malbec vines and fig trees. I’ve never stayed anywhere with such attention to detail, right down the Georges Brassens CD left casually by the state-of-the-art stereo.
The attention to detail is also evident across the valley at Le Gourmet Quercynois, the traditional restaurant where Eric served us mindblowing grub under the watchful eye of Ciboulette (Chive) the Dalmatian.
Going local meant lashings of foie gras, walnuts, goats cheese, truffles and duck breast followed by the famous filo pastry pudding, lou pastis. The staff will even drive you back across the valley once you’ve sampled enough of the gutsy Cahors wine. Parfait.
Nearby, the Pech Merle cave offers a spooky window into prehistory with its 25,000-year-old wall paintings by early hunter-gatherers who used it as a temple. The 500-metre cavern was discovered by teenagers in the 1920s.
Life moves slowly around the river, and it was a treat to slump into a recreated 18th-century barge as its captain told the story of the Lot’s 481km course from its source to the Garonne.
Driving west from Saint-Cirq, the dramatic limestone cliffs cede to a lusher, rolling landscape and the verdant vineyards of Cahors.
In the medieval city centre, a bustling market springs up each Wednesday and Saturday morning, with stalls selling cheese, saucisson, pastis, lavender and tins of foie gras. This is what French life is about, I thought, as pudding expert Karina cut me another sliver of her delicate pastis.
My laid-back holiday soon turned into a gastronomic marathon – and, guiltily, plump goose liver became the common theme.
This was continued at Le Balandre, a restaurant at the 100-year-old Hôtel Terminus in Cahors with an Art Deco dining room.
Hidden treasure is found beyond the city’s 14th-century walls, in hectares of slowly ripening Malbec grapes bursting to be made into the local “black” wine.
At 10am one morning, I met up with Anne Cavalié Swartvagher and her husband Jean-Michel at the Château Saint-Sernin.
Vineyards like their 40 hectares are dotted around the countryside. Most open their doors for tasting but none can be quite so warm and welcoming as Jean-Michel and Anne, whose ancestors have nurtured vines here since 1684. The couple have won awards for being welcoming to children, offering grape juice tasting as well as their adult tipples.
Downstream, the Lot Valley widens further, opening up long vistas and pristine hill-top towns like Pujols, Penne D’Agenais or Montflanqin with its hilarious troubadour-guide, Janouille.
The Dordogne may be overpriced and overrun with Brits, but the Lot Valley has its own charm. Along the river’s length, thousands of years of history mingle with breathtaking scenery and food and drink that I won’t forget for a long time.