Wednesday, October 26, 2011

La France Profonde: St. Cirq Lapopie

We reluctantly left Le Vieux Logis after a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausages, croissants and coffee, but looked forward to what we would discover in the next area of France -- the Lot. We drove along winding back roads for about an hour until we reached the lovely Dordogne town of Sarlat-la-CanĂ©da for the tail end of its Saturday morning market. As I mentioned previously, Sarlat is a simply gorgeous golden sandstone town from the 14th century and its medieval center has largely managed to remain car-free. While we would love to have stayed in Sarlat to further explore its beautiful architecture and narrow streets, we had to get back on the road for another two hours in order to meet Sophie, the owner of our next home rental by 4pm that afternoon in the town of St. Cirq Lapopie. Although we squeezed past a gargantuan coach bus or two filled with elderly tourists along tight riverside roads carved into rock walls (which prompted Joe to accurately observe that “Europe makes their cars small and their busses huge”), there were minimal signs of life en route as we made our way deeper and deeper into the deserted province. The off-season in the Lot doesn’t mean that things slow down – it means that they shut down completely! We wound through village after village that was completely shuttered – vacant and abandoned until next June when the sun once again warms the limestone cliffs and the tourists scurry to the riverside cafes. In the meantime, all is quiet along the River Lot.

The French department of the Lot, just to the south and east of its more developed and tourist-savvy neighbor the Dordogne, may be about 30 years behind and 100 kilometers away in terms of the exploitation of tourism. Whereas the Dordogne is relaxed and slow in the off-season, the Lot is totally deserted and comes to a virtual halt after mid-September. The Lot River flows through its wide valley but as you might expect, is narrower and quieter than the Dordogne waterway.

We finally arrived in the late afternoon at St. Cirq Lapopie (whose name Joe has had a hard time remembering and has taken to calling Coquille Saint-Jacques), a formerly fortified medieval town perched over the river on a cliff. We are now so far into France that I’m not sure we’ll find our way out! We met our landlord Sophie at the base of the town near the camping grounds on the banks of the river. Visitors must park in designated lots just before the town’s gate where the cobblestone streets rise sharply and wind uphill at vertical angles straight up to the top. We are residents for the week, so we have parking privileges and Sophie was able to guide us and our car up and around the town’s perimeter and then down its impossibly narrow main street into the little passage that will serve as our driveway for the length of our stay. Guidebooks uniformly describe St. Cirq as one of the most beautiful villages in France, and indeed, it is a member of the Les Plus Beaux Villages de France association, whose green and red shield is proudly displayed as you enter town. In the Middle Ages, a variety of crafts such as wood turning, blacksmithing and tanning dominated village activity and in recent years, writers and artists have taken up residence in the summer months. St. Cirq showed the promise of a bit more life than the other deserted Lot towns we’d driven through, with several shops and restaurants open and handfuls of tourists making the steep climb up the main street. We figured that some of the signs of life were due to the fact that it was Saturday, but we hoped that at least some activity would continue for the next seven days.

Sophie showed us around our cozy three-story 16th century home (one small room on each floor) and advised us about what to do and where to eat in the village. Our tall, narrow cottage is just as I’d pictured it, given the photos on the VRBO web site -- an amazing stone and half-timbered house with a sharply pitched tile roof and two little outdoor spaces: a pebble-covered courtyard through which you enter the house and a grassy garden outside the living room. Sophie informed us that the house was over 400 years old and that when first built, the ground floor, now the kitchen, housed the owner’s animals. The second floor, now a sitting room with a wood-burning stove, was where the family lived and slept. The third floor, a sloped-ceiling attic bedroom, was added years later. I was enchanted. Why go anywhere else in the region, I thought, when St. Cirq is pretty and perfect and filled with flowers? The town and our home are dripping with authentic medieval charm so why travel to find even more? Joe quickly brought me back to reality, of course, reminding me that we needed deodorant, starter logs and some food. I can always count on Joe to be the practical one on this team. We would need to leave our postcard perfect abode to make a run the next day to Cahors, capital of the Lot, about a half hour away.

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