The “Lot”, a bewitching French department (Part one) – Meanderings through France n° 185
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
Located in southwest France the Lot is a land of contrast with a particularly rich and diverse natural and cultural heritage. Whether looking for wild nature, preserved lovely villages, historical sites, good food or all of them, visitors can undoubtedly find them here. Direct flights from London will take you to Brive-la-Gaillarde airport in less than two hours and you will need a rented car to explore this inviting area.
Rocamadour, an absolute must see
Rocamadour is a remarkable village in many ways. Famous since the 12th century all over Europe as one of the major Christian pilgrimage sites it also is the unlikely result of a unique construction. The road leading to Rocamadour will take you to the foot of a 150 meters high cliff overlooking the Alzou River. Looking up you will discover this amazing village built on the steep rocky side… and realise that your visit is going to be a demanding one! Today tourists like generations of pilgrims before them need to climb up the 216-step staircase to get on top of the cliff and be rewarded with a spectacular view over the village and the river valley. A lift can take you up there but you will miss all the charm of the small cobbled street lined with medieval houses, churches and sanctuaries.
Rocamadour’s history is a mix of legends, faith and miracles. Pilgrims came here to worship Saint-Amadour who is believed to have been a friend of Jesus. But most of all several miracles were attributed the Virgin Mary and pilgrims came the Chapelle Notre-Dame to pray to the “Dark Maiden”. This ancient small sculpture of a Madonna and Child made of dark wood and silver can still be seen in this holy chapel. Next the street will take you to the Saint-Sauveur Basilica, the Saint-Michel Chapel, the Palace of the Bishops and three more chapels. Finally you will get to the ruins of the Saint-Jean hospital from where your efforts will be richly rewarded with a magnificent view.
For thirty years now Rocamadour organizes one of Europe largest gathering of air balloons during the third weekend of September (this year on the 28 and 29 September). It is an extraordinary show with dozens of colourful balloons floating in this incredible site. Twice a day, at dawn and later in the afternoon, hundreds of people enjoy these magic moments.
Rocamadour is also the name of a famous local cheese made with raw goat milk. It is a versatile cheese that can be eaten cold or cooked. Thirty farmers still make this tasty cheese and visitors are welcome to meet breeders and their goats and discover the Rocamadour’s making process. Nicely wrapped in a vacuum packaging you can easily take a few home for a cheese tasting full of special memories.
Martel, the “Seven-Tower Town”
If rural exodus caused major economic issues in late 19th and early 20th centuries in the whole region we now can see it as a blessing for landscapes and villages’ preservation. Lacking financial resources people who stayed in the Lot were not able to modernize their houses and towns. Medieval, Renaissance or 17th century houses and castles were saved from destruction and today local people are rightfully proud of this heritage and lovingly take care of it.
Martel is a very good example of this preservation and it’s a real pleasure to walk in its picturesque streets. The village is centred with a beautiful square and an impressive covered market surrounded with typical medieval shops and Renaissance mansions. Getting lost in the maze of small streets surrounding the square is like travelling back in time and you will easily fall under the spell of this lovely village.
To make the most of your visit why not spend the night in “La Devinie” an authentic Renaissance house. This B&B offers vast nicely decorated rooms and a quiet garden perfect for a summer outdoor breakfast. www.la-devinie.com
The “L’Ouysse Valley”, a secret river and a delightful gourmet stop
This small valley is only a few minutes drive from Rocamadour. It was carved by the Ouysse River and offers romantic settings. The turquoise blue waters of the river create lagoon like ponds where you can go canoeing or even swim if cold water is not a problem for you! Several fortified mills have been built on the banks and one of them (the Moulin de Cougnaguet) is still operating with its ancient grindstones and is open to the public.
The “Pont de L’Ouysse” Hotel and Restaurant is a local institution since 1886. This family business has been passed down from generation to generation ever since and today the fifth generation, Stéphane and Mathieu Chambon, are in charge. Like their parents before them who were awarded with one Michelin Star in 1989 and kept it ever since, they aim to perpetuate this gastronomic family history!
Set at the foot of a high cliff topped with the Belcastel Chateau the restaurant that originally was a mere farm has lovely gardens along the river banks and a quiet outside terrace ideal for lunch or for an enjoyable summer dinner. Menus change according to seasons and the best local products are of course favoured. Truffle and artichoke risotto, lobster with Quercy saffron, sole with white and green asparagus, lamb from Quercy with thyme and garlic, pig’s trotter with truffle, chocolate mille feuilles, strawberry and coconut vacherin… traditions and innovations mix and match in the mouth watering menus! (menus from 40 Euros).
Next to the restaurant close to the romantic half-ruined stone bridge you can stay at the comfortable 3-star hotel or for a real luxury stay with friends or family you can rent “Les Hauts de l’Ouysse” a recently restored traditional house with private garden and private pool. It offers 6 double rooms, vast living areas and a huge outside terrace with wonderful views over Belcastel Chateau and the river below. www.leshautsdelouysse.com/en
More about Pont de l’Ouysse restaurant and hotel: www.lepontdelouysse.com
Join us next week to discover more about Lot
Lot tourism office: https: www.tourisme-lot.com/en
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes