The oval area bordered to the east by the uplands of the Massif Central and to the west by the Atlantic plains was the most contested between the English and the French during the Hundred Years’ War, and has been most in demand among English visitors and second-home buyers in more recent times. Although it doesn’t coincide exactly with either the modern French administrative boundaries or the old provinces of Périgord and Quercy, which constitute the core of the region, the land here has a physical and geographical homogeneity thanks to its great rivers: the Dordogne, the Lot and the Aveyron, all of which drain westwards from the Massif Central into the mighty Garonne.
From Limoges in the province of Limousin in the north to the Garonne valley in the south, the country is gently hilly, full of lush hidden valleys and miles of woodland, mainly oak. The northerly Limousinis slightly greener and wetter, the south more open and arid. But you can travel a long way without seeing a radical shift, except in the uplands of the Plateau de Millevaches, where the rivers plunge into gorges and the woods are beech, chestnut and conifer plantations. The other characteristic landscape is the causses, the dry scrubby limestone plateaux found between the Lot and Dordogne and the Lot and Aveyron. Where the rivers have cut their way through the limestone, the valleys are walled with overhanging cliffs, riddled with fissures, underground streams and caves. And in these caves – especially in the valley of the Vézère around Les Eyzies– is some of the most awe-inspiring prehistoric art to be found anywhere in the world.
The other great artistic legacy of the area is the Romanesque sculpture, most notably adorning the churches at Souillac and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, but all modelled on the supreme example of the cloister of St-Pierre in the quiet town ofMoissac. Hilltops through the region are marked by splendid fortresses of purely military design, such as Bonaguil, Najac, Biron, Beynac and Castelnaud, which more than compensate for the dearth of luxurious châteaux.
The charm of the area undoubtedly lies in the landscapes and the dozens of harmonious small towns and villages. Some, like Sarlat and Rocamadour, are so well known that they are overrun with tourists in the height of summer. Others, like Figeac, Villefranche-de-Rouergue, Gourdon, Montauban, Monflanquin and the many bastides (fortified towns) that pepper the area between the Lot and Dordogne, have a quieter, more local charm, where the greatest pleasure lies in wandering the narrow streets of their old towns.
The wartime Resistance was very active in these out-of-the-way regions, and the roadsides are dotted with memorials to those killed in ambushes or shot in reprisals. There is also one chilling monument to wartime atrocity: the ruined village of Oradour-sur-Glane, still as the Nazis left it after massacring the population and setting fire to the houses.
Bastides, From the Occitan word bastida, meaning a group of buildings, were the new towns of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Although they are found all over southwest France, from the Dordogne to the foothills of the Pyrenees, there is a particularly high concentration in the area between the Dordogne and Lot rivers, which at that time formed the disputed “frontier” region between English-held Aquitaine and Capetian France.
That said, the earliest bastides were founded largely for economic and political reasons. They were a means of bringing new land into production – in an era of rapid population growth and technological innovation – and thus extending the power of the local lord. But as tensions between the French and English forces intensified in the late thirteenth century, so the motive became increasingly military. The bastides provided a handy way of securing the land along the frontier, and it was generally at this point that they were fortified.
As an incentive, anyone who was prepared to build, inhabit and defend the bastide was granted various benefits in a founding charter. All new residents were allocated a building plot, garden and cultivable land. The charter might also offer asylum to certain types of criminal or grant exemption from military service, and would allow the election of consuls charged with day-to-day administration – a measure of self-government remarkable in feudal times. Taxes and judicial affairs, meanwhile, remained the preserve of the representative of the king or local lord under whose ultimate authority the bastide lay.
The other defining feature of a bastide is its layout. They are nearly always square or rectangular in shape and are divided by streets at right angles to each other, producing a chequerboard pattern. The focal point is the market square, often missing its covered halle nowadays, but generally still surrounded by arcades, while the church is relegated to one side.
The busiest bastide founders were Alphonse de Poitiers, on behalf of the French crown, after he became Count of Toulouse in 1249, and King Edward I of England (1272–1307), who wished to consolidate his hold on the northern borders of his Duchy of Aquitaine. The former chalked up a total of 57 bastides, including Villeneuve-sur-Lot (1251) and Monflanquin (1252), while Edward was responsible for Beaumont (1272) and Monpazier (1284), among others. While many bastides retain only vestiges of their original aspect, both Monpazier and Monflanquin have survived almost entirely intact.
While the old provinces of Haut Quercy and Quercy – the land between the Dordogne and the Lot rivers and between the Lot and the Garonne, Aveyron and Tarn – largely correspond to the modern-day Lot département, it makes sense, for convenience’s sake, to group them together with the gorges of the River Aveyron and Villefranche-de-Rouergue on the edge of the province of Rouergue.
