Walks in Lot
Many British visitors to France will be familiar with the Dordogne department but travel a few kilometres east and you will discover in its neighbouring department of the Lot, a countryside that has retained a charm and warmth that in these days of mass tourism can be hard to find.
Based on the northern part of the old royal province of the Quercy – le Haut Quercy – the Lot is divided into three main areas. The Causse which dominates and gives the landscape its distinctive character and around this rocky region, the green hills and valleys of the Quercy Blanc to the west and the Ségala to the northeast. This wonderful variety of landscapes makes the Lot an exciting and rewarding area for a walking holiday. There is always a feeling of space and the wonderful light accentuates the beauty of the countryside.
Most striking to the visitor are the cliff-lined river valleys including the river Lot, the upper reaches of the Dordogne and the Célé. Over many millions of years they have carved their way through the limestone plateau of the Causse to form mini Grand Canyons. Geography and geology apart, the distinctive feel of the department comes from an almost total absence of industry and a very low population of just 160,000. With a wonderful architectural heritage, no industrial revolution and not a town planner in sight the area is well known as 'La France profonde'.
Dozens of typical villages are scattered across the countryside, many of which are built in the soft attractive limestone. Nationally famous sites such as Rocamadour and the caves at Padirac sit alongside a number of villages that have been designated 'Les Plus Beaux Villages de France' because of their architecture and ambience. It has been remarked that the villages are reminiscent of the Cotswolds in Britain.
With an enormous network of well marked footpaths you can find a different walk every day, or follow a number of GR routes that make up part of the pilgrim way to Compostela. Many routes are suitable for people with just a reasonable standard of fitness. Much of the walking follows ridges or plateaux with any steep ascents or descents being fairly short if occasionally challenging. You will also find that the quick draining soil means that for most of the year there is no mud and paths often follow old stone tracks used many years ago by the farmers. Where routes do include road walking, the sheer lack of any traffic make this a safe and pleasant change with an opportunity to see some of the lovely old houses and farms.
The Parc Naturel Régional des Causses du Quercy was created in 1999 to protect a unique landscape of 175,000 hectares that fell into disuse when the local farmers could no longer compete with the mass agriculture of other parts of France. The surviving countryside is a patchwork of small dry-stone walled enclosures and paths with large areas of oak woods providing much appreciated shade in the summer. Here you will experience carpets of orchids, the wonderful scent of herbs and delicious wild strawberries. From early spring right through to November you can see a fabulous variety of butterflies including swallowtails and clouds of silver-washed fritillary. Overhead the red kites, buzzards and short-toed eagles soar on the thermals and the hidden in the dense undergrowth, dozens of nightingales sing loudly to announce their arrival.
Moving across the valley to the Ségala, the countryside opens up and becomes steeper climbing to above 700m, with delightful wooded valleys hiding crystal clear rivers. On the farthest western edge of the Massif Central, here you will find breath-taking panoramas including views of the often snow-capped mountains of the Auvergne. Being a sparsely populated area the Ségala maintains a broad diversity of wildlife including pine marten, red squirrel and the occasional wild boar. In the autumn, the locals can be spotted in the woods and fields collecting the wild fungi including the cepe often referred to as the “champagne of mushrooms”.
Lower down, the hillsides of the broader valleys are dotted with groves of walnut trees, a vital ingredient to many of the recipes of this region and vineyards producing anything from rich full-bodied reds such as Cahors to more subtle rosé wines like Glanes. The locally grown figs and melons are superb and put to shame the pale imitations sold in the supermarkets. From a culinary point of view, the Lotoise favour quite rich food with locally reared duck, beef and veal featuring heavily on the menus.
There are two main towns. The administrative centre of Cahors still retains a relaxed atmosphere with many delightful buildings and the Pont Valentré, one of the finest examples of medieval military architecture in France. To the east is Figeac with its compact and extremely interesting medieval centre. It is also the birthplace of Jean-Francois Champollion famous for deciphering the Rosetta stone and has a fascinating traditional market every Saturday.
The Lot is becoming a very popular area for walkers as it offers such a variety of landscapes. Many of the large walking holiday companies now include at least one itinerary and the local tourist offices are very proud to help you explore their local countryside.
As keen walkers ourselves we chose to set up our B&B in the Lot and using our own experiences we have assembled a collection of walks that encompass some of the best of what the Lot can offer. We are also very conscious of those walkers who do not necessarily share the French enthusiasm for meat and provide the option of imaginative vegetarian meals. You can see more information at www.jardin-segala.com.