Down by the Lot River

By | Category: Travel destinations

For my first visit to this part of France, I wanted to cruise the River Lot for a few days on board a rented pleasure boat.

To get to the area, the preferred airport is Brive-Dordogne Valley Airport, commonly called Brive which is one of the newest French airports. Built exactly at the junction of three departments, and of three regions, it’s right in the heart of one of the most beautiful and authentic French areas. It’s the main gateway to discover Corrèze, Périgord Noir and Lot. With direct flights from London City Airport the motto of both is surely “small in size and efficient in service.”

From Brive airport, an hour’s drive south on the direct motorway got us to Cahors where our boat was waiting for us as were the other members of our party. Travelling on your own boat means you have to take some food and drinks but most of you will probably do what we did and take most of your meals in some nice restaurants that you’ll meet as you potter along the river.

Cahors and its ‘Black Wine’:

Cahors Wine

Shopping for food is not a great problem. This is real France and good, fresh products were easy to find everywhere. But Cahors is not only a town with a beautiful medieval centre, it’s the capital city of Cahors wine, the famous ‘Black Wine’ which has been written about for centuries. Before boarding, we stopped in the centre to take a look at the city and, of course, to collect some wine.

For French people, wine is something very serious although pleasant. Before buying some bottles of Cahors, a little wine-tasting was suggested to us. So we stopped by the Villa Malbec on François Mitterand Square. There, next door to the tourism office, the Malbec Lounge offers visitors for €3 (say £2.50) a wine-tasting of three types of Cahors wine chosen from amongst the dozens of bottles from various local producers. During about 20 minutes of rich explanations about Cahors wine, we learned that Malbec is the name of the grape variety and any Cahors wine contains from 70%-80% of Malbec for the ‘cuvées tradition’, to 100% of Malbec for the ‘cuvées prestige’. We left happy and euphoric along with our purchases!

Valentre Bridge

Down at the river and at the foot of the stunning medieval Valentré Bridge which is protected by three massive defence towers two self-drive boats were waiting for our party. They belonged to two different companies, Babou Marine and Le Boat. For a moment the relaxation of a river break was put aside as we listened to the boat handling demonstration. This covers not only the control of the boat but also the behaviour of the river and its meandering course, the engine, the navigation rules and how to work the manual locks on this part of the river. After a short test steering the boat we are off but one of the instructors stays with us to help us through the first lock. We had a lot of fun going up and down the iron ladders inside the lock and using our muscles to turn the strong crank arms.

The voyage:

Then we were by ourselves on the river, Oops! For the next two hours everyone stayed on the deck, looking at the maps and guides, watching the flow of the current and taking turns at the helm. In comparison to the first, the second lock seemed easy and by the time we had navigated through the third we thought we were real sailors. To celebrate, we decided to open a bottle of Cahors to wash down a fresh baguette and a Rocamadour cheese, the famous creamy goat cheese produced in the village of same name in Northern Lot. As we cruised an unmistakeable feeling came over us: we were the kings of the river and we felt confident of our skills to properly appreciate the beauty of the landscape around us. Even a cold shower that wet us in a few minutes didn’t dampen our enthusiasm.

the Lot landscape

We navigated with our raincoats until Lamagdeleine where we made landfall for the night. A two minutes walk got us to the small village where our chosen restaurant, ‘Chez Marco,’ beckoned us. Marco the young chef who succeeded his father, another Marco, was awarded a Michelin star for his inspired cuisine which largely uses quality local products like lamb from Quercy, and the famed Perigord truffles, those unique black diamonds of haute cuisine that could be collected during the autumn and winter months in this part of France. The home-made truffled foie gras was great. The roast lamb tenderloin was a real delight and fitted perfectly with Cahors wine. After a selection of cheese, the choice for dessert was hard and finally I opted for a pineapple carpaccio delicately perfumed with saffron served with a large scoop of milk sorbet that is well worth trying. A last drink and then a leisurely walk back to our boats where we were asleep almost as our heads hit the pillows.