The area is hotter, drier, less well known and, with few exceptions, less crowded than the Dordogne, though no less interesting. The cave paintings at Pech-Merle are on a par with those at Les Eyzies, while Najac has a ruined castle (and fabulous views) to rival those of the Dordogne. The towns of Figeac and Villefranche-de-Rouergue are without equal, as is the village of St-Antonin-Noble-Val, and stretches of country such as that below Gourdon, around Les Arques where Ossip Zadkine had his studio, and the Célé valley.
Cahors, on the River Lot, was the capital of the old province of Quercy. In its time, it has been a Gallic settlement; a Roman town; a briefly held Moorish possession; a town under English rule; a bastion of Catholicism in the Wars of Religion, sacked in consequence by Henri IV; a university town for 400 years; and birthplace of the politician Léon Gambetta (1838–82), after whom so many French streets and squares are named. The city sits on a peninsula formed by a tight loop in the River Lot, and is small and easily walkable.
Dominating the centre is the Cathedral, which, consecrated in 1119, is the oldest and simplest in plan of the Périgord-style churches. The exterior is not exciting: a heavy square tower dominates the plain west front, whose best feature is the north portal, where a Christ in Majesty dominates the tympanum, surrounded by angels and apostles, while cherubim fly out of the clouds to relieve him of his halo. Side panels show scenes from the life of St Stephen. The outer ring over the portal shows a line of naked figures being stabbed and hacked with axes. Inside, the cathedral is much like Périgueux’s St-Front, with a nave lacking aisles and transepts, roofed with two big domes; in the first are fourteenth-century frescoes of the stoning of St Stephen, while over the west door are faded but beautiful Creation scenes from the same era. To the right of the choir a door opens into a delicate cloister in the Flamboyant style, still retaining some intricate, though damaged, carving. On the northwest corner pillar the Virgin is portrayed as a graceful girl with broad brow and ringlets to her waist. In the cloister’s northeast corner St Gaubert’s chapel holds the Holy Coif, a cloth said to have covered Christ’s head in the tomb, which according to legend was brought back from the Holy Land in the twelfth century by Bishop Géraud de Cardaillac.
Cahors is best known for its dramatic fourteenth-century Pont Valentré, one of the finest surviving medieval bridges. Its three powerful towers, originally closed by portcullises and gates, made it effectively an independent fortress, guarding the river crossing on the west side of town.
While you’re in the Cahors area, don’t miss out on the local wine, heady and black but dry to the taste and not at all plummy like the Gironde wines from Blaye and Bourg, which use the same Malbec grape.
Château de Bonaguil
The imposing Château de Bonaguil is spectacularly perched on a wooded spur downstream from Cahors. Dating largely from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with a double ring of walls, five huge towers and a narrow boat-shaped keep designed to resist artillery, Bonguil was the last of a dying breed, completed just when military architects were abandoning such elaborate fortifications. As it attracts around two thousand visitors a day during summer, it’s advisable to get here early.
Figeac, on the River Célé, 71km east of Cahors, is a beautiful town with an unspoilt medieval centre not too encumbered by tourism. Like many other provincial towns hereabouts, it owes its beginnings to the foundation of an abbey in the early days of Christianity in France, one that quickly became wealthy because of its position on the pilgrim routes to both Rocamadour and Compostela. In the Middle Ages it became a centre of tanning, which partly accounts for why many houses’ top floors have solelhos, or open-sided wooden galleries used for drying skins and other produce. It was the Wars of Religion that pushed it into eclipse, for Figeac sided with the nearby Protestant stronghold of Montauban and suffered the same punishing reprisals by the victorious royalists in 1662. The church of St-Sauveur, near the river, maintains its lovely Gothic chapterhouse decorated with heavily gilded but dramatically realistic seventeenth-century carved wood panels illustrating the life of Christ.
Jean-François Champollion, who cracked Egyptian hieroglyphics by deciphering the triple text of the Rosetta Stone, was born at 4 impasse Champollion, just off place Champollion. The house now forms part of the excellent Musée Champollion, dedicated to the history of writing, from the very earliest cuniform signs some 50,000 years ago. The most interesting exhibits relate to Champollion’s life and work, including original manuscripts tracing his and others’ progress towards cracking the hieroglyphs. Beside the museum, a larger-than-life reproduction of the Rosetta Stone forms the floor of the tiny place des Écritures, above which is a little garden planted with tufts of papyrus.
