Souillac was an important trading port on the Upper Dordogne in medieval times. Today, the river carries cruise boats and canoes instead of gabares loaded with oak for barrel-making and chestnut stakes for vines. Of interest are its Abbey with Romanesque carvings and the wonderful sculptures and domes in Perigordian style of the church of Ste-Marie. Souillac’s Tourist Office can arrange a guided tour of the old town and banks of the Dordogne either on foot or by little tourist train. Children will love the Musee de l’Automate close to the church of Ste-Marie, where mechanical figures of dolls and animals dance, sing and perform tricks. Tel: (00 33) 5 65 37 07 07 for opening times.
Souillac holds a 3 day Jazz Festival in late July each year. Dates for 2011 are 19 - 24 July. Contact Tourist Office for details, tel: (00 33) 5 65 37 81 548, or see www.souillacenjazz.net
Surrounded by a loop of the River Lot below a limestone plateau, Cahors is a town of medieval fortifications and bridges. The magnificent fourteenth century Pont Valentre built to defend the town is an outstanding example of both. Its 7 Gothic arches and 3 iconic towers make it possibly the most photographed landmark in the region.
Cahors was once the prosperous capital of the old region of Quercy, a centre of medieval finance and trade with a university. Settled by Celts and later occupied by Romans, Moors and the English, Cahors was affected by struggles during both the Hundred Years War and Wars of Religion. The town’s story is written in its protecting walls, jumble of medieval streets and alleys, and charming architectural details of fine turreted red-brick houses in the old quarter.
Central is the twelfth century Romanesque Cathedrale St-Etienne. This UNESCO World Heritage site on the route to Santiago de Compostela supports impressive twin domes decorated with fourteenth century frescos. Look for the elaborate portrayal of Christ in Majesty over the north-facing doorway and wonderfully carved Gothic cloister.
Modern Cahors exudes the laid-back atmosphere of a southern town and tree lined boulevard de Gambetta is the perfect place to enjoy its café life. Stay for lunch - perhaps a cepes (wild mushroom) omelette and a glass of fruity red Cahors wine - under the watchful gaze of a statue of Leon Gambetta. This nineteenth century politician and famous son of Cahors (his family had a grocer’s shop near the covered market) took a hot-air balloon out of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war to continue the conflict in the south.
Visit Cahor’s daily covered market in the halle and outdoor markets on Wednesday and Saturday mornings in front of the cathedral. Cross the Pont Valentre to see the underground Fontaine des Chartreux gushing to the surface (it has supplied the town with drinking water since Roman times) or follow Cahor’s Secret Gardens way-marked trail.
The town is a good base for exploring the Lot Valley. Ask at the Maison du Vin about the Cahors wine route. It makes a great day out.
The town of Figeac on the River Cele has a dry southern feel to the air. It lies along one of the prettiest sections of the GR65 long distance walking trail which traces the pilgrim route from Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims initially brought wealth to the town which grew up around an abbey. Churches Saint-Saveur and Notre-Dame-du-Puy are both well worth a visit. Many merchants’ houses in Figeac’s old town have open-sided top floors - known as solehos - used for drying flax or tobacco and skins for the tanning trade. Designated a Town of Art and History there’s plenty of architectural interest in the stone and half-timbered buildings decorated with carvings and ironwork. Hotel de la Monnaie on place Vival refers to the town’s thirteenth century mint although it is now the Tourist Office and museum. Shop in Figeac’s traditional Saturday morning market and visit Musee Champollion devoted to the life and work of nineteenth century Jean-Francois Champollion (born in Figeac). Champollion was principle translator in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics from the inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone (now in the British Museum) which altered our understanding and perception of ancient writings. An enlarged reproduction of the stone is set in place des Ecritures amongst a papyrus plant garden.
