Lot River Valley

A Day in the Lot Valley

During my recent farm stay in the Corrèze region of France, I spent one day exploring the Lot and Célé valleys located in the Lot Department of France.  In my opinion, these valleys are just as pretty, if not prettier, than the nearby Dordogne Valley. The area is also less busy!  If I had to do it over again, I would spend two days visiting the area, or shorten the guidebook’s proposed drive that I followed in one day.

My guidebook recommended six stops over 100 miles in two days which included Grotte de Pech-Marle, Marcilhac-sur- Célé, Espagnac-Ste.-Eulalie, Figeac, Cajarc, and St.-Cirq-Lapopie.  I made four stops in one day after driving 1.5 hours south from Lagraulière to which I returned later.  Needless to say, it was long, yet very good day.

Grotte de Pech-Merle

I started my visit to the Lot Department at Grotte de Pech-Merle, a 29,000 year old, prehistoric cave!  The cave is located near the Town of Cabrerets who owns and manages it.  Grotte de Pech-Merle includes the typical cave formations like stalagmites and stalactites, but also features rare discs, “a pearl”, pre-historic footprints and cave paintings.

In order to conserve the cave and its paintings, visits are limited so it is best to reserve tickets online, particularly during the high season.  As a single person in the off-season, I was fortunate to join a Spanish group for a tour in French just after I arrived and purchased a ticket onsite for 13.50 euros about one hour after it opened. 

We were directed from the ticket office and museum down a few steps to the gift shop and movie room which also served as the entrance to the cave. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the frustrated tour guide who spoke French and English.  While we had handouts in our languages, only about three people understood our poor guide (and I was one of them because she would speak to me in English)!

The Cave Tour

Pech-Merle is an interesting cave due to its variety it.  One of the first chambers we visited includes an oak tree root that has penetrated the limestone formations.  As we continued through the 2 km cavern, we saw several primitive, black lined drawings of bison and mammoths. 

tree root in pech merle cave
tree root

Soon we were treated to some uncommon geological formations, calcite discs, which are formed when two calcite plates are separated by a small crack.  Next, we saw fossilized footprints dating back 10,000 years.  Eventually, we entered the bear corridor where a bear’s head estimated to be 24,000 years old was etched in the stone. 

One of the coolest formations in the cave are the “pearls” that are created when heavy rains seep through a hole in the ceiling and create gravel that is covered in calcite and rotates into a polished ball.  One of the “pearls” was surrounded by a spinning top.  There are only two of these formations found in the world!

Finally, the tour led us to a mural of horses painted over a red fish and surrounded by stenciled hands.  The paintings date to different times, but the horses are estimated to be 29,000 years old.  Pech-Merle is really cool, and I couldn’t resist taking a few, disallowed photographs (no flash, so it didn’t damage anything).

horse paintings in pech merle cave

Marcilhac-sur- Célé

After the cave tour and a quick stroll through the tiny Cabrerets, I drove about 25 minutes to Marcilhac-sur- Célé.  This town in the Lot department features ruins of a 9th century Benedictine Abbey.  The town has a parking area and public restroom next to a small park on the riverbank that attracted several cyclists the day I visited.  In fact, as I toured the Lot area, it seemed to be a popular cycling area.  I even came across a homemade sign that indicated parking for the Tour de France. 

cabrerets in the lot region
Cabrerets

Not only does the Lot area attract cyclists and tourists, but also pilgrims.  Marcilhac-sur-Célé and St. Pierre Abbey are on one of the Santiago de Compestela Ways.  The abbey once owned the sanctuary of Rocamadour, but neglected it, and the monks from the abbey of Tulle took it over before the remains of St. Amator were found turning it into a pilgrimage center. 

Now the abbey consists of mostly ruins, though the church has been restored and holds a monthly mass.  I enjoyed my quick stop in town while strolling beneath the ancient archways.

Figeac

After visiting Marcilhac-sur-Célé, which was located about mid-way through the proposed loop tour, I considered shortening my drive, and cutting across to Cajarc in the Lot valley.  This would have been the best choice for a one-day excursion, but instead I continued to Figeac, 30 minutes away.

According to my guidebook, Figeac boasts excellent hotels and restaurants as well as the Musée Champollion which houses a cast of the Rosetta Stone.  To me, Figeac had a city feel rather than a village feel.  In addition, the day I visited was a bank holiday, so all the shops were closed.  As such, Figeac, wasn’t my favorite stop in the Lot region, and I could have skipped it.

Having said that, like Domme, Figeac posts signs with a proposed walking tour, so I strolled along a few quaint streets, past a quiet market area that bustles on Saturday, and popped into a church at the top of the hill that provided a nice view below.

Figeac is home to many churches.  I visited Eglise Notre Dame du Puy.  Founded in the 8th century, it is the oldest parish in Figeac and was constructed after a miracle took place on the hill.  It is said that a tree grew leaves and a rose bush bloomed in the winter at the location where the church was built.

Cajarc

After about an hour of exploring the large, vacant town, I followed the Lot River to Cajarc, another half-hour drive.  The entrance to Cajarc from the east is across a wonderful, one lane bridge.  It must have been market day as the streets were filled with visitors, and I didn’t spot any parking spaces.  Since there wasn’t anything specific to explore, I kept going, weaving with the Lot River that cuts through limestone cliffs to St.-Cirq-Lapopie, 30 minutes away.

St.-Cirq-Lapopie

I am so glad I visited St.-Cirq-Lapopie.  If I were staying in the Lot valley, I would stay in this adorable cliffside village. A maze of charming stores and cafes perch 300 feet above the Lot River while circling vestiges of a fort that capped the highest point of the town.

Now visitors can follow the path up to the fort for magnificent views of the Lot valley as well as the town listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France.  No doubt!  St. Cirq-Lapopie, with a population of only 200, hosts over 400,000 visitors a year.  Fortunately, at the end of May, despite many tourists, the town still felt quaint and enjoyable.  In the peak season, however, it might be overrun!

Coming from the east, I passed by the first parking I saw as the walk up to the lovely town seemed daunting, but looking back, I should have stopped there.  I parked up above the town and walked all the way down to the archway, as the views of St. Cirq-Lapopie from the east are just spectacular.  It’s no wonder it has drawn many artists to its cobblestone lanes and stone houses.

st cirq lapopie in lot river valley

St.-Cirq-Lapopie is certainly the cutest town in the Lot valley.  Be sure to peak around all the corners to find flowered patios and historic monuments hidden in the shade its crooked alleyways.  What a great way to end my drive through the Lot and Célé valleys.  ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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