Introducing The Lot Valley - France's Best Kept Secret
Lucy Symons tours the Lot Valley by bike, boat, canoe and train and eats her body weight in French cheese, meets lovely people and sees some amazing architecture and history.
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Greentraveller Guide to the Lot Valley
Taking the train to the Lot Valley is actually very straight forward, a quick change at Paris, Austerlitz and you are on your way. The train is fast and efficient, the service is excellent.
After pulling in to Cahors station, my first stop was for a night at Mas D 'Azemar run by Sabine and Claude. An old farmhouse deserted in the '80s, it has been brought back to life in the twenty years this enterprising couple have been owners - and what a life this grand old lady is living. Peaceful and picturesque, Sabine and Claude have updated her with a woodburning boiler which services both the house and the outdoor pool. The rooms are all fabulously comfy and practical but speak of a time gone by... a pair of lady’s lace gloves sat on my dresser suggesting that perhaps dinner with Gatsby had been on the cards last night. I was fed, along with my hosts and the other guests, at the giant dining room table, a delicious supper of duck breast with potatoes roasted in goose fat and a puree of celeriac, creme caramel with homegrown red currants and local cheeses. Breakfast was an amazing smorgasbord of home-baked breads and cakes, home-made yoghurts and jams, rice pudding and fruit salad. Sabine and Claude, a photographer and former corporate employee, have an eye here for detail, and also business.
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The next day started in Villeneuve sur Lot with its classic “bastille” town layout - built by the English, it is set about a traditional central market place. History abounds, there is still a lot of talk about the hundred year war in these places - as if the countryside was left with little more to ponder than where they had come from and how it had all happened.
The open market was stuffed full of the local produce: strawberries, Agen prunes, asparagus and amazing frilled coeur du boeuf tomatoes - "the flesh has no grains" I was told more than once - grains in my tomato flesh? How have I never known to search for such a superior tomato? Local producers also grow kiwis... they were abundant! It seemed quite normal to spend an hour or so wandering the market in the sunshine discussing the produce with the sellers, "But when do you want to eat the avocado?" I heard one stall owner ask, and, having established it was for tomorrow, "lunch or dinner?" before squeezing and selecting the candidate deemed to be perfectly ripe for that exact, delicious moment.
I cycled along the veloroute to visit a producer of strawberries, apples and plums, at the family run “Ferme des Tuileries”. Met by the daughter, Elodie, having just had a baby a fortnight earlier and filled with enthusiasm for life (possibly driven by the joy of having survived giving birth) and also being slightly mad with sleep deprivation, she demonstrated making the local speciality: a tourtiere. “You have to feel it,” she said, welcoming me in to her kitchen, “watching me or reading a recipe is no good - this is a technique that can only be taught in person - mother to daughter.” Indeed her grandmother taught her mother and she in turn taught Elodie who no doubt would teach her baby daughter who was sleeping peacefully as we baked. Elodie stretched the pastry over a floured kitchen table - slowly circling it, she stretched inch by inch until the pastry was an amazing paper-thin skin covering it – “Touch!” She invited, I did. We waited and chatted as it reached perfection - dry but not too dry: "Like this!" she exclaimed gleefully as we reached the perfect moment to start lining a tin with paper thin layers of pastry which we then stuffed full of apple and armagnac before we baked it.
Her brother is in charge of the fruit growing - polytunnels full of suspended strawberry plants, he explained how he grows the plants suspended to better control insects and blight - perfectly managed, he uses only insects to control insects. He picks twice day, he explained, to make sure the strawberries were perfectly ripe for market. A never-ending job when they are in season, it seemed. I had a picnic by the glorious slow moving river and, sitting at a table in the grass, ate the farm’s own smoked duck breast, rillette, strawberries and the tourtiere I had made earlier, washed down with a glass of the local rose. Perfect.
