Travels through a limestone landscape in southwest France

by Helen Martin

  • RRP £18.99
  • ISBN: 978-0-9557208-0-2
  • Pages: 488
  • Maps: 10
  • Photographs: 26
  • Published: March 2008
  • Edition: 2nd
  • Format: Paperback

Book description...

In this updated and expanded edition of her well-loved classic, Helen Martin takes you on a journey through the Lot department of southwest France. Writing with insight and affection about an area she has known for more than forty years, the author introduces you to a glorious land of thyme-scented limestone uplands and orchid-filled meadows, of meandering rivers and ancient farmsteads, golden and drowsing in the afternoon sun. Here, too, you'll discover the dramatic, cliff-hanging villages of St-Cirq-Lapopie and Rocamadour, the fortified mediaeval bridge of Cahors and the awe-inspiring cave art of Pech Merle.

Lot: Travels through a limestone landscape in southwest France tells of the people, the history and the legends that shaped the region, of the tragic events of World War II, when these wild uplands provided refuge for the Resistance, of the little round-apsed, round-arched Romanesque churches, of feast days and long-lasting friendships. It examines the Cahors wine industry and gives a taste of the countless culinary delights on offer, from truffles and cab├ęcou cheese in little round discs to succulent confit.

Lot: Travels through a limestone landscape in southwest France is not just a fascinating guide to the region. It is also a celebration of a fast-disappearing way of life and a record of the changes taking place in this quiet corner of rural France.

About the author...

Helen Martin worked for The Guardian and has written for many publications, including The Guardian and France Magazine.

Reviews for the current edition...

"What a joy to stumble across a new edition of Helen Martin's book...[It] is full of deeply textured prose that beautifully evokes a sense of the landscapes of the Lot region." - Hidden Europe (July 2008)

"This is a guidebook to savour; it literally guides you, takes you by the hand to show you corners and characteristics of this wonderful region of which you had been totally ignorant or had barely understood. It is a book of prose, of opinions, of wonderful insights...Unlike so many guidebooks, it will have just as much value for those...who have lived in the Lot for years as it will for the casual first-time traveller." - French News (July 2008)

"Here indeed is a staggering achievement: almost 500 extravagantly researched pages about one French department. It is, if you will forgive me, a hell of a lot on the Lot...The opening section is a splendid overview - erudite, wry and impassioned - of landscape, food and history. There's a strong chapter on the region's fervid Resistance activity. And in the closing section Ms Martin goes on an engaging and selective first-person wander through regions bordering the Lot." - Daily Telegraph (28 June 2008)

"[Helen Martin] is the ideal mentor for intrepid travellers, offering a breadth of insight beyond the usual guidebook territory of where to stay and what to eat, and venturing instead into the heart and soul of the area and its people through its architecture, history and culture. This book seems more like a memoire or homage to the region than a guidebook and is styled accordingly, although there are some handy maps included which would serve reasonably well to help you get a feel for the area." - French Magazine (July 2008)

"Helen Martin has known the Lot for 50 years and writes about it in a very personal way... Reading this book makes you feel as though you're there!" - Destination France (Summer 2008)

"Some publications can announce their authority just by their size, weight and appearance, and this is one of those. This is an updated and expanded edition of Le Lot, a previous volume that itself was deemed a classic. In almost 500 pages of text, Helen Martin takes the reader on a detailed tour through the Lot department of south-west France... Whether it is the history and legends of the region, the events of World War II, discussing architecture, the regional wine industry, or the essential culinary delights, this is a never less than fascinating regional guide... A series of maps usefully enable the reader to orientate themselves... An authoritative and accessible guide." - French Property News (June 2008)

"Impeccably researched fact and delicious personal preference... Puts meat on the bones of other guidebooks." - French Entrée

"This is a useful guide to anyone living in or visiting the area of the Lot... We would highly recommend it as a perfect addition to a holiday if you are someone who loves to know in detail about the area they are staying in and a definite worthwhile purchase for those who have settled in the ara and want to explore more deeply." - The Connexion (May 2008)

Readers' comments...

"The text is fascinating and well written. What a major work of research (and love) by Helen Martin! It is a splendid production: good layout, type, maps, overall design and print." - Yvonne & Roger Bristow

Reviews for the first edition...

