TOs May heats up, a daydreamy stillness falls over the Lot, the next big valley south of the Dordogne. Orchids fill the meadows, lipstick-red poppies line the roads and it’s finally warm enough to sit out under the stars to be serenaded by owls, nightingales and frogs. Even the river is in no great hurry to get anywhere, curling lazily around the vineyards and woodlands.
This year, however, the buzz in the valley isn’t just down to the bumblebees. Last weekend, we joined the crowds at the grand reopening of Cahors’ museum – after a six-year, £ 6 million renovation, it will now house dozens of newly acquired paintings, and two exceptionally large ones by Henri Martin.
Henri who? The Lotois are always shocked to hear that their beloved artist isn’t a household name in the UK. A native of Toulouse, Martin (1860-1943) was so obsessed with light that he developed a unique dabby brushstroke to capture the shimmer of a moment. Unclassifiable (post-impressionist, pointillist and symbolist are the labels that labor to contain him), he was extremely popular in his day – his luminous, iridescent murals adorn the Hôtel de Ville, the Sorbonne and the Conseil d’État in Paris, and the capitol of Toulouse, among others. Most portray the tiny village of Labastide-du-Vert west of Cahors, where in 1900 he purchased the 64-acre Domaine de Marquayrol and spent each summer.
The Church of Labastide by Henri Martin
Just as Monet created, painted and repainted his gardens in Giverny, so Henri Martin created Marquayrol’s gardens, painting and repainting their pergolas and ponds along with the landscapes of Labastide. For decades he was a fixture in the village, planting his easel by its stream, bridge, church and poplar-lined meadows at different times of day to capture the changing light.
What makes visiting the Lot valley such a delight today is that nearly everything Martin painted still looks pretty much the same. The transparent light he loved (the Lot claims the cleanest air in France), the sun-soaked limestone farms and villages. According to the census, even the population is almost the same (in number if not picturesque dress) as it was a century ago.
We were staying not far from Labastide in Puy-l’Evêque. Most people choose a holiday home or camp, but if you want to explore in the style of the princely bishops who once ruled the valley, it has to be the 13th-century Château de Mercuès, high on a spur just outside Cahors.
Pont Valentré, Cahors
Cahors is the place to start. Before hitting the museum, we wandered through medieval lanes that look more Italian than French, thanks to the sharp Lombard bankers who moved in when a native Cahors son was elected Pope John XXII in 1316. The lanes were built around the mighty double-domed Romanesque -gothic cathedral with two crazy dancing angels on the side portal. As it has for the past 700 years, the Saturday morning market filled the square below; we might as well have been floating in jam, the perfume from the strawberries was so intoxicating. We strolled over one of France’s most beautiful bridges, the Pont Valentré, built between 1308 and 1378 with three massive towers and, according to legend, a little help from the devil.
East of Cahors, buzzards floated high over the limestone cliffs. The Lot’s other five-star attractions are here: the 29,000-year-old spotted horses, mammoths, aurochs and bison at the Grotte du Pech Merle and the outrageously picturesque clifftop village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie. Henri Martin painted here, too, and bought a 12th-century house that was later purchased by surrealist André Breton; today it’s a cultural center dedicated to surrealism. Saint-Cirq can be elbow-room-only in summer but was charming in May; from nearby Bouziès, we walked right under it on a path carved out of the rock for mules hauling riverboats upstream.
West of Cahors, the Lot coils like a spring (it takes the river 293 miles as the fish swim to cover 168 miles as the crow flies) through hills that gave birth to malbec grapes and vin de Cahors, the “black wine” that Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine drank at their wedding and which goes so well with local Quercy lamb, duck breast and confit, goat’s cheese, wild mushrooms and truffles. Duck is so common here that the top restaurants pride themselves on not serving it – so look for those magrets and confits at the ferme-auberges where the poultry is raised a bit further afield. In the Lot, the Château de Mercuès does exceptional food, as does Les Jardins amid the vines in Parnac (restaurant-lesjardins.fr).
We followed the quiet D8 skirting the south bank of the Lot where one pastoral landscape follows another and the 21st century seems far away. If you aren’t lazy like us you can hire a bike, to pedal along and go wine-tasting in a string of châteaux, all well signposted in and around the golden villages that once sent barrels of the stuff down to Bordeaux and beyond (Velo du Lot will deliver one to any hotel or house in the region; velodulot.com).
If it’s hot, idyllic river beaches with kayaks and guinguettes wait at Douelle and Caïx, the latter next to Queen Margrethe II of Denmark‘s wine château, which you can visit (an exhibition of Margrethe’s art is scheduled for July and August at the Musée Henri Martin). Pretty Albas sits high over the river (its Château Eugénie is a great one to visit near the river); at Luzech, where the Lot almost loops full circle, we went to the Planète des Moulins museum, filled with miniature working models of every type of mill ever invented – it left us in awe of human ingenuity.
GORDONBELLPHOTOGRAPHY / GETTY IMAGES
Next downriver is Castelfranc, with another beach and, high up on the wooded ridge, a circuit des dolmens, with three dolmens and a cluster of huge partly standing stones aptly called Chaos. Then comes medieval Puy-l’Evêque, with its lofty towers and hanging gardens mirrored in the Lot. We admired the reflections while slurping down moules frites and confit at Le Pigeonnier.
Labastide-du-Vert itself is just three miles from Castelfranc. Away from the main road, we walked towards the bridge and – hey presto! – we were in an Henri Martin painting. In October 2021 an opera singer, the delightfully named Jean-Jacques Lala, purchased the Domaine de Marquayrol to restore it as a cultural and performance center for young opera singers. No one had lived there for years; like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, Marquayrol’s gardens were thick with brambles. Now they’ve all been cleared away by a band of volunteer gardeners, with the aim of replanting them just as they were in Martin’s time. Monsieur Lala, who kindly showed us around, said they would be open to the public a couple of days each month this summer. And it was buzzing. The bumblebees were back.
Dana Facaros traveled independently. Her book di lei with Michael Pauls, the Bradt Guide to the Dordogne and Lot, is published on July 11. Château de Mercuès has room-only doubles from £ 238 (chateaudemercues.com). Coté Lot in Puy l’Evêque has rooms with views over the Lot (room-only doubles from £ 58; cotelot.fr). cahorsvalleedulot.com