The Lot: An Off-Beat and Off-the-Beaten-Track French Destination

Aquitaine is the blue area in the southwest corner. Lot is the small gold landlocked area just to the east.

Typically, tourist bureaus cannot be accused of understatement, But, in the case of one Department in southwest France, the Lot, the tourist tagline gets it right, without the hype: “a surprise at every step.”

Take, for instance, the castle of Montal, a Renaissance jewel. Mainly built between 1523 and 1534, Montal features a double spiral staircase, said to be France’s most beautiful. If you visit, you won’t see (and never could see) a famous visitor, the Mona Lisa, who spent World War II hidden there. Built by a woman for her son who had gone to war, her desperate motto "plus d’espoir" (no more hope) is carved above a door, suggesting that he never came back.

Poet Paul Valery also spent much of World War II in a Lot castle—Montal’s sister chateau of Beduer, near Figeac. This castle, open to the public only during its August concerts, boasts a splendid music room with painted rafters. Yet another castle, mostly Renaissance with vestiges dating to the rule of Pepin le Bref, is the chateau of Cenevieres. If you’re lucky, you will tour the castle—particularly its fascinating alchemy chamber—with the chateau’s charming and knowledgeable owner, Guy de Braquillanges.

The Department of the Lot may be best known for age-old river valleys of great beauty and events of centuries—even eons—ago. It was on the Lot’s limestone plateaus, for example, that Cro-Magnons battled Neanderthals. It was in the Lot that Paleolithic humans, some 20,000 years ago, decorated the walls of caves (Pech-Merle) with still-radiant color in the form of mammoths, horses, bison, and human hands. It was here that prehistoric folks left behind dolmen, tombs from stone slabs; discovering a dolmen (or a modern “cazelle,” a shepherd’s shelter made of dry stone) during a walk in the countryside is part of the fun. More recent residents left their marks, too, including Roman aqueducts, the stately home of a prelate who became pope in Avignon, and false front castles that served as British hideouts in the 100 Years War.

Even the Lot’s much-visited attractions retain their capacity to surprise and delight, more so if visited outside of the high season which runs from mid-July through August. Rocamadour, the medieval pilgrimage site built atop a sheer cliff; the caverns at Padirac, visited in a rowboat; and the beautifully preserved medieval village of St. Cirq Lapopie, former home of surrealist Andre Breton, all make for memorable visits as does Cahors, the beautiful Departmental capital which retains its Gallo-Roman and medieval heritage while being very modern at the same time.

There are many less-touted yet eye-opening attractions. The Museum of the Resistance in World War II is in Cahors, a display of early automatons can be found in Souillac, and a museum showing the modern tapestries of Jean Lurcat is in St. Cere. Amidst the famed vineyards west of Cahors lies a museum dedicated to the works of Russo-Lotois sculptor Ossip Zadkine. Then, in a category all by itself, is the Museum of the Insolite near the cave paintings at Pech-Merle; artifacts here represent the singular vision of the tiny museum’s curator.

It may surprise music fans to know that here in the heartland (“la France profonde”) there is a most audacious festival featuring a midnight jazz fest, experimental music, folk stories, and street performers, all holding court in and around the Renaissance courtyard of the chateau of Assier. In addition, there are festivals of the blues (mid-July in Cahors), African/worldbeat music (July in tiny Cajarc), and classical music, including two August concerts in a former command post of the Knights Templar in Espedaillac.

Perhaps most surprising of all is the Lot’s involvement with a bold international idea: the Citizens of the World movement. After World War II, Garry Davis, an American, launched this movement in—of all places—the Lot. Davis and others, including painter Andre Breton, envisioned a world without borders and passports. Starting in Cahors and continuing along a major route to Breton’s adopted village, St. Cirq Lapopie, towns and villages signed on to the movement’s goals and thus were”mundialized.” The movement lost steam with the onset of the Korean War, but it lives on among some dedicated followers and several road markers. Two years ago Garry Davis attended the 50th anniversary of the movement in St. Cirq Lapopie. Ironically, post-nationalist ideas met pre-industrial architecture right here: St. Cirq Lapopie was the first place in France to have a preservation order on the entire medieval village.