Gourdon lies between Sarlat and Cahors, conveniently served by the Brive–Toulouse train line, and makes a quiet, agreeable base for visiting some of the major places in this part of the Dordogne and Lot. It’s 17km south of the River Dordogne and pretty much at the eastern limit of the luxuriant woods and valleys of Périgord, which give way quite suddenly, at the line of the N20, to the arid limestone landscape of the Causse de Gramat.
It is a striking town, its medieval centre of yellow-stone houses attached like a swarm of bees to a prominent hilltop, neatly ringed by modern boulevards containing all the commerce. The main street through the old town, with a fortified gateway at one end, is rue du Majou. It’s lined all the way up with splendid stone houses, some, like the Maison du Sénechal at no. 17, dating back to the fourteenth century and extended during the sixteenth. At the top you emerge into a lovely, intimate square in front of the massive but not particularly interesting fourteenth-century church of St-Pierre. From the square, steps climb to the top of the hill, where the castle once stood and from where there is a superb view stretching for miles.
Grotte de Pech-Merle
Discovered in 1922, the Grotte de Pech-Merle is less accessible than the caves at Les Eyzies, well hidden on the scrubby hillsides above Cabrerets. The cave itself is far more beautiful than those at Padirac or Les Eyzies, with galleries full of the most spectacular stalactites and stalagmites – structures tiered like wedding cakes, hanging like curtains, or shaped like discs or pearls.
Drawings at Grotte de Pech-Merle
The first drawings you come to are in the “Chapelle des Mammouths”, executed on a white calcite panel that looks as if it’s been specially prepared for the purpose. There are horses, bison – charging head down with tiny rumps and arched tails – and tusked, whiskery mammoths.
Next comes a vast chamber where the glorious horse panel is visible on a lower level; it’s remarkable how the artist used the relief of the rock to do the work, producing an utterly convincing mammoth in just two black lines. The ceiling is covered with finger marks, preserved in the soft clay. You pass the skeleton of a cave hyena that has been lying there for 20,000 years – wild animals used these caves for shelter and sometimes, unable to find their way out, starved to death.
And finally, the most spine-tingling experience at Pech-Merle: the footprints of an adolescent preserved in a muddy pool.
Tickets for Pech-Merle
The admission price includes an excellent film and museum, where prehistory is illustrated by colourful and intelligible charts, a selection of objects (rather than the usual ten thousand flints), skulls, and beautiful slides displayed in wall panels.
Admissions are limited to 700 people day, for conservation purposes. It is best to reserve your tickets via telephone to ensure you will be able to enter upon arrival, particularly if arriving at the end of the day.
Top Image: Pech-Merle Prehistoric Paintings © Ollirg / Shutterstock
Moissac, 30km northwest of Montauban, is remarkable only for its beautiful Romanesque abbey church. The town suffered terrible damage during the flood of March 1930, when the Tarn, swollen by a sudden thaw in the Massif Central, burst its banks, destroying 617 houses and killing 120 people. The modern town is rather bland, in great contrast to the outstanding church and its cloister, which has made Moissac a household name in the history of art.
The cloister and porch of the abbey church of St-Pierre is a supreme masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture. Indeed, the fact that it has survived numerous wars, including siege and sack by Simon de Montfort senior in 1212 during the crusade against the Cathars, is something of a miracle. During the Revolution it was used as a gunpowder factory and billet for soldiers, who damaged many of the sculptures. In the 1830s it only escaped demolition to make way for the Bordeaux–Toulouse train line by a whisker.
Legend has it that Clovis the Frank first founded a monastery here, though it seems more probable that its origins belong in the seventh century, which saw the foundation of so many monasteries throughout Aquitaine. The first Romanesque church on the site was consecrated in 1063 and enlarged in the following century. The famous south porch, with its magnificent tympanum and curious wavy door jambs and pillars, dates from this second phase of building, and its influence can be seen in the decoration of porches on countless churches across the south of France. It depicts Christ in Majesty, surrounded by the evangelists and the elders of the Apocalypse as described by St John in the Book of Revelation. There’s more fine carving in the capitals inside the porch, and the interior of the church, which was remodelled in the fifteenth century, is interesting too, especially for some of the wood and stone statuary it contains.
The pretty village of Monflanquin, founded by Alphonse de Poitiers in 1256, is one of the region’s perfectly preserved bastides, not too touristy and impressively positioned on the top of a hill that rises sharply from the surrounding country. It conforms to the regular pattern of right-angled streets leading from a central square to the four town gates. The square – place des Arcades – with its distinctly Gothic houses, derives a special charm from being tree-shaded on a slope.
