The “Lot”, a bewitching French department (Part three) – Meanderings through France n° 187
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Today is our last getaway in the Lot area. It will take us to Saint-Céré a charming little town easily reached from Brive-la-Gaillarde international airport by a one-hour drive. Whether for a short city break or as part of longer holidays you will discover there the typical provincial France, a successful mix of beautiful landscapes, unique heritage and unforgettable gastronomy.
Saint-Céré is a medieval town crisscrossed by several branches of the Bave River. Its medieval and Renaissance houses and mansions form a harmonious architectural ensemble centred by the Mercadial, the large market place. It’s been the meeting points for traders and customers for centuries and today it still is the lively heart of the city. Every Saturday and Sunday morning you will find here local producers selling cheeses, honey, wines, ultra fresh fruits and vegetables ripened in the hot South French sun…
Every summer a classical music festival takes place in different beautiful sites in and around Saint-Céré. Castles’ courtyards, churches, squares, theatres welcome all music lovers to enjoy operas, musical, world music, tango… Often played in open air under a starlit sky Saint-Céré festival offers great summer nights. From 24 July till 13 August 2019, more at https://festival-saint-cere.com/
Chateau de Montal, Mona Lisa’s hiding place during WWII
The Chateau de Montal is a true Renaissance masterpiece built for Jeanne de Balsac from 1519 till 1534. Even if only two of the four originally planned aisles were completed this castle has unique architectural feats. Emerging over the high trees of the park its peaked towers and turrets covered with black tiles make it look like Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Its stern façade hides real treasures such as the monumental staircase, the impressive fireplaces or the exquisite courtyard.
However its history has not always been a bed of roses. Turned into a simple farm after the French Revolution it finally fell prey to speculators at the end of the 19th century. They just devastated it, selling its sculptures, its ornate dormers, doors and fireplaces, not to mention its furniture and works of art. The chateau was saved by Maurice Fenailles an erudite and wealthy manufacturer and one of the most prominent patron of French museums from 1880 till 1930. Maurice Fenailles bought Montal Castle in 1908 and devoted five years of his life to restore it, travelling the world to buy back many of the original missing parts. His friend Auguste Rodin and the artists working in his workshop remade the sculptures that Fenailles was not able to find or buy back. In 1913 Maurice Fenailles donated the chateau to the French State, fully restored and refurbished with genuine works of art. Thanks to this remarkable man we can admire Montal Castle as beautiful as ever.
In 1940 on initiative of René Huygues one of the Louvre’s curators, many masterpieces of the museum were “exfiltrated” and sent to different provincial castles. Mona Lisa was part of this gigantic move. Locked in wooden crates the famous painting and many others by Titian, Tintoret, Delacroix… travelled to ten different places before getting to Montal Castle in 1943. Through these difficult times the museum attendants found a way to heat the castle in wintertime in order to preserve the paintings from dampness and most of all from the greedy hands of the Nazis. In July 1944 René Huygues had “Musée du Louvre” written in big letters in front of the castle in order to avoid an accidental bombing by the Americans. Mona Lisa was able to be brought back at the Louvre on June 17, 1945.
Practical information before visiting Montal: www.chateau-montal.fr/en/
The Lot, adoptive home of Jean Lurçat
If today Jean Lurçat’s name is not as famous as other artists’ of the 20th century he nevertheless was a major artist of his time. Internationally renowned during his lifetime as the re-inventor of tapestry work he not only designed huge tapestries but also painted and created ceramics or theatre costumes and sets… Tireless traveller he drew inspiration through the five continents to create figurative tapestries filled with fantastic animals and plants, stars and symbols. His colourful creations invite us to plunge into his limitless imagination.
Born in 1892 Jean Lurçat fought for his country during WWI and took an active role in the French Resistance during WWII. This is when he came to the Lot and fell in love with an old medieval fortress, Saint-Laurent-les-Tours. When in Saint-Céré you will inevitably see this castle built on top of a hill overlooking Saint-Céré. Jean Lurçat bought it in 1945 and turned it into his summer home and workshop. This strange and austere place soon became his main source of inspiration and this is where he created his major masterpieces such as “Le Chant du Monde” (the World’s Song) or the “Tapisserie de l’Apocalypse”.
The castle is open to the public and really is worth climbing up the hill to visit its rooms still filled by the artist’s presence. Stylized climbing plants ornate the fireplace, stars, suns and moons cover the ceilings, colourful sarabands and fabulous figures have taken possession of the walls! Each room, each beam, each stone is reminiscent of the artist’s touch.
Quiet nights and delightful cuisine at “Les 3 Soleils”
The Hotel and restaurant “Les 3 Soleils” is only a few miles away from Saint-Céré and very close to Montal Castle and the Montal 9-hole golf course. Frederik and Florence Bizat are the lucky and talented owners of this bucolic hotel hidden in the middle of a vast park. The hotel rooms are simply decorated but comfortable and pretty large and the swimming pool is the ideal place to relax after visiting Saint Céré and its surroundings.
Frédérik Bizat is the chef of “Les 3 Soleils” since 1991 and is awarded with a Michelin Star since 1999. Far from resting on his laurels he never stops creating new recipes with an undeniable savoir-faire. In summertime the outside terrace is the perfect place to enjoy a delicious dinner. According to seasonal produce the menus often change. His cuisine is a successful mix of French cuisine classics and exotic flavours. Kyoto miso and foie gras, scalops with oyster cream, roasted suckling lamb from the Pyrenees, chocolate sweet with Bourbon vanilla ice cream, Tatin pear pie with grapefruit sorbet… far from unlikely tastes associations but imaginative mix and match!
Two years ago the hotel opened another restaurant called “l’Informel”. As its name suggests this restaurant built next to the swimming pool, is more informal than the gastronomic “Les 3 Soleils”. Here Frederik Bizat proposes a simpler cuisine with the same commitment to taste and quality.
More information and reservation at www.3soleils.fr
Practical information about the Lot : www.tourisme-lot.com/en
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes