Nestled in the oxbows of the snaking Lot River, unseen in the shadows of neighboring destinations Bordeaux and Toulouse and far removed, geographically and mentally, from the bustle and crowds of Paris, the Lot Valley is a treasure buried in bucolic southwest France.
Majestic chateaus tower over medieval villages, alternating with vast stretches of grapevines in a countryside toiled by generations of winemakers, even without one of the country’s prestigious Grand Cru designations.
Where to go
The Lot’s population center is the city of Cahors, site of the iconic 14th-century Pont Valentre bridge. But a journey to the Lot is about the rural, not the urban, so it’s best to strike out from Cahors and explore the countryside. There are hundreds of wineries throughout the valley, most of which offer tastings of the local Vin de Cahors, which consists largely of the Malbec grape. (A good site for an overview is www.cahorsmalbec.com.) The region’s history is on display along every winding mountain road, but can be more fully explored at Chateau de Castelnaud (www.castelnaud.com), a restored fortress from the Middle Ages, or Rocamadour (www.rocamadour.com), a dramatic cliffside village with it’s 15th-century church built into the rocks.
A less touristy but still breathtaking site is St.-Cirq-Lapopie (www.saint-cirqlapopie.com), a beautifully preserved town turned artistan community and the former home of surrealist writer Andre Breton.
Where to eat
It’s nearly impossible to have a bad meal anywhere, but the Lot boasts two one-star Michelin restaurants: Le Gindreau (www.legindreau.com), in St. Medard, home of the gregarious and elaborately mustachioed chef Alexis Pelissou and Le Balandre (www.balandre.com), in Cahor’s Hotel Terminus. For a more relaxed atmosphere but a no less exquisite meal, try La Recreation in nearby Les Arques, housed in a former schoolhouse and the subject of “From Here You Can’t See Paris,” one of two invaluable books chronicling the Lot by Michael S. Sanders. The tiny village also houses a museum to post-Cubist artist Ossip Zadkine, who lived and worked there; the local church houses a striking crucifixion and pieta by the artist. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s possible to eat on the very farm where the food (here, many of them are centered around ducks for foie gras) is grown or raised, at Ferme Auberges like Ferme Aux delices de la Serpt, where you can peek in on the live ducks before stocking up on their constituent parts for the journey home.
Where to stay
To live the medieval experience full-time, visitors can stay at the 13th-century Chateau de Mercues (www.chateaudemercues.com), overlooking the Lot. But the valley is also well-stocked with more intimate and charming (and much less expensive) chambres d’hotes, the French equivalent to the bed and breakfast (www.chambresdhotesfrance.com).