The prosperous, provincial city of Montauban is capital of the largely agricultural département of Tarn-et-Garonne. It lies on the banks of the River Tarn, 53km from Toulouse, close to its junction with the Aveyron and their joint confluence with the Garonne.
With an attractive old centre, interesting shops, some great places to eat, and a laidback feel, it makes a particularly pleasant base for a few days. The greatest delight is simply to wander the streets of the compact city centre, with their lovely pink-brick houses.
Things to do in Montauban
The majority of activities in Montauban revolve around its rich history, walking tours are particularly interesting here as with simply strolling the streets and stopping off at cafes along the way. Points of interest include Place Nationale; the medieval central town square and the Cathedral. The Musee Ingres is home to a collection of paintings of famed Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, with the building itself being just as impressive as the artwork.
History of Montauban
The city’s history goes back to 1144, when the count of Toulouse decided to found a bastide here as a bulwark against English and French royal power. In fact, it’s generally regarded as the first bastide, and that plan is still clearly evident in the old city centre.
Montauban has enjoyed periods of great prosperity, as one can guess from the proliferation of fine townhouses. The Hundred Years’ War did its share of damage, as did Montauban’s opting for the Protestant cause in the Wars of Religion, but by the time of the Revolution, it had become once more one of the richest cities in the southwest, particularly successful in the manufacture of cloth.
Najac occupies an extraordinary site on a conical hill isolated in a wide bend in the deep valley of the Aveyron, 25km south of Villefranche-de-Rouergue. Its magnificent castle, which graces many a travel poster, sits right on the peak of the hill, while the half-timbered and stone-tiled village houses tail out in a single street along the narrow back of the spur that joins the hill to the valley side.
Things to do in Najac
The main point of interest in Najac, is, of course, Chateau de Najac, the spectacular castle. When in the village of Najac, monuments to look out for include St. Bartholomew Chapel, Place du Faubourg and the Governors House.
The landscape in Najac is perfect for activities such as mountain biking, hiking and horse-back riding. Hiking trails are enjoyable along the river bank or by following designated paths such as the Grande Ranonee.
History of Najac
Najac’s château is a model of medieval defensive architecture and was endlessly fought over because of its impregnable position in a region once rich in silver and copper mines. In one of the chambers of the keep are sculpted portraits of St Louis, king of France, his brother Alphonse de Poitiers and Jeanne, the daughter of the count of Toulouse, whose marriage to Alphonse was arranged in 1229 to end the Cathar wars by bringing the domains of Count Raymond and his allies under royal control.
It was Alphonse who “modernized” the castle and made the place we see today – a model in one of the turrets shows his fortifications as they were in the castle’s prime in 1253. The main reason to visit, however, is the magnificent all-round view from the top of the keep, a full 200m above the river.
Halfway up a cliff in the deep and abrupt canyon of the Alzou stream, the spectacular setting of Rocamadour is hard to beat. Since medieval times the town has been inundated by pilgrims drawn by the supposed miraculous ability of Rocamadour’s Black Madonna. Nowadays, pilgrims are outnumbered by more secular-minded visitors, who fill the lanes lined with shops peddling incongruous souvenirs, but who come here mainly to wonder at the sheer audacity of the town’s location, built almost vertically into its rocky backdrop.
Rocamadour is easy enough to find your way around. There’s just one street, rue de la Couronnerie, strung out between two medieval gateways. Above it, the steep hillside supports no fewer than seven churches. There’s a lift dug into the rock face (€3 return), but it’s far better to climb the 223 steps of the Via Sancta, up which the devout drag themselves on their knees to the little Chapelle Notre-Dame where the miracle-working twelfth-century Black Madonna resides. The tiny, crudely carved walnut statue glows in the mysterious half-light, but the rest of the chapel is unremarkable. From the rock above the entrance door hangs a rusty sword, supposedly Roland’s legendary blade, Durandal.
One of the finest and most substantial towns in the area is St-Antonin-Noble-Val, 30km southwest of Najac. It sits on the bank of the Aveyron beneath the beetling cliffs of the Roc d’Anglars, and has endured all the vicissitudes of the old towns of the southwest: it went Cathar, then Protestant, and each time was walloped by the alien power of the kings from the north. Yet, in spite of all this, it recovered its prosperity, manufacturing cloth and leather goods, and was endowed by its wealthy merchants with a marvellous heritage of medieval houses in all the streets leading out from the lovely place de la Halle. It’s on this square that you’ll find the town’s finest building, the Maison des Consuls, whose origins go back to 1120.
