If French rivers were royalty, I suppose the Seine would be king, exerting its Parisian will over courtiers like the dashing Loire (storybook castles, medieval towns, rolling green fields) and the Dordogne (more castles, more towns, more green).
But if you look beyond the royal court to the serf turf in France's southwest corner, you find the wriggling, surging Lot.
It's too far south (five hours by train) to be an easy day trip from Paris, too far north to be Basque country and too far west to front the Mediterranean seaside. Yet if the weather smiles on you, as it usually does in summer, the Lot and its neighbor, the Célé, might make you forget all about the king and his court.
The Lot and the Célé (pronounced "low" and "sell-AY") lie about 350 miles south of Paris. They're tributaries of the Garonne River farther west. The Lot, the wider and more navigable of the two, runs about 300 miles; the Célé, 63.
On their banks you will find bike-friendly back roads and medieval castles and towns, including one town, Saint-Cirq Lapopie, that stands on a picture-perfect bluff-top perch, and another, Figeac, that echoes improbably with Egyptian history. You roll across miles of vineyards and meadows, and to confound you just when you think you have the landscape figured out, a startling series of rocky bluffs and ridges leaps up to conceal some of the oldest and most accessible cave paintings on the planet.
This list makes the place sound exhausting. It's really not, unless you're pedaling up one of those sudden hills, and it's certainly not crowded. U.S. government surveys show that of the 2.7 million Americans who visit France yearly, only one in 12 ventures into the southwestern region that includes the Lot. It's mostly rural and affordable, and full of good food and wine. Even though I was aiming fairly high on the comfort scale during my four-day visit in early April, I never spent more than $67, tax included, for a night's lodging.
Of course, no place can stay a secret forever. In 1994, the Toronto-based upscale walking and biking tour company Butterfield & Robinson added the Lot Valley to its tour list. In 1998, B&R's Berkeley-based competitor, Backroads, did the same. Tourism officials in France note that increasing numbers of Britons, having already colonized the Dordogne region, have been buying vacation homes here.
But the Lot is more than a place to pedal, and judging from the relatively few English speakers I found, it's in no immediate danger of Anglophone overload. In fact, many of its best hotels and some restaurants are closed from November until April, as are most of the numerous bicycle, canoe and kayak rental operations. After Easter, the weather and the tourist business heat up considerably.
During my look around in early spring, I could see the region waking to the season like a bear shaking off winter. A very lucky bear, who, if inclined to follow regional custom, dines regularly on duck confit, lamb, foie gras, walnuts and truffles, then washes it all down with robust red wines.
My ramblings in the territory started and ended in Cahors because it's a direct train connection to Paris. The city, surrounded on three sides by the looping Lot, emerged in the 13th century as a banking center. Popes and European kings borrowed from lenders here and throughout the region.
Boulevard Gambetta, the main street in Cahors, has no more banks than you'd expect in any regional commercial center. The principal hints of the city's long-ago salad days are the narrow streets of the medieval quarter and the monumental span of the Valentre Bridge, a behemoth built in 1308. I walked across it on a sunny morning, with the Lot rushing below and the bridge's three stone towers rising 120 feet overhead.
But I didn't linger long in Cahors because I knew that more was waiting just a few miles outside of town.
On a plateau just four miles northwest of the city stands Mercuès, site of the four-turreted, 15th century Château Mercuès (rehabbed into a fancy hotel), which commands a lordly view of the Lot and the rolling land around it.
The best wine country in the area unfurls alongside highway D8 west of Cahors on the way to the town of Luzech, and a winegrowers' cooperative tasting room looms along the road just short of Luzech at Parnac.
Those gnarled rows in the vineyards may look as though they've been yielding grapes for centuries, but phylloxera devastated wine production here in the 1860s, and winegrowers didn't get back into business until after World War II.
It's about 70 miles from Cahors to Figeac going east on highways D653 and D662, but with healthy amounts of hiking, biking, kayaking and village-savoring, you easily could fill a summer week. From Figeac you can double back toward Cahors by way of highway D41 through the green, riverine Célé Valley.
As you bear east from Cahors, one of the first towns you encounter, and what must be one of the prettiest towns in all of France, is Saint-Cirq Lapopie. Whether you enter by way of its smaller, less scenic neighbor, Bouziès, or directly from the D662, you reach Saint-Cirq only by dashing across a bridge over the Lot that's just wide enough for one car, then ascending a rock-studded slope that is topped, 100 yards above another bend in the Lot, by a crumbling medieval wall and the tower of a 15th century church.
The town rambles down a slope, its alleys narrow enough to force most cars into parking on the outskirts. It has fewer than 200 residents, but the place seems to draw just enough tourism to stay high-toned. I had the best meal of my trip (a pastry filled with Roquefort, shank of local lamb, a dessert of pumpkin cake with orange bits) at the Auberge du Sombral, an inn near the top of town. And for two nights I slept at the downhill end in one of the most pleasing $67 hotel rooms I've ever had.
The Hôtel de la Pélissaria, with 10 rooms in a 13th century building and a small 20th century pool in back, looks down upon a broad vista of manicured fields, farmhouses, bends in the river, an old mill -- all the necessary elements for pastoral paradise.
From the bed in my thick-walled, high-ceilinged room (No. 4), I could look out a picture window and see the tower of the bluff-top church silhouetted against the inky sky.
The town's most famous resident in the last century was poet André Breton, the surrealist who argued that we should give up our old-fashioned ideas of beauty. Yet when it came to this place, the old ideas seemed to work just fine for him. In 1951 Breton wrote that the town, at first sight, appeared to him "like an impossible rose in the night."
On my last morning there, I headed downhill to an old towpath that leads to Bouziès, about three miles west. In the old days, the towpath was for dragging boats and barges upstream. About 700 yards of the route is half tunnel, carved 160 years ago into the face of the rock wall that serves as pedestal for Saint-Cirq.
As you near Bouziès on that path, the river spreads out on the right, and on the left you find that a sculptor has chiseled out an abstract series of shapes and textures on the canyon wall. You can trail your hands across the strange textures while you watch the river wind. The shapes and textures seem primordial, but in fact, it was only 1989 when an artist thought to do it.
Just across the river from Saint-Cirq Lapopie and a few miles up the road is Cabrerets, a town at the foot of still more cliffs. But the real wonder in this neighborhood, concealed just up the hill from Cabrerets (less than a mile by the footpath), is the Pech-Merle cave.
It was there in 1922 that two schoolboys, having been introduced to the place by the town priest, found a subterranean path to some of the oldest cave paintings in the world.
Unlike the best-known French cave art site, Lascaux, where visitors view a replica (the original is closed to the public), Pech-Merle still admits visitors, charging about $6 per adult but limiting attendance to 700 per day. (Reservations are a good idea in summer. The cave is open this year until Nov. 4. For information, telephone 011-33-5-6531-2705.)
The cave was formed about 62 million years ago. The paintings, in black and red pigments, depict horses with dappled flanks, bison, mammoths and the outlined hands of the artists, stencils that look as though they could have been executed last week, or perhaps in 1989 by the guy who chiseled the towpath. But science says otherwise. The red images are thought to be 25,000 years old; the black, 20,000.
My tour lasted 90 minutes, the French-speaking guide tracing over ancient markings with a beam of red light from a modern pointer. (English-speakers get a printed summary of highlights.) The tour covers more than a half mile underground, the temperature constant at 55 degrees, the way illuminated by electric lights.
For counterpoint to the awe and scope of the caves, go a mile or two up the road along the Célé and keep an eye out for dangling mannequins on your left. That would be the Musée de l'Insolite (museum of the unusual or strange), a quirky tourist attraction built into the base of the cliffs by Bertrand Chenu, a former winery worker who took over the property about 12 years ago.
"I transform things," Chenu explained to me. "Often I find them in the rubbish."
The place is full of oddball artworks, many of which rely on French wordplay, but they're not for sale. Chenu makes his money by selling booklets, postcards and videos. (He forbids photography of his very photogenic place but becomes more flexible once you've made a purchase.) After looking at a 25,000-year-old stick figure, it's a pleasant jolt to appraise the flattened body of a 20th century automobile dangling from stakes like a skinless chicken breast awaiting the chef.
Figeac (population 11,000) stands beside the Célé River and ranks second to Cahors in the area's pecking order of commercial centers. Dating to the 8th century, it features hundreds of sandstone buildings in its medieval district and gets rave reviews from many. But my day in Figeac was rain-soaked, which kept me from getting the full effect of the place.
