Off the beaten path in southwest France
Thomas Beckett, lord chancellor under King Henry II, a flourishing wine and cloth trade, and a developing banking business suggest an interesting combination of place and events.
The place is Cahors, a 2,000-year-old town on the river Lot in the Département Lot-et-Garonne. During the Hundred Years War between France and England that laid waste to many parts of this region, Beckett ruled the town as governor, and when King Henry returned to England, Beckett captured the strongholds of rebellious barons. Later, in the 13th century, Cahors turned into a banking centre and the name “Cahorsin,” meaning banker or money lender, appeared in the banking ledgers of medieval London.
Visit any town in this region and you look history in the eye. You are in rural Quercy, where the Hundred Years War – and later the Wars of Religion – left their imprint. Cahors was in the thick of things and remained in English hands until 1428, severely damaged and its population on the run.
Today mountains, rivers and historic sites string along any route you choose, especially on the picturesque road that follows the snaking river Lot toward the hilltop village of St.-Cirq-Lapopie.
To the north lies the Dordogne valley with its prehistoric caves and picturesque towns such as Sarlat and Bergerac. Of interest is the Gorge des Les Eyzies in the Vézère Valley. Here numerous caves containing the art of our Stone Age forbears can be found.
One discovery in 1940, at the cave of Lascaux farther north along the Vézère river, revealed something astonishing. While shooting rabbits on a hillside, three boys stumbled upon one of the greatest finds of prehistoric art when their dog disappeared in a hole under a fir tree. In the attempt to rescue him and by lighting matches, they saw themselves surrounded by walls decorated with rock paintings.
The then-authority on prehistoric art, one Abbé Breuil, described the find as the “Versailles of Prehistory.” Some of the works painted there were later carbon-dated to the period between 15000 and 13000 BCE. The area around Les Eyzies with its caves and grottoes might prove overwhelming for the uninitiated, unless you have done some reading on this aspect of Stone Age life and art.
Sarlat is famous for its market, held in the Place de la Liberté. This town on the Dordogne boasts more Renaissance and medieval buildings than any other town in France. In 1964, it was classified as a “Ville d’Art et d’Histoire,” by the minister of culture. Located in the heart of a country where truffles, wild mushrooms and walnuts abound – not to forget the cheeses – the bustle of its market will rekindle your passion for the simple fare of the French countryside.
But let us return to Cahors, this town of 46,000 cradled by the river Lot in a wide U-shaped bend. Although its cathedral is remarkable, it is Cahors’ fortified bridge, the spectacular landmark Pont Valentré, that most of us remember from photographs and travel posters.
The Pont Valentré, striking in its fortress-like appearance, guards the town as its western gate. Three towers, rising 40 metres above the river, once stoked fear in any attacker’s heart. The bridge was built between 1308 and 1360 and today still carries traffic, both cars and pedestrians. The bridge was at the heart of its share of conflicts and was restored by the 19th-century architect Eugène Violett-le-Duc. From the river bank, a footpath leads up to Mont St. Cyr from which a great view of bridge and town can be enjoyed.
Below, in the medieval quarter, the market is held twice a week. As in any French town, here, too, the market embodies a way of life we all appreciate.
Also known for its truffles, Cahors wine trade is still much alive. Its wineries produce a heady red wine that has been cultivated since Roman times. In 1971, the prestigious Appellation Contrôlée was bestowed on its vineyards. Best when aged several years, the red Cahors can be enjoyed with the same reverence as once Ernest Hemingway did while writing and living during his Paris days.
If you go: When travelling I usually rent a B&B or a gite (a self-contained flat in a rural area) (www.gite-de-france.fr) and get a car from the Renault buy-and-buy-back system.(www.european-cars.net) The car, brand new, fully insured, would be waiting for me at Charles de Gaulle airport or at any other airport in France.