"Tremendously readable and informative." - Harpers & Queen
"This plea for the Lot, written by a real specialist, will become a classic." - Quercy Recherche
"Enlightening and well researched." - Philip Faiers, Founder of France Magazine

Extract from the book: The Preface...

In the mid-fifties, when I was seven or eight years old, my father had what was for those days quite a novel idea: come the summer holidays, and taking his entire annual leave, he packed my mother, brother and myself into the car, threw a tent into the boot behind us and set off to drive around Europe, thus setting the pattern for years to come - though we dumped the tents pretty quickly.

Our travels were restricted. The Iron Curtain was drawn tight and the Berlin wall still standing, the dictator Salazar was in power in Portugal, Franco still ruled the roost in Spain. Nevertheless, some of those early trips were to Spain, a Spain with still unspoiled and as yet undeveloped costas. And I vividly remember, even as a child, picking up on the quiet political protest of the Catalans as they danced the sardanas in silence. There was only one real route to Spain in those days. You drove through France, picked up the N20 at Châteauroux and followed it to the border.

For about a hundred kilometres of its distance, the N20 runs through the département of the Lot, in southwest France, and it was here, speeding down the road as fast as we were able (for in those days - and to a lesser extent in these - it was a treacherous route of S-bends and steep climbs), that we first made acquaintance with the area. It would tantalise us: a river winding round the cliffs far beneath us here, the turrets of a castle peeping over the horizon there.

As with all nostalgic memories, it was hot, and never more so than when we trailed slowly up the hilly road, caught behind a team of oxen, the heady scent of thyme and fennel pouring through the windows and the wonderful exhilaration, on reaching the top, of being able to see for miles and miles across the countryside. Picnics, when we stopped - juice from the peaches running down our sticky faces - were a child's delight, for the fields were brilliant and alive with butterflies. Grasshoppers, wings as red as Piaf's lips or blue as the sea for which we were heading, flashed from under our feet. Large green lizards lay basking on outcrops of limestone that burst through the sheep-cropped grass like open wounds, or explored the crackling leaves close by.

Our detours and stop-overs became longer and took us further and further away from the road - trips to Padirac, trips to Rocamadour and Pech Merle and even trips to Lascaux, which was still open. In those days the Dordogne, too, was largely undiscovered. Eight years later, when we had driven round the rest of Europe, the seduction was complete and it seemed that wherever we went, either separately or together, we would still need our annual 'fix' of the Lot.

What gradually became apparent was that there were no real guide books to the area, apart from one long out-of-print book and Freda White's very excellent Three Rivers of France, which became our well-thumbed Bible. Ms White's book, though, did have omissions, unsurprising in one covering so wide an area.

Later on, as books on southwest France proliferated, it annoyed and irritated me to see the Lot gradually lose its identity as its many attractions were pulled into books about the Dordogne, as if the two départements were one and the same. For the truth is very different. Where the Dordogne belongs to the Aquitaine grouping of western France, the Lot today belongs to the Midi-Pyrénées, reflecting its Quercy roots which delve firmly south towards Toulouse and the Languedoc. Where the Dordogne and its valley are neat, clean and green, wooded and pretty, the Lot is high, dry, arid and wild, a poor land of high limestone plateaux known as causses, a land of sheep and dovecots.

This loss of identity stemmed partly from the popularity of the Dordogne with the British, with even Michelin pandering at one time to this influx and confusion by calling its English-language Green Guide to the area Dordogne (Périgord-Limousin), unlike its French edition of the time which was called, more correctly, Périgord (Quercy-Limousin). Further confusion arises from the fact that the River Dordogne flows through both the Lot and Dordogne départements.

The Dordogne is a lovely département, rich in tourist sights and with a long historical pedigree, and clearly its proximity to the Lot must mean that there are similarities and a partially shared history. But the treasures of the Lot - the cliff-hanging villages of St-Cirq-Lapopie and Rocamadour (second pilgrim site of France after Mont St-Michel), the romantic fortified bridge of Valentré at Cahors, the magnificent and famous caves of Padirac, the awe-inspiring cave art of Cougnac and Pech Merle - all these have no place in a book or article purporting to be about the Dordogne, département or river.

With no fewer than five of its sites mentioned on the UNESCO World Heritage list - Valentré, of course, but also St-Etienne cathedral in Cahors, Hopital St-Jacques in Figeac, St-Sauveur church at Rocamadour, and the Pech de la Glayre dolmen at Gréalou, sites linked to the old Compostela pilgrimage route that runs across the département - it needs no support from other departments in any case. And I am not alone in being charmed by the area. Among other more famous names who have sought refuge here are Françoise Sagan, Georges Pompidou, Marcel Marceau, Robert Doisneau and André Breton.