The fortified pilgrimage town of Rocamadour clings to a sheer limestone cliff above the Alzou river gorge; a much visited marvel said to rival Mont St-Michel as France’s foremost tourist site. The stunning location is deservedly a magnet for visitors so expect commercialisation on Rocamadour’s main street, rue de la Couronnerie. From the twelfth century onwards, it was the promise of miracles which encouraged thousands of pilgrims to visit what became a major stopping place on the Via Podiensis route to Santiago de Compostela. A preserved body, thought to be the husband of Saint Veronica, had been discovered in a grave high on the cliff. Re-christened St-Amadour and re-buried beneath the existing chapel dedicated to the Virgin, the remains were soon credited with miraculous healing powers.
A grand stairway and lift through the rock lead from the pedestrianised street at the lowest level up to 7 churches including the abbey, chapel carved into the rock with its famous Black Madonna and crypt of St-Amadour. At this level the atmosphere changes in keeping with the spiritual nature of the architecture. In the past, the most devout penitents, including kings, would mount the steps to the chapel on their knees. Henry II of England is said to have come to Rocamadour to repent the murder of Thomas Becket. Later, his son, also Henry, plundered the shrine to raise money to feed his troops and died shortly afterwards. The basilica and crypt are now both UNESCO World Heritage sites. Those with the energy can climb on above the chapel past the Stations of the Cross to the castle on the top level, created to defend the shrine. The best views are from here. They’re better still from a hot air balloon. Trips can be arranged with the local Tourist Office.
Lovers of architecture should visit this gem of a perfectly preserved medieval village perched 100m on a vertical cliff above the River Lot. Post-Impressionist and Surrealist artists came to live and work here along with poet Andre Breton who wrote: ‘St-Cirq has cast a spell on me…’ Behind fortified gates, discover half-timbered houses, corbelled facades and Gothic windows, a fortified church, castle ruins, gardens and art galleries. Street names reflect the crafts which were once the life blood of the village. Look for rue de la Pelissaria belonging to the hide merchants and rue Payrolerie, the place of the metalworkers. Workshops of the roubinetaires produced all manner of wooden items including button moulds and goblets and the Musee de la Memoire du Village displays tools of the craft.
Designated one of the most beautiful villages in France (in fact it was first to have a preservation order put on the entire village), Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is popular with tourists and you will have more of the cobbled streets to yourself by arriving early or late. Enjoy views of the Lot Valley from the gardens of Musee Rignault and make time for a stroll along the towpath beside the river once busy with watermills and river traffic and now a playground for leisure craft.
Silhouettes of 7 towers grace the skyline of beautiful medieval Martel, its pale white buildings in sharp contrast to the red roofs and turrets above. The town was once a prosperous trading route between Paris and Toulouse and originally the towers were simply a status symbol for rich merchants. Some later became belfries or were used for defensive purposes. Martel’s Gothic church of St-Maur was built in defensive style but has fine Romanesque carvings of the Last Judgment above the west door. A second defensive wall was built around the town for protection during the ravages of the100 Years War. By the fifteenth century, Martel was again prosperous and home to members of the professional classes.
Many architectural delights catch the eye as you stroll around this attractive town beside the River Dordogne. The Viscounts of Turenne held their law courts in the thirteenth century Gothic Palais de la Raymondie. Once a place of refuge, it now contains the Tourist Office. (Ask there about visits to the walnut mill on route de Bretenoux). The Tours des Penitents is another medieval tower, La Tour de Tournemire once served as a prison and Tour Cordeliers was part of a thirteenth century Franciscan monastery. Most interesting perhaps is the Maison Fabri where Henry, son of Henry II of England and brother of Richard the Lionheart, died of a fever in 1183. Young King Henry, as he was known, had been cut off by his father and resorted to looting churches to raise money to feed his troops. It was after raiding the shrine at Rocamadour that he fell ill and never recovered. Martel’s large eighteenth century halle on place des Consuls makes a wonderful backdrop for the Wednesday and Saturday markets and the town itself is a great centre for exploring the Haute Quercy countryside.