Head for the Hills
If good food, great views and spectacular countryside do it for you, put the Quercy region of south west France on your must-see list for this year.
Head past the Limousin and turn left at the Dordogne or the Lot et Garonne et, voila, there’s the Quercy. Easy on the eye, not so kind to the belt buckle, the Quercy was one of the provinces of France until the Département system was introduced in 1790. Now made up of the whole of the Lot and the northern half of the Tarn-et-Garonne départements it offers some of the most beautiful rolling landscapes to be found in France along with a renowned cuisine and some rather good wines. Two or three days in this region will give you the flavour. To really relish all it has to offer a week or more would not be greedy.
In the north of the region is the Parc Causses de Quercy. Like all the natural parcs in France, this is a region where the environment and the local architecture are keenly protected and local features and attractions are developed to preserve and enhance the area.
Starting in the north east of the Lot the grotto at Padirac is simply breathtaking. Descend 75m into the cave in a lift or via stairs then take a boat along an underground river to the start of a series of caves and lakes with stalactites galore. Emerge back into the sunshine and head south west to Rocamadour.
A walk through the village that clings to the cliff face will take you to the foot of massive set of stone stairs. Follow in the footsteps of pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostella as they climb the steps to a medieval chapel containing a famous Black Madonna.
After all those stairs it will be time for a coffee at one of the cafés. Hope to glimpse the massive Andean condor as it glides by on its daily constitutional from the rather amazing bird of prey centre at the top of the cliff. The Rocher des Aigles centre rescues and breeds a wide range of birds of prey and presents a spectacular and informative flying and encounter experience daily.
Further south still is Cahors, the traditional capital of the Quercy region and now the administrative capital of the Lot. Filling the land in a loop of the river Lot, the setting is dramatic with water flowing all around the city. The Pont Valentré which crosses the river in a series of dramatic arches dates back to the early 14th century. In the 19th century fortified towers were added and remain today.
The city itself is divided neatly into the old and the new by the Boulevard Léon Gambetta where you’ll find shops, restaurants and bars alongside the bustling road. Looking for something a bit less full on? East of the main drag is the old town - a maze of ancient little streets and squares with plenty of places for a spot of retail therapy or to stop for a drink or a meal.
Time stands still
East of Cahors and back in the natural park is the medieval treasure of a village, St Cirq Lapopie. Perched on a rocky outcrop 100m above the river Lot it is, as they say, small but perfectly formed and difficult to describe without sounding sycophantic. Winding lanes of beautifully kept medieval timber-framed houses and shops make this a living museum. Go see it – you won’t be disappointed but be prepared to have company along the way. Make it the first or the last stop of the day to give yourself a little more elbow room but make sure your camera has a full battery and an empty memory card or you’ll be kicking yourself.
Not far from St Cirq Lapopie is the Grotte de Pech Merle where you’ll find cave after cave of prehistoric paintings dating back up to 25 000 years. The walls are decorated with pictures of bison, women, bears and mammoths and footprints of an adolescent boy are preserved in the floor and predate the last ice age. In 2014 the caves will be open every day from April 6th to November 11th. Outside this season the caves open for a few days per month.
On the road
A tour around the Quercy is one of those times where the travelling is as much a part of the experience as the arriving. Heading south west into the Tarn et Garonne will take you through long valleys, the hillsides dotted with farms and chateaux and rich with fruit trees, vines and woodlands. A couple of hours’ drive will bring you the tiny village of Montcuq. Blink and you’ll miss it but it pays to stay alert as it would be a shame to forego a leisurely lunch at the Café de France followed by a walk around the village (where you might catch the local boules teams in action) and a stroll up to the 12th century tower for a panoramic view over the countryside.
Just down the road is the popular village of Montaigu de Quercy with its much-photographed main street climbing up to the church, lined with houses with prettily painted shutters and doors.
Both Montcuq and Montaigu de Quercy are small but vibrant villages with grocery stores, restaurants and other day-to-day amenities making them attractive to those looking for a holiday destination, a second home or a permanent move to France. The fact that this is a popular area with holiday makers offers many benefits to those wishing to buy here. There is an abundance of activities locally which will keep family and friends visiting for years to come and will also attract trade for those wishing to let out a second home or run a B 'n' B or gite business.
The Quercy also has a micro-climate. Yes, the winters can be cold, but it tends to be a dry cold, so outdoor activities continue year-round (great news for walkers, cyclists and riders alike). Summers are long and hot making it the ideal environment for the locally produced fruit and vegetables. And it’s not too bad for those of us who just want to loll by the pool with a glass of something cool!
A taste of the Quercy
There are some fine local ingredients on offer in this region and that, naturally, leads to some choice local dishes that just beg to be sampled.
Ingredients to buy to bring home:
- Prunes (pruneaux)
- Walnuts (noix)
- Dried smoked duck breast (magret de canard seché, fume)
- Farm-produced artisan foie gras
Enjoy while you are there:
- Salade Quercynoise – a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, foie gras, dried smoked duck breast, and gesiers)
- Boeuf Quercynoic (beef and bean casserole)
- Omelette aux truffes (omelette speckled with truffle)
- Pigeons farci (stuffed pigeons)
- Try the dark red wines of Cahors and those of the Coteaux de Quercy