And so began our days on the river. Cruising at the foot of the fabulous cliffs that chart the river’s course we passed through so many locks, stopping almost as many times to enjoy the landscape or “sampling” another restaurant and café. What is life if not to test the quality of the regional specialities? For breakfast we had a rule. The first one that woke was in charge of getting fresh croissants and bread from the closest bakery. Don’t miss the one in Lamagdeleine, a must.

Visiting the country:

St Cirq lapopie

I wouldn’t like you to think that our journey was only about food and wine. They were cultural as well. We stopped by the little villages on the banks of the river, some hardly known to visitors like Vers and some known worldwide like St Cirq-Lapopie. Since ancient times the Lot Valley has been occupied by man and they left us many traces.

Before reaching St Cirq-Lapopie we cruised between two vertically high cliffs near Bouziès where a one kilometre long towpath has been dug inside the cliff side. It’s now only open to pedestrians who walk under rocks for a hundred metres. The cliffs that lined the river hide also some little fortresses, called Chateaux des Anglais (English Castles) built halfway up like eagle nests. They go back to the middle ages when England and France fought for the possession of the duchy of Aquitaine. These stunning little fortresses are not easy to visit, and we didn’t even try.English castles?

St Cirq-Lapopie, which won an award last year as the preferred village of French people, needs a full day stop. Perched on the top of a hill overlooking a bend in the river, the narrow streets of the village are accessed by fortified doors. There is a maze of small houses dating from the 11th to the 16th century. Craftsmen and artists now work in some of the former small shops that are now indicated by a discrete, small, red flag. A matchless view over the valley awaits the visitors at the ‘belvedere’, the best natural terrace to take advantage of the view. Once again, terraced restaurants were too inviting so we refreshed ourselves with a glass of wine – obviously Cahors wine – and the local cuisine.

Cenevieres Castle

After a few more bends in the river, we reached Cénevières which has an extraordinary castle perched on the top of the cliff seventy metres above the river. This private castle, owned by the Marquis de Braquilanges and his family, mixes a beautiful Renaissance building with a strong defensive system with walls, machicolations and covered ways. (A machicolation is a protruding battlement with an opening floor so defenders can drop things like boiling oil and boulders on attackers below.) Guided by the owner himself, we walked through the castle from the elegant front of the house through its long, outside gallery and then into huge rooms with painted ceilings and full of historic souvenirs. Don’t miss the strange alchemy room and the little dungeon. The fascinating visit ended on the huge terrace where the view over the river and the valley let us imagine how great life could be in such a place.

Cénevières was our furthest point on this cruise. To return in time we had to turn back and our idyllically slow cruise continued downstream this time. We passed the same villages, but we chose to stop in new places. In Bouziès we landed for an eight kilometres excursion so that we would not miss the Grotte de Pech Merle and the marvels of hundreds of Palaeolithic frescoes. Famous for its coloured paintings of horses, mammoths and aurochs, Pech Merle is maybe the best preserved palaeolithic cave which goes back some 30.000 years and still open o the public. Before you start the tour there is a five-minutes presentation to allow visitors to appreciate the whole beauty of the show that awaits them twenty metres below.

grotte de Pech Merle

The next day, we carried on cruising until Vers where we stayed for the night. There, we were lucky enough to meet Sally and Jeffery Stride, a couple of British painters, in their charming house where they live and work. They have been based in Vers since 1971 when they discovered it by pure chance, their Bedford van breaking down in the village! Mainly inspired by the soft light over the landscape of the Lot Valley, their work brought them an international recognition. Some of their paintings have decorated the walls of 10 Downing Street as well as of Elysée Palace.

Finally our last day came and we arrived safe and sound in Cahors. We said goodbye to our boats and tried to find time to visit the old part of the town where stood the Saint-Etienne Cathedral with its two huge domes and its flamboyant cloisters. But we had to leave to get back to Brive airport knowing that we have to come back soon or later to Cahors and the Lot.

For more about Lot click here

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