Such a Lot to like

The Lot, France, January 2014:
Choosing holiday dates is always a bit of a gamble but this time we hit the jackpot. We went to south-west France for a blues festival in the city of Cahors and were rewarded with a week of clear blue skies.
With gigs until 1am followed by early starts for sightseeing we burned the candle at both ends. But it was worth it to see the beautiful Lot departement, full of picturesque villages with three river valleys to explore.
Maybe sleep deprivation explains my memory lapse as we set out from our B&B for the clifftop village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie. I had a feeling of déjà vu during the twisting, turning drive along the Lot valley but it didn’t hit me until we arrived. I’d been there before. Not in my dreams, not in a previous lifetime – I’d actually visited the same place 11 years earlier but forgotten its name.
Never mind. This charming, if touristy, village is well worth a second inspection and its maze of steeply sloping alleys and half-timbered buildings was new to my girlfriend Florence.
The must-see spot is Le Rocher de la Popie, the ruins of a 10th Century tower which protected the valley in medieval times. There’s an enchanting view of the river far below.
Afterwards we bagged an outside table at L’Auberge le Sombral restaurant and refuelled on roast leg of Quercy lamb and home-made foie gras from the £16pp two-course lunch menu. And all with a splendid view of the huge village church.
A 10-minute drive across the hills took us to the river at Bouziès for a 90-minute cruise on a “gabare” boat. This gave us the reverse viewpoint as we looked up to Saint-Cirq from the water 300ft below.
The valley is dominated by towering limestone cliffs and there’s a towpath cut into the rock face. The path has artworks carved into its walls and one cruise options lets you walk back that way. The boat commentary is in French with a fact sheet in English.
Downstream from here, the Lot valley broadens out and in Cahors the river passes under the magnificent 14th Century Valentré bridge, which has an impish carving of Satan on one of its pencil-topped towers. Local legend says the builder sold his soul to the devil to get the job done on time.
We were in Cahors every night for the blues gigs and set aside a day to explore too. Built on a U-shaped bend in the river, the town is neatly divided by the elegant tree-lined main street, Boulevard de Gambetta. All of the historic buildings except the bridge are on the eastern side, including the double-domed 12th Century cathedral of St Etienne.
On Saturdays and Wednesdays there‘s a market in the square outside. It teems with local produce from the finest truffles to little flat white discs of Rocamadour goats cheese.
Hidden away among the ancient streets – Cahors has more medieval buildings than anywhere else in the South of France – are 30 “secret gardens”. Get a free map from the tourist office and follow a trail of bronze leaves set into the pavements. The office can also arrange several kinds of guided walking tour.
We stopped for a leisurely lunch at L’O à la Bouche restaurant, which has a terrace on the main square.The  €19pp menu for a two-course lunch plus coffee is good value for haute cuisine – we had rump steak cooked in Cahors red wine and duck breast with poached peaches.
Those market cheeses take their name from the main tourist attraction in the Lot department – the amazing town of Rocamadour. This time I DID remember going there on my earlier holiday but that didn‘t stop me taking a wrong turn and parking at the bottom of town instead of the top for a rendezvous with a lady from the tourist office. No problem, she told me on the phone – she’d get in the lift and come down.
Not the hill, the steps or even the funicular railway, you‘ll note – the lift . Rocamadour is an impossibly photogenic town built on the side of a vertical cliff face and not only has it influenced the set designers of every fantasy film ever made, it also needs an ascenseur to link its levels.
The layout is hard to fathom at first, but most of the shops are at the bottom and there‘s a Cité Religeuse of interlinked churches and chapels in the middle. On top there‘s a castle and another small centre of shops and restaurants.
The 216 stone steps up to the churches are traditionally climbed on hands and knees by pilgrims visiting the tomb of St Amadour and the Black Madonna, a medieval statue of the Virgin Mary that looks down from a shrine in the Notre Dame chapel.
The little courtyard between the churches is like the stage set for a Shakespeare play with arches, stairways and balconies everywhere you look. Sticking out of the rock face above is an old iron sword which legend claims belonged to a warrior called Roland who threw it all the way from the Pyrenees to stop its mystical powers falling into enemy hands.
Twenty minutes to the east of Rocamadour is the Gouffre de Padaric, a huge hole in the ground where you can take a boat ride along underground rivers into vast caverns. The pools of water, dark recesses and intricate limestone formations are beautifully lit like scenes from a dream world.
A little further north, in Lacave, is a Michelin-starred restaurant called Le Point de l‘Ouysse, the gastronomic highlight of our stay. The three-course Menu des Moulins is £50 a head but the experience was close to perfection as we dined in the dappled shade of the terrace looking out over a gently trickling river and the ruins of a stone bridge that gave the restaurant its name.
It was set up in 1886 by a family called Chambon to feed the workers building the bridge and today it is still run by their descendants. Chef Stéphane Chambon‘s father Daniel won a Michelin star in 1991 and judging by our dishes of smoked pork belly and slow-cooked veal the coveted award is in safe hands.
With hours to fill before the night’s gig, we continued north to the Dordogne valley (much of the river is the Lot department rather than the one that bears its name) and visited the villages of Carennac, Loubressac and Autoire before heading back south. Carennac has the gorgeous 11th Century St Pierre church which you enter via the courtyard of Château des Doyens right by the river.
The next day we ventured east to Figeac, a handsome old town with a sloping square named after local scholar Jean-Françoise Champollion, who in 1822 became the first man to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics. Set into the ground behind a museum in his honour is a giant reproduction of the Rosetta Stone, the archeological find that provided the key to the puzzle .
That afternoon we explored the Célé valley, pausing in the villages of Espagnac-Sainte Eulalie, where the church looks like a Hogwarts tower, and Marcilhac, where you can sunbathe by the river, go for a swim or rent kayaks.
The Célé flows into the Lot at Bouziès and soon we were back at our base for the week. Le Mas Azamar is a superb B&B in a restored 18th Century farmhouse with beautiful gardens and a large swimming pool. Hosts Sabine and Claude Patrolin have created their own little patch of heaven in the village of Mercuès, a 10-minute drive from Cahors.
And the blues festival that brought us here? For us the highlights of the 2013 line-up were the Original Blues Brothers band featuring Stax guitar legend Steve Cropper and another American outfit called the Royal Southern Brotherhood. Stars booked for this year’s show from July14-19 include Eric Burdon and the Animals.
Whenever you go, you won’t get the blues in this beautiful area.
July 14-19 for the blues festival – weather high is 20C-plus from June to September.
Fly to Toulouse from eight UK airports or to Brive, Bergerac and Rodez from Stansted. Ryanair fares from Stansted to Brive from £23 each way in July.
A double room at Le Mas Azemar, Mercuès, costs £95 per night. Evening meal with wine and coffee £29pp by arrangement.
There’s a spectacular view of Cahors and its U-bend in the river from the Route du Mont Saint Cyr to the south-east. Driving instructions on TripAdvisor here:
The red wine of Cahors. It’s known as Black Wine for the intensity of its colour and it’s good with the region’s black Périgord truffles, bought from a market or in restaurant dishes. One of the best Cahors wines is from Domaine la Berangeraie, which you can find at their shop in the pretty town of Puy l’Evèque.
More details of attractions, activities and accommodation options.
An edited version of this article was published in the Sunday Mirror’s Holidays & Getaways supplement on January 13, 2014.