A holiday spent walking between pretty French villages is a great way to indulge in food and wine and not feel too guilty about it.
Twenty-six years after our first visit to France, we are back on a kind of journey of reminiscence to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary and my wife Gail’s 70th birthday.
We have returned to the Departement du Lot (also called Quercy) where, in 1991, we spent a week hiking from village to village, enjoying French food, scenery, culture, language and wines for the very first time in our lives — an experience we have never forgotten.
We have returned to France a number of times in the interim but now we are back for another self-guided hike in the Lot, hoping our now-septuagenarian bodies will cope with some 80km of trails over the week.
We will be walking between 12km and 20km a day from village to village, carrying just a daypack with water (maybe wine), a picnic lunch and cameras while our luggage gets transported to a pre-booked hotel for each night’s stay.
We will also be armed with maps and route notes, and following the many marked and unmarked tracks and quiet back roads that typify hiking in France.
But first, we start our journey going back to the Lot in Cahors, the departmental capital. With a population of about 25,000, it is by far the biggest town in a department which has one of the lowest population densities of any area of France.
The Lot sits some five hours by train south-south-west of Paris in the high limestone plateau in the middle of the country. Rivers – the Dordogne, the Lot and the Cele — run east-west through the department, carving deep gorges through the soft limestone over the millennia to eventually empty into the Atlantic beyond Bordeaux.
Cahors is on a “peninsula” formed by one of the many loops of the serpentine Lot River, and its charming old town is flush with narrow laneways, ancient buildings and monuments, churches, restaurants, shops and homes.
On our first night there, we dine at a tiny restaurant close to our hotel and have the set menu — foie gras, confit du canard (duck) and creme brulee. A red wine is served — Cahors malbec. I message a friend in Australia: “We are in the Lot. I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
The three-course menu, we discover, is ubiquitous at every restaurant in the area. Add in Rocamadour cheese, a creamy round of goat’s milk cheese served as an appetiser, in salads, warmed in mains or with the cheese platter and you have the perfect meal for about €20 ($30) per person. Cahors red wine is mostly made from malbec grapes and so dark it is almost black. I’m smitten.
The Lot River provides a plethora of activities outside the town — boat trips up and down the river for an hour or so, excursions to St Cirq Lapopie, a village perched on a limestone cliff above the river, and day-long cruises with lunch (Rocamadour cheese included, of course).
Cahors is on one of France’s Caminos de Santiago de Compostela pilgrim trails to Santiago in Spain, so we spend a couple of days pretending to be pilgrims hiking the trail both ways from town.
Then, we travel north, just 40 minutes on the inter-cities train to Souillac, where we will start our self-guided hiking tour.
Souillac is on the Dordogne River and has a pretty pedestrian-friendly old town and a fascinating museum with an astonishing collection of automata — mechanical moving puppets and marionettes from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
This is the launching pad for our hiking tour over the next six days to St Cere, eastwards from here through some of France’s recognised “most beautiful villages”, including Loubressac, Autoire and Rocamadour and via some spectacular and dramatic scenery.
But, there’s a physical price to pay to enjoy “beautiful villages” and “dramatic scenery” on foot, and we find that such reward requires effort, at times more than considerable effort. Nevertheless, we complete each day’s walk — usually taking longer than the route notes suggest — with an elevated sense of accomplishment.
“We did it,” we congratulate ourselves each day, hiking in to the next village with our pre-booked hotel in sight. Time enough for a sightseeing walk around the village, maybe a pre-dinner drink, then a satisfying three or four-course dinner.
Can you have too much foie gras, confit du canard, creme brulee and Chateau Haut- Monplaisir Cahors malbec wine? Probably not.
Along the way there are many highlights:
- Standing on the top of a cliff overlooking the Dordogne River, with breathtaking vistas across limestone cliffs and over the river to lush farmlands with a farmer’s tractor hay cutting in the distance.
- Wriggling in to deep caves with evidence of prehistoric settlements (our route notes wisely suggesting we take a torch with us that day).
- Sitting trail side, with our backs against a centuries-old drystone wall for a picnic lunch of baguettes, prosciutto, cheese, fruit and a half-bottle of malbec.
- Inspecting a 5000-year-old dolmen (Neolithic stone burial tomb), just off the trail in the middle of a field.
- Walking through a tiny village (more a collection of farmhouses) named Latrielle; my wife grew up on a street named Latrielle and we take photos for her 94-year-old mother back home in Australia.
- Being fussed over by the madame of the hotel in Loubressac when we arrived hot, fatigued and probably dehydrated after an unseasonally hot and humid day on our longest day’s hike from Rocamadour.
- Rocamadour was also a highlight. This pilgrim town dating back to the 12th century, built impossibly into the limestone cliff above a small river, has a number of churches and chapels clustered above the main, narrow street in the town below.
- Complete your pilgrimage by climbing the final 226 stone steps from the main street up to a small plaza and the chapels. Serious pilgrims climb the steps on their knees. Not us. But when we arrive in the plaza there are small groups of tourists listening to their tour guides and we hear a hymn being sung.
- Then up the steps comes a group of people singing a rousing hymn — in German, no less — completing what for them has no doubt been a considerable pilgrimage, judging by their hiking sticks, stout boots and serious clothing.
- Believer or no, one can’t deny the emotion of the moment.
- And that, in many ways, encapsulates our return journey to the Lot — a pilgrimage, a physical challenge at our age, an achievement, a reward to ourselves.
- At its centre, the region’s history, scenery, villages, food, wine, culture, language and people have combined to ensure endless tales to regale friends and family for many years.
The Dordogne Valley and Historic Rocamadour self-guided walk is offered by Dordogne Experience. SeeDordogne Experience