I cycled on to Pujols, yet another gorgeous 13th century village, again a “bastille” centered around a market with amazing views down to the valley. And on again to Penne d'Agenais with its battlements, ornate town gates and the Notre Dame de Peyragude sanctuary. This is the “Way of St James”, the route of the traditional pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. There were craftsmen busily working – glass-blowing and creating handicrafts to sell in their stores in the bustling centre of this charming village.
I visited the Ferme du Lacay which was a treat. They had found Granny’s recipe book in the attic here and were happily recreating her delicious traditional dishes. They have a fascinating exhibit on the Lot river here which is interactive and perfect for the kids.
On I pedaled to The Terminus, a family run hotel in its third generation, conveniently located right by Cahors station. Although a large hotel, each room is different - mine was spacious and airy, but the biggest surprise was the restaurant - Le Balandre, where the maitre d’ spoke not only flawless English, Spanish and French, but looked after me as if I was family - bringing me a different wine with every course and recommending food in season and all locally produced. The Bridge de Valentre deserves a mention here, medieval and a Unesco world heritage site, it was supposedly made by a pact with the devil, and closed to traffic except those on foot or on bike, it is simply exquisite. I visited the Cahors market the next morning - again overwhelmed by fresh produce and wines, all grown within a few miles of the place.
I met Mr Marty - a man so enthused by cheese, it seemed only natural for him to invite me in to his cave to further share his passion - huge wheels of cheese waited there, so stinky I am sure the smell permeated my very skin. "I wanted to sell this cheese,” he gestured towards a soft goat’s cheese in a doughnut shape, covered in ash, “but it wasn't available, so...” he shrugged, “I make it myself.” His shop is rightly famous, locally – “Mr Marty” is a byword for excellent cheese, I discovered at lunch at the L’Ô à la Bouche, where I was served amazing modern cuisine, again all locally sourced and as fresh as you can imagine. Mr Marty’s cheeses were a course all of their own and his name was uttered with a degree of reverence and sage nodding.
Stuffed full with even more cheese, I managed to roll myself and my bike down to the river at Bouzies where you can take a Lot Navigation boat past the towpath undercutting the cliffs - sporting fascinating art carved in to the soft limestone. The plants growing along the banks defy gravity, clinging to the vertical walls whilst the boats lolligag as they pass by, stopping for the only totally manual lock on the river.
On to Saint Cirq Lapopie, voted the most popular village in the whole of France, by the French last year, it is heartbreakingly picturesque. Thirteenth century houses sporting the traditional blue slate roofs of the region are nestled in a steep valley, there are the ruins of two castles and only the rumour remaining of a third... home to artists and many craftsmen, I met a fabulous potter, bought some wonderful ceramic buttons and went on to chat with a wood turner and a milner who was quite quite mad (in the best possible way) and foisted one of her creations on me and hugged me like she had given birth to me.
Then on to Grealou where I found, perched above the Lot, Ecoasis - two chambres d'hôte and 8 rooms for 2-5 people to share. I arrived quite late and so the day’s pilgrims had already started their meal sitting around a huge table in the dining room - and also started their drinking by the sound of them! A group of twelve, most of whom had only met that evening, ate together sharing their stories. I was introduced to them and tried out my rudimentary French on them: "Why do you walk to Santiago de Compostela?" I asked, genuinely interested, one said for a "parenthesis", a pause in life – others suggested as a sabbatical, a grown up gap year - some said for the exercise or the challenge. One lady looked at her knees and said gently she was walking for “spiritual reasons”. There was an obvious pause at the table which was broken only when I was offered some champagne - the lofty subject of religion left dangling, unaddressed in the air. The couple next to me were sitting with their two young sons (one a babe in arms) - did I spot their donkey on the way in? their father asked me... I had, actually. He explained they had rented the donkey and started the journey a week before with their baby and their toddler. They would camp on the way to Spain, but occasionally they would stay at a hostel like this. When they reached their destination, the man renting the donkey would pick them all up in a van (including the donkey) and drive them back to the start where their car was waiting for them. And we think we are sophisticated in London with our Boris bikes... we could learn a thing or two from these pilgrims.