I can, however, tell you a thing or two about the Rosetta Stone. In 1799, an Egyptian expedition under Napoleon found a large black basalt tablet bearing mysterious ancient markings in a place called Rashid, which was translated as "Rosetta" in English. Shortly thereafter, the British made a move on Egypt, and the Rosetta Stone ended up in the British Museum. But the man who broke the hieroglyphic code of the stone in the early 1820s (working from a copy) was a self-styled linguistic scholar born in, yes, Figeac. His name was Jean-François Champollion, he died at 42, and here he is celebrated far more thoroughly than Figeac's runner-up favorite son, actor Charles Boyer.
Hence, when you wander the main square of downtown Figeac, you see a bar called Le Sphinx. Hence the obelisks here and there. Hence, when you round the corner by the Champollion Museum, there's a courtyard whose floor is dominated by an oversized rendering of the Rosetta Stone, done in 1991 by American artist Joseph Kosuth. It looked especially striking when I saw it, because all the chiseled hieroglyphics were filled with rainwater.
My easternmost stop was Conques, which goes unmentioned in much tourist literature about Cahors, Figeac and environs because it's just across the French equivalent of a state line. But it's an easy day trip from Cahors or Figeac.
Set atop a steep hill above the Dordou River (and about five miles south of the Lot), Conques is dominated by a massive abbey of stone built mostly in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is named for St. Foy, a 3rd century French girl (she lived in Agen, west of Cahors), who was martyred after refusing to make sacrifices to pagan gods. The abbey and museum next door include a priceless collection of altarpieces, relics, crosses and other 800-year-old church items, but the main attraction for me was the tympanum.
A spectacularly detailed bas-relief above the main church entrance, the tympanum covers no more than about 200 square feet yet depicts a Judgment Day complete with 124 characters, from Christ handing down orders to a hellish beast gobbling the damned to St. Foy herself, kneeling before the oversized hand of an otherwise unseen God.
Like many of the highlights I found along the Lot, I'd never heard of this -- and I won't forget it anytime soon.
GUIDEBOOK: PARKING YOURSELF IN THE LOT
You also can take a train from the Paris Austerlitz station to Cahors. There are several departures daily for the five-hour trip; one-way fares begin at $43. Several rental car outlets have offices at the train station in Cahors.
A seasonal tourist train, Quercyrail, runs varying itineraries between Cahors and Cajarc, usually running alongside the Lot River. For more information, call or fax 011-33-5-65-23-94-72 or 011-33-5-63-40-11-93.
WHERE TO STAY
Rates quoted are per night, per room, for two people. When making plans, remember that many lodgings in the Lot Valley close from November to early April. In Saint-Cirq Lapopie, Hôtel de la Pélissaria, tel. 011-33-5-6531-2514, fax 011-33-5-6530-2552, Internet www.quercy.net/com/pelissaria, is a historic building at the foot of a gorgeous bluff-hugging town. Tremendous value, and the owners, the Matuchets, speak a bit of English. Ten rooms, pool. Breakfast available for about $7 per person, but no restaurant. Rates: $54-$95.
In Cahors, Hôtel Terminus, 5 Avenue Charles de Freycinet; tel. 011-33-5-65-53-32-00, fax 011-33-5-6553-3226, is a family business with 22 rooms in a 1905 building. Also has one of the city's most upscale restaurants, La Balandre, which was closed for renovation during my visit. Open year-round. Room rates: $43 to $108.
Multiple sources also praised these hotels, which were seasonally closed during my visit: in Figeac, the 21-room Château du Viguier du Roy; in Mercuès, just outside Cahors, the 30-room Château de Mercuès; in Conques, the 17-room Grand Hôtel Sainte Foy. (More information on each is available through the region's tourism office Web site, www.quercy.net/english.)
Where to eat: In Saint-Cirq Lapopie, the Auberge du Sombral's restaurant Les Bonnes Choses, on Place du Sombral (local tel. 6531-2608, fax 6530-2637), served the best meal I had in the area. Main dishes/dinners about $8 to $25. There are six tidy, spartan rooms for rent upstairs for $40 to $61.
Also in Saint-Cirq Lapopie, the newcomer Le Gourmet Quercynois, Rue de la Peyrolerie, tel. 6531-2120, offers dinners up to $19.
In Cahors: Le Lamparo, 76 Rue Georges Clemenceau, tel. 6535-2593, is popular with locals and better for families than couples seeking romantic atmosphere. Dinners up to $16.
The French Government Tourist Office, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 715, Beverly Hills, CA 90212-2967; tel. (310) 271-6665 or (410) 286-8310 (France-on-Call hotline), fax (310) 276-2835, www.francetourism.com.