Montcabrier and the Lot River Valley
17.08.2012 - 24.08.2012 37 °C
In the morning, we dragged our four wheeled rolling suitcases under St Jean station to take delivery of our hire car at the office shared by half a dozen hire companies. I chased up a deal on line by hiring with an agent based in Portland, Maine. All good but I don't have my normal credit card with me as required by the actual car hire office. Fortunately M had her card with her, so the deal was accepted with her nominated as driver number one. The ladies behind the counter were very helpful in devising this work around so we could get on our way.
Driving out of Bordeaux while taking care to stay on the right hand side of the road, we were soon heading northward so as to go southward, in the paradoxical style of French roadmaking. Despite our almost brand new diesel powered Renault Clio we were making no progress at all, as the traffic slowed to a crawl for about an hour. Then, as suddenly as it had stuttered to a halt, traffic flow resumed.
Already behind schedule, the expedition continued along quieter secondary roads, free of traffic snarls, and the vines started to appear on all sides. As we travelled further into the heartland of red wine production, the names of towns began to sound like labels from the top shelf at Dan Murphy's Wine Cellar.
Thanks to some very clear directions provided by Sally Gaucheron, the owner of the B & B we will be staying in at Montcabrier, we made good progress with only a few false moves provoked by temporary road re-directions. After settling in to seeing the road in reverse from what is usual, the driving part was going fine. However, the brilliant sun was gradually sliding towards the western horizon - hmm, time to notice we had taken a turn to the left instead of the right and were now incorrectly facing the setting sun. A sweeping u-turn by the Tour de France sign post (Tour de France this way) and back on track.
Sustained by an excellent vegetarian pizza at a town we later found was St Silvestre Sur Lot, we pushed on as the shadows lengthened to match our faces. We thought we saw the football pitch that signalled the need to take the next road. This country lane, assuredly most charming in the daylight, started off with a jauntily sealed surface that gradually gave way to more uncertain conditions, a dark road, and a number of quiet, where on earth are we moments of reflection. Yet hope was not yet as lost as us, for from time to time there were lights, whether of ghouls or the houses of civilised man could not be determined.
Just then a car with striped livery, some kind of SES guy, appeared before us and offered his help. Once I had explained the situation, he simply said "Suivez-moi", and so we were able to follow him to the correct turn off for Montcabrier.
Turning in to the single car width entrance to the village of Montcabrier, it became apparent that we had perfectly timed our arrival for the middle of a Friday night market. The music was loud and appeared to have started in 1968 and not stopped since. Parking in some open space on the edge of the village, I conducted a reconnaissance mission alone. Before too long, on the edge of the town square, I found my name on a card taped to a gate. Fortunately by this time the party was breaking up and I was able to bring the car and Miriam to our accommodation.
The village or bastide of Montcabrier was buiilt in the 14th century as part of the ongoing struggle for control between those on the side of the English and those on the side of the local French nobles. Remarkably well preserved, its ancient stones speak of old struggles now long forgotten. In an early example of town planning, the streets are laid out in a grid with the Marie (town hall) representing civil society facing the old church with its bell towers ever ready to ring out - at least for 7am, midday and 7 pm. Even in the late middle ages it was apparently important to make the most of your land: on one house the spiral staircase sits out above the street instead of being contained within the bounds of the walls.
Many of the buildings are in almost original condition, the ethos of the local folk being highly protective of their tiny enclave. The stonemasons who made these walls have left their signature marks, such as an image of pair of scissors above an arched doorway. Depending on the presence of iron and other minerals, the stone of various walls is coloured yellowish or with a rusty red tint.
At the edge of town remnants of the original defensive ramparts and a small guard house remain, with a commanding view down over any potential invaders. You can almost feel the presence of long gone archers and swaggering crusader types.
Our host Sally was full of information about the village and suggested lots of options to explore in the surrounding area. It proved essential to have a car to get around the place, with the only store in town (boulangerie, post office, general store) closing for lunch and shutting down for the night about seven. After that, if you needed anything, the nearest town where a shop might potentially be open (but not a sure thing) was seven kilometres of winding road away. Sally also is an excellent cook and will turn on a tasty meal from her own kitchen by arrangement.
No idyllic view over meandering forest valleys, seen from the breakfast table on the terrace, is complete without the presence of a cat, of course, and Noire, the venerable feline who has lived agreeably here for many years - now aged twenty would ensure to wish us a good morning.
During our time based at Montcabrier we ventured to a number of localities each with much to offer the curious observer.
