Lot - A forgotten department (province)
Rough canyons and medieval villages
Lot is sometimes called "the forgotten department". Not many tourists visit this area with rough canyons, wild rivers, medieval towns, pilgrim retreats and castles. It's a great place for hiking as well for touring by car.
Travelogue & photos: Manja Ressler
It's still chilly when we walk into the Gorges de Cères. The mountains are steep here, so the canyons are narrow. While we walk in silence along the wild and fast-flowing river, I am overwhelmed by the roughness of the unspoilt nature in this little known part of France.
After half an hour of steep climbing, we are rewarded with a panoramic view of the surroundings: tree and pine woods, steep slopes and in the distance two diminutive hamlets. Then we walk down, over - every now and then slippery - paths that were, over a period of almost 2000 years, the only connecting roads between valleys.
Jack, our guide, says: "Later we'll cross the river a few times." He's a master of understatement, as will become obvious during our hike. All in all, we cross the river eight times, once near a beautiful waterfall. I enjoy the wild surroundings as much as the rock crawling to get to the other side of the river time after time.
On our way, we pass by huge iron kettles which are half underground. Jack tells us that in the past these kettles were used to make charcoal, because it was impossible to move trees from this area. "Luckily, in this canyon not many trees are felled, because it's inaccessible. But elsewhere in this area there's a lot of logging, unfortunately. And if they replant at all, it's usualle fir trees, because they grow fast. But they spoil the character of the landscape."
Evidence that this wood is in relatively good shape are the royal ferns and the amounts of chanterelles and ceps (boletuses) that can be found here in autumn. It's probably not a good idea to pick them: the farmers consider the wood their private property and chase away mushroom pickers who are not from around here.
Villages time forgot
Streets that haven't changed much in eighthundred years
In the Lot you don't find only wild nature and rivers, but also diminutive villages that seem to have been forgotten by time, as well as castles and extremely interesting towns like Sousceyrac, Saint-Céré, which dates from the early Middle Ages, and the former pilgrim retreat Rocamadour.
Yesterday we drove from the Loire district via the Route National southward, until I felt the lucky impulse to leave the highway at Uzerche and take a look at this beautifully situated town on the river Vézère, 52.5 miles (70 km) from Calviac.
Walking through the medieval part of town feels like having been transported by a time machine. If you think away the cars and the asphalt, the streets haven't changed in over 800 years: the typical medieval timber framed houses with protruding second floors, a city gate with Maria statue en stone doorposts with faded decorations.
Via a square with a tower, the robust 11th century Tour du Prince Noir, we walk to the outside of the old city walls. Here we can see the rest of the lower lying town on both sides of the Vézère.
Just outside Uzerche, we're stopped by a friendly gendarme (police officer), who can't be older than 19 and who is a little disapointed that I speak French: he has learned German and English and would have liked to try his language skills on a tourist. In order to show us at least some of his knowledge, he explains how the alcohol test works that I have to take. From Argentat, the rest of the breathtakingly beautiful route to Calviac is over narrow, winding roads, inaccessible for cars with trailers, through canyons and over mountains.
Medieval towers and gates
Typical pointed, very high slate roofs
In the Lot you can make several interesting trips by car. I drive from Calviac according to a route description Jack gave me. In the rural town of Teyssieu I get out of the car to look at the beautifully renovated medieval tower. Like elsewhere in this area, every building has typical, pointed slate roofs.
After Teyssieu the landscape becomes more rolling, until we pass through the wine and fruit villages of Estal and Glanes. It is remarkable how much more prosperous these villages look: bigger and better cared for houses, a grand town hall. The reason is obvious: on the high and steep slopes in the area that we just left, you can't grow wine, let alone wheat of fruit. In the higher lying parts of the Lot there are only small cattle farmers, who are somewhat poorer.
Driving towards Bretenoux, we see from a great distance the castle of Castelnau, which guards the old town from its position high on a hill. In Bretenoux we take a walk through the old town center. Here we also find remarkably many well-conserved and renovated medieval buildings and gates that are shining in the bright sunlight. The atmosphere is peaceful on this quiet day.