The pale stone houses of St-Cirq-Lapopie, staggered down the steep hillside above the south bank of the Lot, appear almost fairy-tale-like as you approach from the east. The village was saved from ruin when poet André Breton came to live here in the early twentieth century, and though it’s now an irresistible draw for the tour buses, with its cobbled lanes, half-timbered houses and flower-strewn balconies, it’s still well worth a visit, especially early or late in the day, when the buildings glow in the sunlight. From behind the tourist office, a steep path leads up to the top of the cliff, once the site of the town’s château, for commanding views over the river valley.
No medieval junketing, barely a craft shop in sight, Villefranche-de-Rouergue must be as close as you can get to what a French provincial town used to be like. It’s a small place, lying on a bend in the Aveyron, 35km south of Figeac and 61km east of Cahors across the Causse de Limogne. Built as a bastide by Alphonse de Poitiers in 1252 as part of the royal policy of extending control over the recalcitrant lands of the south, the town became rich on copper from the surrounding mines and its privilege of minting coins. From the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, its wealthy residents built the magnificent houses that grace the cobbled streets to this day.
Villefranche is home to one of the loveliest bastide squares in the region, place Notre-Dame. It’s built on a slope and you enter at the corners underneath the buildings. All the houses are arcaded at ground-floor level, providing for a market (Thurs) where local merchants and farmers spread out their weekly produce – the quintessential Villefranche experience. The houses are unusually tall and some are very elaborately decorated, notably the so-called Maison du Président Raynal on the lower side at the top of rue de la République. The square’s east side is dominated by the church of Notre-Dame with its colossal porch and bell tower, nearly 60m high. The interior has some fine late fifteenth-century stained glass, carved choir stalls and misericords.
Villeneuve-sur-Lot, 75km west and downstream from Cahors, is a pleasant, workaday sort of town that makes a useful base. While there are no standout sights, the handful of attractive timbered houses in the old town and the arcaded central square go some way to compensate. A couple of towers alone survive from the fortifications of this originally bastide town, and to the south the main avenue, rue des Cieutats, crosses thirteenth-century Pont des Cieutat, which resembles the Pont Valentré in Cahors but is devoid of its towers.
The town’s most striking landmark is the red-brick tower of the church of St-Catherine, completed as late as 1937 in typically dramatic neo-Byzantine style. Beautiful friezes run along the length of the interior, depicting a procession of numerous saints, resplendent against a gold background, and evocative of early Christian art.
The food and wine of Périgord
The two great stars of Périgord cuisine are foie gras and truffles (truffes). Foie gras is best eaten either chilled in succulent, buttery slabs, or lightly fried and served with a fruit compote to provide contrasting sweetness and acidity. Truffle is often dished up in omelettes and the rich périgourdin sauces which accompany many local meat dishes, but to appreciate the delicate earthy flavour to the full, you really need to eat truffle on its own, with just a salad and some coarse, country bread.
The other mainstay of Périgord cuisine is the grey Toulouse goose, whose fat is used in the cooking of everything, including the flavourful potato dish, pommes sarladaises. The goose fattens well: gavé or crammed with corn, it goes from six to ten kilos in weight in three weeks, with its liver alone weighing nearly a kilo. Some may find the process off-putting, but small local producers are very careful not to harm their birds, if for no other reason than that stress ruins the liver. Geese are also raised for their meat alone, which is cooked and preserved in its own thick yellow grease as confits d’oie, which you can either eat on its own or use in the preparation of other dishes, like cassoulet. Duck is used in the same way, both for foie gras and confits. Magret de canard, or duck-breast fillet, is one of the favourite ways of eating duck and appears on practically every restaurant menu.
Another goose delicacy is cou d’oie farci – goose neck stuffed with sausage meat, duck liver and truffles, while a favourite salad throughout the region is made with warm gésiers or goose gizzards. Other less challenging specialities include stuffed cèpes, or wild mushrooms; ballottines, fillets of poultry stuffed, rolled and poached; the little flat discs of goat’s cheese known as cabécou or rocamadour; and for dessert there’s pastis, a light apple tart topped with crinkled, wafer-thin pastry laced with armagnac.
The wines should not be scorned, either. There are both reds and whites from the vineyards of Bergerac, of which the sweet, white Monbazillac is the most famous. Pécharmant is the fanciest of the reds, but there are some very drinkable Côtes de Bergerac, much like the neighbouring Bordeaux and far cheaper. The Cahors region, which produces fine, dark, almost peppery reds, was awarded the prestigious 2016 Vignoble de l’Année by the well-regarded Bettane-Deseauve wine guide. This places the region’s wines on a par with those from the better-known vineyards of St-Emilion and Châteauneuf du Pape.
Top image: Bonaguil Castle in Lot et Garonne, France © Richard Semik/Shutterstock