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The Best of the Lot

Medieval towns and castles dot a serene valley in southwest France that time and tourists largely ignore.

April 29, 2001|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

SAINT-CIRQ LAPOPIE, France — If French rivers were royalty, I suppose the Seine would be king, exerting its Parisian will over courtiers like the dashing Loire (storybook castles, medieval towns, rolling green fields) and the Dordogne (more castles, more towns, more green).

But if you look beyond the royal court to the serf turf in France's southwest corner, you find the wriggling, surging Lot.

It's too far south (five hours by train) to be an easy day trip from Paris, too far north to be Basque country and too far west to front the Mediterranean seaside. Yet if the weather smiles on you, as it usually does in summer, the Lot and its neighbor, the Cele, might make you forget all about the king and his court.

The Lot and the Cele (pronounced "low" and "sell-AY") lie about 350 miles south of Paris. They're tributaries of the Garonne River farther west. The Lot, the wider and more navigable of the two, runs about 300 miles; the Cele, 63.

On their banks you will find bike-friendly back roads and medieval castles and towns, including one town, Saint-Cirq Lapopie, that stands on a picture-perfect bluff-top perch, and another, Figeac, that echoes improbably with Egyptian history. You roll across miles of vineyards and meadows, and to confound you just when you think you have the landscape figured out, a startling series of rocky bluffs and ridges leaps up to conceal some of the oldest and most accessible cave paintings on the planet.

This list makes the place sound exhausting. It's really not, unless you're pedaling up one of those sudden hills, and it's certainly not crowded. U.S. government surveys show that of the 2.7 million Americans who visit France yearly, only one in 12 ventures into the southwestern region that includes the Lot. It's mostly rural and affordable, and full of good food and wine. Even though I was aiming fairly high on the comfort scale during my four-day visit in early April, I never spent more than $67, tax included, for a night's lodging.

Of course, no place can stay a secret forever. In 1994, the Toronto-based upscale walking and biking tour company Butterfield & Robinson added the Lot Valley to its tour list. In 1998, B&R's Berkeley-based competitor, Backroads, did the same. Tourism officials in France note that increasing numbers of Britons, having already colonized the Dordogne region, have been buying vacation homes here.

But the Lot is more than a place to pedal, and judging from the relatively few English speakers I found, it's in no immediate danger of Anglophone overload. In fact, many of its best hotels and some restaurants are closed from November until April, as are most of the numerous bicycle, canoe and kayak rental operations. After Easter, the weather and the tourist business heat up considerably.

During my look around in early spring, I could see the region waking to the season like a bear shaking off winter. A very lucky bear, who, if inclined to follow regional custom, dines regularly on duck confit, lamb, foie gras, walnuts and truffles, then washes it all down with robust red wines.

My ramblings in the territory started and ended in Cahors because it's a direct train connection to Paris. The city, surrounded on three sides by the looping Lot, emerged in the 13th century as a banking center. Popes and European kings borrowed from lenders here and throughout the region.

Boulevard Gambetta, the main street in Cahors, has no more banks than you'd expect in any regional commercial center. The principal hints of the city's long-ago salad days are the narrow streets of the medieval quarter and the monumental span of the Valentre Bridge, a behemoth built in 1308. I walked across it on a sunny morning, with the Lot rushing below and the bridge's three stone towers rising 120 feet overhead.

But I didn't linger long in Cahors because I knew that more was waiting just a few miles outside of town.

On a plateau just four miles northwest of the city stands Mercues, site of the four-turreted, 15th century Chateau Mercues (rehabbed into a fancy hotel), which commands a lordly view of the Lot and the rolling land around it.

The best wine country in the area unfurls alongside highway D8 west of Cahors on the way to the town of Luzech, and a winegrowers' cooperative tasting room looms along the road just short of Luzech at Parnac.

Those gnarled rows in the vineyards may look as though they've been yielding grapes for centuries, but phylloxera devastated wine production here in the 1860s, and winegrowers didn't get back into business until after World War II.

It's about 70 miles from Cahors to Figeac going east on highways D653 and D662, but with healthy amounts of hiking, biking, kayaking and village-savoring, you easily could fill a summer week. From Figeac you can double back toward Cahors by way of highway D41 through the green, riverine Cele Valley.

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