Puy L'Eveque, the closest town, a fortress like conglomeration occupying a peninsula-like loop of land almost surrounded by the Lot River,once held by a powerful bishop with knights residing on the lower levels beneath his palace. By the river, the medieval streets are steep and cobblestoned, with a narrowness and awkwardly tight onewayness complete with casually parked cars on the side that could make a hire car driver nervous. We are crepes at the Pigeonnerie, a restaurant operating in a building that hundreds of years ago had a different purpose. It was a house for pigeons to live in and defecate in, with the resulting fertiliser a reliable cash crop of the times.
Cahors, similarly arising from a medieval power base, was remarkable for how wherever you went, in any direction, you could always see a roadsign pointing the way to Cahors. Clearly, all roads no longer lead to Rome, because a significant number are leading to Cahors. We passed through Cahors and noted remarkable crumbling castles and majestically arched bridges.
Sylvestre sur Lot is a charming little town, where many campers gather by the Lot to try their luck at fishing. Best vegetarian pizza available at the one and only pizzeria. There is also a restaurant next to the river Lot that serves a fabulous self-serve buffet for ten euros a head. Delightful as the view over the river stretching into the blue haze of another steaming hot day.
It is fortunate that there is at least one good reason to go to Cazals. That is the pleasant and cooling swimming hole located just out of town. While you can fish for trout here in season, right now it's the season of letting loose the kids on the (created) beach that lulls your feet into expecting a sandy bottom, that only lasts a few meters until your toes are squishing through a very fine silt.
All swimmers stand under a shower point that squirts at you from all angles. Only one person objected to this treatment, but she was only about two years old and easily overcome.
Oh, the other reason to go to Cazals. So you can get over the idea that French cooking is pretentious. Here at the Welcome Point for the Camping area, we sampled the delights of the local cuisine. M had the Croque Monsieur a la Microlonde (Toasted cheese sandwich cooked in the microwave) while I could not resist sampling the admittedly anglicised Cheeseburger, also with the deft application of the microwave to the 'patty'.
Reasons to not go to Cazals are that at ten past two in the afternoon, in the town itself, you are sneered at contemptuously should you seek to purchase any food; we got away with coffee, but it was a close thing. If there had been a guillotine handy, the waitress had a certain look in her eye.
Pech Merl was a highlight of the trip so far. This sympathetically preserved and presented wonder is a series of caves where many artworks and other traces of neolithic man can be seen up close and personal. With limited visits permitted, visitors are escorted in small groups along a dimly lit subterranean path to witness images of mammoths, bison and the now extinct auryx, a primitive form of ox. the hand that created with a few bold lines these vivid emblems of a long-dead tribe worked with skill and a precision that needed few lines made with primitive pigments. Footprints fossilised in the minerals laid down by the slow dripping water show where man stood 15000 years ago or so. The same hand prints made with ochre spitting techniques are seen here as in Aboriginal art still surviving in more exposed caves.
Unlike the more famous Lascaux caves, where 'reproductions' of the actual artefacts are shown to the visitor, this is the real thing, and feels like it. A deeply impressive experience.
Chateau de Bonaguil
A short drive from Montcabrier was the Chateau de Bonaguil. This castle was also quite fabulous to explore, for anyone who spent their childhood watching Robin Hood swordfighting his way down a stone spiral staircase. All the features you expect were their, round towers, square towers, ruby glass windows bending the light into galleries where knights and ladies dallied in the 15th century. Held by one family for several hundred years, in the French Revolution it was decreed that the tops of all the buildings to a certain height should pulled down. In good shape for its age now, you can climb to the top and stroll around with a view as broad and sweeping as the guards whose duty it would have been to stay up there and keep watch. In the lower levels you can still clearly see where flooring timbers and other structural elements were positioned, so imagination fills in the gaps and you get a clear sense of how the community living here would have functioned. In times of siege, they had to be self sufficient in order to survive.
It was only in the nineteenth century that efforts began to preserve and restore this important remnant of the days of chivalry. Don't want to start a chain mail, but if you're in the neighbourhood, this is well worth a visit.
At the end of a week we were ready to step back in the Renault time machine and miraculously navigate back to Bordeaux, despite being on the wrong bridge, being baffled by petrol station protocol, and calling on every shred of memory from studying the map of the side streets around the car hire drop off yard, we made it back with ten minutes to spare. Another five minutes of suitcase draggage and we were lying down in the Best Western with a nice cup of tea a-brewing.