SAINT-CIRQ LAPOPIE, France—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.