It was the sea, lapping on the shores of the Massif Central, grinding up the shells and sea creatures that gave rise to the Lot; gave rise, too, to the thing that most distinguishes it from the Dordogne, a department with which it is commonly confused, the limestone causses.
These high limestone plateaux with views that stretch to infinity, begin here and delve south into the Languedoc, supporting a flora and fauna all their own above ground, and, beneath it, forming fantastical caverns and caves, some of them decorated by prehistoric man.
The original Lascaux may be closed but if you want to see the real McCoy travel a hundred or so kilometres south and let your eyes feast on the plump and prancing horses of Pech Merle, spotted circus horses straight out of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Equestrienne. Numbers may be limited but this cave is authentic, one of the few with stunning paintings still open to the public. Go now, you never know how long this will remain the case. You won’t easily forget them.
The department of course only came into existence in 1790. Before that this was known as Quercy, part of the old province of Guyenne. Haut Quercy, centred round its Roman capital of Cahors and comprising most of the Lot. Bas Quercy round Montauban, in today’s Tarn et Garonne. Quercy’s roots along with its causses, stretched deep into the Languedoc
South of Cahors lies the white hot Quercy Blanc, so called because of the purity of its limestone. Dotted about the pretty villages you’ll find an exquisite series of small country churches. Eglises champetres, many of them Romanesque, they are set amid the white scorched earth, often with vineyards crowding up to their doors. The main town of Quercy Blanc is Moncuq. Pronounce the ‘q’ if you don’t want people falling about and making vulgar jokes about bums.
The honey-stoned villages are charming examples of vernacular architecture, the ubiquitous pigeonniers abound, originally built to preserve the precious pigeon manure to fertilise a land that could not support much agriculture because of the poverty of its soil. You will find ancient villages, wayside crosses and standing stones, old oxen shoeing stations called travails, lavoirs where the women used to wash their clothes, and the remnants of the peasant culture that endured here until well into the 1960’s and which shaped the whole département.
The Lot is independent, warm and welcoming. Great for walkers, kayakers, historians, prehistorians, botanists, birders, potholers, horseriders, artists, fishermen, foodies and simple flaneurs. And quite, quite beautiful.
Helen Martin is the author of Lot:Travels through a limestone landscape in SW France (Moho books)