Rocamadour in the Lot Department of southwest France (region: Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées) is an absolute gem, a medieval city that feels as though it is between heaven and earth. The views of it and from it will leave you breathless as will the chest-thumping climb to the top but it’s so worth it when you reach the top and the point where Kings have stood in the past…
In many ways, the whole point of the Lot is the Gramat cause. As you walk across the limestone plateau, close cropped by its special sheep with black-rimmed eyes, grasshoppers, wings flashing crimson red and sky blue, dance before you. In spring the limestone supports a myriad of different orchids. Hawks cruise idly by above you on invisible thermals. The views stretch for ever stopped only by the far distant snow capped peaks of the Auvergne. In places you can see the Pyrenees.
And some would say that the jewel of the Gramat cause is the cliff hanging pilgrimage site of Rocamadour. The strenuous among you can climb the 216 steps to the enigmatic Black Virgin at the top, the pious can (and still do) go on their knees and the rest can take the lift. Kings and saints have knelt before her stiff wooden gaze, including Henry II, for Rocamadour was one of the major pilgrimages on the Compostela trail and in days gone by the hoardes of people who gathered there on foot, with lanterns strewn across the fearsome gorge and up the worn steps, resembled something like a modern day Haaj. The soft sound of their singing would echo round the causse. Poulenc, when he visited, received a ‘stab of grace to the heart’ rediscovered his faith and his ability to write music.
The Gramat cause descends towards the Dordogne river and falls abruptly into it. This river is a tale of gabarres, the name given to the traditional boats of the area, carrying the juniper berries of the causse to Holland for gin making. Turn right and you come to the mountainous Ségala and the Auvergne. Turn left and the priory town of Carennac deserves a stop to see the miniature Toulouse tympanum on the west door and the moving Entombment inside. It was here on the island in the river he named Calypso, that the Quietist philosopher- priest François de Salignac, better known as Fénélon wrote his famous Telemacchus, an allegorical tale of statesmanship.
Close by is Figeac, is one of the best preserved towns of a department full of well preserved towns in the region of the Lot, southwest France. Lying on the easterly edge of the department and nearly Auvergnat, was Champollion’s town, the man who deciphered the Rosetta stone. Charles Boyer, the actor who found fame in Hollywood, was born here and for Louis Malle fans, Figeac is the town in which much of Lacombe Lucien was filmed, for Malle himself had a house nearby on the dolmen strewn causse of Limogne.
Climb up northwards from Figeac to the Renaissance enclave of the Limargue with its chateaux of Aynac, Assier and not too far away the Loireish beauty of Montal, which during the last war sheltered the Mona Lisa from Nazi looting.
Follow the river downstream to the market town of Souillac and its wonderful abbey church and lively market. The dancing Isaiah of the abbey doorway has been turned inside to protect the sculpture and from here it’s a short step to the mediaeval town of Gourdon, capital of the Bouriane, a gentler landscape of logs and sweet chestnut woods, sheltering a mini collection of frescoed churches. The devils at La Masse, dancing gleefully across the tumbling down walls is the one to see.
More on the Lot
Helen Martin is the author of Lot: Travels through a limestone landscape in SW France (Moho books)