The Rivers Lot, Cele and Upper Dordogne have slowly carved their basins into canyons as they cross the limestone causses and now these cliff-lined valleys are one of Lot’s most striking geographical features. Villages and castles cling to their sides. The summer heat on the plateaux above can often be too much for serious activity whilst below the tree-lined shade from the cliffs is ideal for walking, a swim and a picnic or for taking to the waters in a canoe. The Dordogne in particular is shallow and slow flowing in summer.
On other stretches, the rivers are bordered by green meadows and vineyards; a relaxing landscape - the perfect place to fish and dream. There are trout and salmon to be caught as well as coarse fish. You can download a guide in English from www.pechelot.com/
Cycling is a pleasure close to Lot’s rivers. Meander past vineyards on traffic-free roads or take cliff-top routes with amazing panoramic views. Local Tourist Offices will know about bike hire and can often provide maps of circular routes.
Boats cruise down the River Dordogne from Gluges to Souillac in summer and you are driven back at the end of the day by car. You will often see signs for canoe hire but be sure lifejackets in good condition are provided. Rent canoes or kayaks from places on the Lot like Kalapaca at St-Cirq-Lapopie, tel: (00 33) 5 65 30 29 51 www.kalapca.com: on the Dordogne at Copeyre Canoe - Quercyland, Souillac, tel: (00 33) 5 65 37 33 51 and from Office Intercommunal des Sports, Figeac, on the River Cele, tel: (00 33) 6 76 15 77 78.
The Lot is rich in pre-history, caves abound and dolmens and tumuli are common. Of them all, Lot’s pre-historic ‘Sistine Chapel’ at Pech-Merle near Cabrerets is a must-visit. Unlike the much larger complex of more famous Lascaux cave art in nearby Dordogne, these wonderful original 20,000 year old wall paintings are still on public view. Explore the connected labyrinth of astonishing caves adorned with stalactites and stalagmites and Pech-Merle’s gallery of superbly colourful representations of mammoths and bison, black horses, human figures, a large drawing of a cave lion, puzzling hand prints and, perhaps most touchingly, the footprints of a young adolescent. It was thanks to the daring explorations of 2 twentieth century teenage boys that the cave was first discovered in 1922 and opened to visitors in 1926. Open from April 10 - Nov 1 2011. Only 700 visitors are allowed in the cave each day so pre-booking is advisable. Allow 3 - 4 days ahead in July and Aug. Tel: (00 33) 5 65 31 27 05. The site also has a museum with 20 minute film and exhibition in French and English.
About 25km from Rocamadour hides one of the great underground sights of France which will appeal to all ages. The Gouffre (chasm) de Padirac is a giant abyss, 77m deep and 99m across, formed when the roof of a huge underground cavern in the limestone causse collapsed. This giant ‘hole in the ground’ was used a refuge in the Middle Ages and only opened to the public after the pre-historic site and caves were discovered during further exploration in the late nineteenth century. A lift or staircase takes you to the bottom followed by a short walk along a tunnel to an underground river. There, a flat-bottomed boat will ferry you 500m past giant stalactites and stalagmites far below the earth’s surface to the fantastically floodlit Grand Dome. At 91m high and only a few metres from the surface at its highest point, you can get a sense of what the gouffre must have looked like originally. A tour of the Dome and a series of chambers on foot reveal wonderful crystalline formations many thousands of years old including a 300m high stalactite and petrified waterfall. The journey ends with a return boat trip. See how many duck motifs your boatman has on his clothing – an indication of the number of times he has fallen in! English translations of the guided tour are available. Do wear warm clothing as temperatures underground are cold - even on a hot summer’s day. There’s a café, restaurant and small zoo above ground. Tel: (00 33) 5 65 33 644 56. Closed mid Oct - Mar.
The rocky limestone plateaux of Martel, Gramat and Limogne are at the heart of the Lot. The 175,000 hectare Regional Natural Park of Causses du Quercy was created in 1999 to protect this special landscape, punctuated by stone shepherds’ huts, strange dolmen and small tumuli. Man made his mark here long ago underground; almost all the Paleolithic caves in the Lot are located in the park although only 3 are open to the public. Pot-holing is certainly a popular leisure pursuit at centres such as Souillac and Figeac with organisations like Figeac Caving Association. The park is also a favourite haunt of walkers, horse riders and canoeists. Rivers have carved canyons through the wild high causses where dry-stone walls enclose traditional sheep pastures and red kites, buzzards and short--toed eagles ride the thermals above. Swallowtail and silver fritillary butterflies bring their colourful magic to the land in summer. Large areas are covered with oak woods, sheltering wonderful fauna and flora including herbs, an amazing variety of orchids and delicate wild strawberries. Perhaps the smiling elderly gentleman and his dog you pass along the way could be using his walk as a ‘cavage’ or truffle hunt - who knows.