Owners, Audrey and Manu have both had extensive career experience in luxury hotels and chose to buy the land here in 2010 with a view to creating a more ecologically and sustainable business. The meals they provide (breakfast and supper) are all eaten at a shared table. About half of their clientele are walkers, principally pilgrims who tend to just stumble in at the end of the day. Although Ecoasis is open all year, in winter they only open when they have reservations as the walking traffic is much less, so do call ahead.
Passionate about the environment and their community, “We are locavores!” explained Audrey (translating for me that she means they only eat what they can buy from within a 30km radius, within reason) they barter (“troc”) where they can. They have a filter system for water, the building is totally insulated, constructed from local wood, hemp and cork. They have used no solvents in the paint, with mud plaster and lime, coloured only with the local elements. Solar panels are used to heat the water, and there is a pellet boiler as a back up. With Manu cooking the main meals and Audrey whipping up the puddings, the couple take it in turns to make breakfast ensuring they have a lie-in every other day. They can cater for groups of up to 35 half or full-board, hosting for seminars and meetings or yoga retreats. Audrey teaches yoga twice a week to the locals but anyone staying can join in. The majority of their guests are obviously the pilgrims, however, this area is also perfect for trekking and cycling and (rather randomly) spelunking... “I don't know if I am playing or working.” Audrey said, with glee.
"We took a risk building like this - what would people do? Would they be shocked?" Audrey posited. In fact, they are seen as a paragon of eco-excellence, other hotelier wannabes travelling from far and wide to peer down their composting toilets (which look just like a regular toilet but with no flush - not revolting, I promise!) and have a look at their reed beds. Of their choice to cater using only local, bio and ecological products, Audrey said: “It is not flavourless or an act of suffering in any way!” in fact if you came in off the pilgrim trail, you would be hard pressed to describe this little spot as anything other than extremely comfortable, friendly and exceptionally well thought out.
From there I travelled on to Flagnac where I took an almost silent boat ride (a sneaky electric motor!) under the beautiful chateau Gironde which was so gorgeous, I couldn't resist trekking up the hill to get a closer look. It's a private home, formerly belonging to Hugo Parnasse who introduced jazz to France and is responsible for hosting many soirees where Louis Armstrong and his contemporaries would have played late into the night, the strains of their music floating effortlessly across the Lot. Cycling on, over the bridge where the confluence of the Dourdou and the Lot creates an amazing combination of the red earth marked water from the Dourdou running parallel with the green water of the Lot until they are mixed by a weir, I reached the 11th century village of La Vinzelle. Tiny and nestled between the river and a cliff, it has a giant bell (over 1200 kg) that was donated by a proud patron - too big to be installed in the church, a separate tower was built just to house it. The houses all have the very traditional roof of the region – blue/grey slate in a sort of inverted tulip shape called "lauze".
From here I went on to Conques- a very important centre for my friends with the donkey and all the other pilgrims following route G65. A huge, beautiful town suddenly appearing out of nowhere, it is dominated by a vast church, spare and pale on the inside and with original black and white stained glass windows created by Soulages.
Onward and upward, I had a date with the patron at La Terrace, restaurant and hotel, Sophie. Her chef whipped up the most incredible meal of many courses, including wine from the local Ferme de La Vidalie and chevre from the same - outrageously good. Full to the brim and possibly a little more than half cut, I had enough Dutch courage to take on the river first hand. On to the village of Viellevie to Asv'olt, an amazing centre for canoeing on the river, rafting, yak'ado (sort of punting) for a 10 or 20 km route, depending on how brave you feel. 35 years and still going strong, there is a newish building serving this part of the river with hot water for the showers from solar panels, run by a permanent staff of 3 but rising up to about 20 to guide and assist you during the height of the summer.
They were delightful, funny and patient, they got me out in a canoe and back again safely. After a big clean up in the seventies, pollution in the Lot river is now practically zero, so in addition to providing a huge amount of the hydroelectricity used in France, it is also home to dragon flies, fish and resident families of otters.
