A short break in the French town of Cahors offers a glimpse into another age, pleasing scenery, great food, vineyards and a wonderful feeling of being included. What's not to like?
Near Cahors after a long, weary trip, we needed some rest and relaxation. We pulled into a campsite, the Camping Riviere de Cabessut, run by a big, friendly family whose lack of English was no trouble at all. After chilling out for an hour, we set off for town, a twenty minute walk along the River Lot.
The facilities at Cabessut were nice and clean, but the oldest I've ever met. Overhead chains to pull for both toilets and showers, and the building so arranged that wherever I went I came face to face with a half-naked man. It had charm though, and we stayed three nights at 16 euro a night, and felt quite at home.
There are plenty of places to eat in the main street, named after local hero Leon Gambetta who escaped Paris in a hot air balloon in the 1870 Franco-German war. Explore a little further and there is Le Vieux Auberge de Cahors, with a good restaurant. I decided on a gesiers starter; yes, they really are gizzards! They are on the menu everywhere, and I'll try anything once. Well, glad that's over! The rest of the meal was delightful, with a boeuf bourgignon stew and catch of the day fish, followed by a duet of creme brulees. The formule menu was 28 euro per person, and well worth it.
Relais Brasserie Le Palaix, in the high street, serves meal of the day well into the evening. Delicious stuffed lamb was available, or my favourite, trout with almonds. Thoroughly recommended at 9 euro, and served by a friendly cafe owner.
Wandering back that Saturday night we heard good, modern music, and followed our ears. On street corners small groups from the local academy of music entertained the public: we lingered two or three times and felt included in the fun. The town was alive with young people enjoying themselves. Nobody was drunk or obnoxious. Magic!
Opposite the train station, five minutes walk from town, the Hotel le Valentre and the Interhotel de France - situated next door to each other, have combined to provide good en suite rooms from 50 euro, now under the name of Inter Hotel le Valentre. They have good parking at 1.50 euro more, and parking is at a premium in Cahors.
You could stay at the Hotel de la Paix, very central, in the market square, near the St. Etienne Cathedral. Basic ensuite rooms start at 54 euro, find your own parking. There is a big, colourful market on Wednesdays and Saturdays using up most of the square, and a large indoor market is open daily for excellent meat and produce. A free organ recital in the cathedral every Saturday attracts many visitors.
There is plenty to see In the old section of town. The Office de Tourisme is in the main square on Rue Gambetta, next to the impressive Hotel de Ville. There are so many old buildings, including the House of Henry IV and the Chateau du Roi. We had our maps marked out by an enthusiastic young man who didn't want us to miss anything.
Other places to visit include Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, a medieval village perched on a cliff one hundred metres above the River Lot. The winding route from Cahors is lined with huge limestone cliffs. It follows the river almost all the way, with tunnels hewn into the cliffs and a run of carved arches still showing the river. It's all quite lovely. You can't help hoping nothing gives way!
In the countryside the pleasant village of Montcuq, with a vibrant Sunday market, is famous for another reason - it's now on the French version of Monopoly! Montcuq, pronounced mon-koo, is, to put it politely, French for 'my bottom'. A nationally known comedian noticed - and the rest, as they say, is history!
Visit the caves of Pech Merle, about fifteen miles from Cahors. Very well presented, with pre-historic drawings to take one back in time. Arrive by early afternoon, the caves are affected by temperature, and only so many visitors are allowed per day. Some others in the area are now examples only, but Pech Merle, in 2009 was still the real thing. Take a jacket, it's cold down there!
Figeac, a stop-over on the historic Way of Saint James, (the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela) still attracts thousands every year. It's less than an hour from Cahors. Champollion, decipherer of hieroglyphics was born here in 1790. Figeac has well preserved 12th to 14th century houses. The Place des Escritures is completely covered by a huge slab of black granite marked with hieroglyphics. It represents the Rosetta Stone that helped Champollion decipher the Egyptian script.
There are so many note-worthy places in this land of oak trees (the area is called Quercy, from the Latin for oaks). We visited Moissac, for the Abbaye Saint Pierre, founded in the 7th century. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a remarkable cloister, consecrated in 1100. Seen from the river it's lovely, but apart from that, Moissac could be a little disappointing, a big town with graffiti etc.
Back to Cahors via Castelnau Montratier, an atmosheric village with agreeable architecture. Sit under the arches in the main square, savour a glass of wine, and watch the locals play boules. It's all very French - as it should be! The restaurant La Bardouquet has plenty of duck on the menu, foie gras, and the ever present cassoulet, but perhaps you'd prefer a fricassee of escargots and nuts?
Finally arrive in Cahors, almost enclosed by a loop of the meandering river Lot. There are plenty of bridges, but don't miss the eleventh century Pont le Valentre, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its three fortified towers. It's now a symbol of the city. Take a walk across the bridge and imagine how many have done it before you!
You can't have missed the fact that this is wine country. So many vineyards, so many tasting opportunities! Cahors wine is a star of the prestigious AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controlee). It's known as 'black' wine. The saying goes that if you can see through it, it isn't Cahors. This area is famed for wine expertise, Malbeck is the major grape variety. Its chateaux and estates are happy to welcome visitors.
There is so much more to discover, like the amazing Conques, a medieval town on a hilltop, and Rocamadour, hewn into cliffs, and even Lourdes isn't too far away. If you want a holiday with plenty to see, drive to Cahors, or fly to Limoges or jump on Eurostar and start to explore.