My own book is divided into three parts. The first part comprises what I call the introductory chapters, where I cover subjects such as history, architecture and gastronomy in detailed but non-geographical terms.

The second part is arranged geographically and in this section I look at the main towns individually and then at the area that surrounds them. The diversity of these areas is striking and each seems to have something of particular interest. The wild and lonely Gramat causse might almost be called the Templar causse. The undulating white hills of Quercy Blanc hide a series of stunning country churches. The chestnut groves of the Bouriane shelter a collection of church frescoes. The Lot river west of Cahors is château- and vineyard-country. East of Cahors, the river is home to a series of old forts and rich in legend and you will find here, too, the Roman remains of the old aqueduct which serviced Cahors. The apricot-coloured cliffs of the Célé are the home of prehistoric art. The Limargue is the home of the Renaissance. The mountainous Ségala, a centre of resistance during World War II. The Dordogne, a tale of ancient river traffic, and the Martel causse to its north herald the beginning of the Limousin and are famous for their fruit. It's here you'll find the beautiful priory of Carennac. The causse of Limogne is the megalith capital of the Lot and the home of its largest truffle market. Take your pick.

The third part of the book, unchanged virtually from the first edition, serves a different purpose and gives a mere taste and flavour of the interesting areas surrounding the Lot. It does not pretend to be as complete a guide as the rest of the book.

I have arranged it thus for several reasons, but largely because I do not believe that many guide books are read at one sitting. People tend to dip into the bits which interest them, or the area they happen to be visiting. Following this arrangement, those with no interest in, say, prehistoric art, can skip that chapter entirely. Secondly, it helps to avoid repetition. The chapter on churches, for example, talks of the origins of the Romanesque tympanums and doorways which adorn many a church in the area. To repeat the salient points about these each time we come across one is tedious for the reader, yet to mention them only once, in association with, say, Cahors cathedral, would mean that those who never got beyond Souillac would be left in the dark unless they read the entire book. Thirdly, I wanted the book to be fairly comprehensive, with enough background information to allow the reader to depend on it entirely, unless he/she wanted very detailed and specialised knowledge.

Much has changed in the twenty years since I wrote the first edition of this book. The peasantry and the all-embracing life it spawned is all but dead. The Lot now practises intensive agriculture, though the bio (organic) movement is growing, too. Many foreigners - British, Belgian and Dutch for the most part - have moved in and settled here, not all of them as good at integrating as they would wish of immigrants in the country they left behind.

That tired and over-worked sobriquet la France profonde - hijacked by estate agents' blurb to indicate cheap housing areas (and by travel writers, too) - has become harder to find. And, in any case, we maybe romanticise France too much, seeking in its undeniably vast and beautiful landscape some rural fifties' idyll which doesn't really exist as a viable working option for much of its population. It ignores twenty-first-century France, its modern problems and its new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who, it is to be hoped, in his zeal to reform does not inadvertently sweep away the art de vivre we all appreciate so highly. For every film you enjoy, like Le Chorale, be sure to watch something more contemporary by Robert Guédiguian, set in the uncompromising slums of Marseilles, if you want to understand today's France.

And yet, and yet, when I look back over the fifty years I have known the Lot, I still find myself charmed by its beauty, bowled over by the kindness of its people, fascinated by the wealth and diversity of its history, passionate about its patrimoine. When I stand at the point de vue outside Reilhaguet looking at that stupendous view across to the Cantal - the view to end all views, a roof-of-the-world view, a heart-stopping, aching, yearning view - and the exhilaration of it wells up inside, it seems that nothing much has changed after all. The fundamentals are still intact.

I owe this landscape so much. Almost all my interests in life have grown out of my love for and interest in it. It is one of about three places in the world I feel most at home, but it is also the one about which I feel the most defensive.

Lot - terre des merveilles used to be the tourist board's slogan. Then it became une surprise à chaque pas. Now it's on est sous le charme. Well, I have long been under its spell. This book is a plea for the Lot in its own right and, I hope, a not uncritical look at some of those marvels. As for surprises, they blow like tumbleweed down every tiny road.

©Helen Martin