On the way out of the village, I stopped at Montarnal - a tiny hamlet with a single shop built around a chateau owned by a man who has taken it as his life's work to renovate it back to its former glory, even down to sprucing up the dungeons. I wandered as the sun set and had a chat with a little old lady about the terrible weather this spring and, incidentally, the state of her Lily of the Valley - "Come," she gestured me to follow, and she showed me her garden and her beautiful fragrant crop and began picking great armfuls of the stuff. "Tiens!" she instructed, “Take!” As I climbed higher in to the mountains, I saw the most amazing rainbow on a faraway hill – in the fading light the distant storm was magical, extraordinary.
I spent that night at the Auberge du Fel with Elizabeth. A tiny little Logis that only sleeps ten, all of whom are welcome to partake of Elizabeth's evening meal - there is no choice, just a menu reflecting what she could find that day. Curried lentil soup with pancetta and then a trout from the Lot followed by cheese (lots and lots of cheese) and then a pear tart. My room was gorgeous, traditional, tucked under the eaves, there was even an armchair for me to curl up in and enjoy my book. Breakfast was home-made bread, croissants, home-made jams and the most amazing coffee served in a vast locally thrown and very gorgeous bowl. And more cheese, just in case I hadn't had my fill the night before. Interestingly, I met the only British family of my whole trip there. They now live in Australia but make a pilgrimage of their own to this spot whenever they have been able over the past nine years. "It's our favourite place in the world," they explained and then the mother looked me in the eye and, taking my elbow, said firmly: "Don't ruin it for us by telling everyone, will you?"
Onward and further upward, through the mountains and into the Lozere, the Aubrac Plateau looked like Yorkshire as I climbed the hills. Cows everywhere taking over from the sheep of the valleys and huge outcrops of rocks left by the glacial approach. The fields are home to cattle only in the summer when they are herded near the “buron” huts where the local herdsmen live temporarily, making cheese. The local patois is spoken here and most signs are written in French and the old form of the same. The rivers here are smaller and shallower but fast flowing. I saw red squirrels and hares and deer darting across the road and heard only birds, the cows, languid and slow moving, watched as I made my way.
Next stop La Chaldette, a thermal spa in Brion. Designed by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the centre is nestled in a picturesque valley on top of a thermal spring, with a shallow wide river running past it. The windows overlook pine trees and cows in fields, encouraging a sense of relaxation and being at one with nature, whilst you are indulging in a massage or just lounging in a hot tub. There are few traditional rooms for treatment, closed and private, but most are open, with large windows taking in the dramatic scenery. This is a centre for medical procedures, treating children and adults with nose and ear problems, but principally it is a spa for relaxation. You can stay here in a gorgeous old hotel nearby and partake of the treatments or just pop in for a morning or a day if you haven't got the time.
From here I went to the river to have a lesson in fly-fishing from a fabulous trout fisherman, Serge Rollo. He was quiet and patient and nearly caught a trout to order, but the fish was too sneaky and got away just as he was reeling it in.
One of the burons locally has been converted in to a fabulous traditional restaurant, “Buron de Born” serving charcuterie on a large board and then serving up great slabs of the Aubrac cows with a side order of aligot – a fabulous concoction of whipped potatoes and cheese, butter, cream and garlic. It should be beaten one hundred times, I was told. The waiter came to the table with it still in a pan and showed me how it was done...
Then on I travelled to witness the Deroc waterfall. Plummeting thirty meters, it makes a deafening sound and is well worth the short walk off the beaten track to witness. If you feel hearty you can actually climb down and walk behind it, but you may need some waterproofs if it’s not very warm as it is mighty splashy.
Finally I had supper in Bozouls at a lovely restaurant called A la Rue D’Argent where I tasted yet more fabulous fresh produce and more amazing cheese, washed down with local Cahors wine. Stuffed full and fairly tired from my amazing journey, I jumped on a couchette from Rodez and slept like a baby to wake the next morning at St Pancras.
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