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Historic gateway to the South of France

Pont Valentre

Pont Valentre

History
Cahors is strategically situated in a loop of the curvaceous river Lot, surrounded by hills. To the north the roads lead straight to Paris, to the south straight to Toulouse and on to the passes of the Pyrenees and the bustling ports of the Mediterranean. To the west, following the line of the river, lies the great wine producing city and port of Bordeaux. To the east, the wild and beautiful Causses and the foothills of the Massif Central.

It was in this advantageous spot that the ancient tribe of the Cadurci decided to settle in about 800BC. Many scholars maintain that it was from these first settlers that Cahors and the Quercy take their names. Others argue that Quercy comes from the Latin Quercus, meaning oak, a reference to the oak forests that romp across the landscape. Either way, both Cahors and the Quercy itself are ancient settlements.

Cahors Wine

Cahors Wine

The Romans, predictably, marched their legions over the land more than two thousand years ago, and it was they who planted the first vineyards in the first century AD (Cahors – The Black Wine ). They also built the first ramparts and renamed the city, Divona Cadurcorum, after the ancient spring ‘Fons Divona’. It’s now called the Fontaine des Chartreux and even in these modern times, it still provides the city’s water supply. You can still see some of the Roman remains, and the site of the old Roman bridge, just to the east of the Pont Louis-Philippe.

The heyday for this glorious old town came in the fourteenth century, when a local boy, Jacques Dueze, became Pope John XXII, and set up his seat at the papal palace in Avignon. It was he who encouraged the great flowering of trade, the Lombard bankers and the merchants. The Caorsins. It was also under this Pope’s powerful influence that architecture flourished. The great trading houses, the university and of course the city’s signature building, the wonderful Pont de Valentré, were all built at this time.

Gambetta

Gambetta

During the nineteenth century Cahors had yet another surge of energy. The old fortified ditch that originally ran down the centre of the ‘loop’ was filled in to allow the creation of the leafy, tree-lined street that now forms the main boulevard of the town. It was named after another local boy made good, born here on 2nd April 1838 and now towering over the central place, cast in bronze. Leon Gambetta.

Café Life
One of the truly great pleasures of southern France is sitting outside a bustling café basking in the sun whilst you sip your Perrier or café crème. Cahors is the perfect place to do it. Along the beautiful, plane tree lined Boulevard de Gambetta; you’ll find numerous little cafes. My favourite is in the place, where I can sit with the sun warm on my back watching the rainbows dance in the huge fountain, my market basket bursting at the seams and a waiter in short shirt-sleeves performing miraculous balancing acts with his small tin tray. There are dozens of little cafes to choose from, all have good food and good wine and none will ever hurry you out of your chair if you feel inclined to linger and soak up the atmosphere.

Pont Valentre

Pont Valentre

The Sights of the City
After you’ve assuaged your thirst, you’ll be ready for a little sight-seeing, and this is a charming place to wander and absorb the history and culture:

Pont de Valentré
This medieval masterpiece is the city’s hallmark and said to be the most photographed sight in France, outside Paris. In the Middle Ages it was a well-worn part of the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela and is still used for the purpose even today. A splendid example of fourteenth century architecture, built with the aid of the devil… or so they say. It took a long time to constuct the bridge and the architect began to get a bit impatient, he even feared he might never live to see it finished. So what is a frustrated medieval architect to do? Enlist the assistance of the devil of course. The devil promised to help, in exchange, naturally, for the architect’s soul. However as the project neared completion the architect began to have second thoughts – not too surprisingly – and tried to back out of his obligations. The devil therefore took his revenge by sitting on the central tower, and as the masons laid the last stone on the final day, the devil removed it at night. It happened over and over again. The devil is still there today, carved in stone and clinging to the tower, so if you cross the bridge, take care!

City Gates and Ramparts
You will find these at the north end of the Boulevard de Gambetta, and if you’re careful with the traffic – and the railway – can just about follow the remains round to the river on the western side, just downstream from the Pont de Valentre.

Cathedral Rachel Rocherieux

St Etienne Cathedral, Cahors

The Cathedral of Saint Etienne and The Market Place
Considered a glorious renaissance achievement, this double-domed cathedral is well worth a visit. It was begun in the twelfth century and dominates the ancient quarters of the town. I suggest you combine it with a visit to the market, held in the place in front of the cathedral every Saturday and Wednesday. It is one of the liveliest, most colourful markets in France. During the summer months you’ll find stalls laden with golden peaches, oversized peppers, lettuces, herbs, flowers, garlic and every kind of cheese known to man. Try the local Rocamadour goat’s cheese, or the unctuous Bleu des Causses. You will also find a good few bottles of Cahors wine and can even buy it loose, by the litre, in the covered Halles at the southern end of the market. During the winter months things are a little quieter. Stalls sprout cepes and truffles, bitter greens and the ubiquitous walnut, in every possible stage of preparation. Try the dried sausages, the vast pates and of course, the local ducks and geese.

Market

Market

Mont Saint Cyr
If you walk south down the Boulevard de Gambetta you will arrive back at the river and the Pont Louis-Philippe. Glance up as you cross the bridge and you will see the great looming cliffs of Mont Saint Cyr. You may, or may not, be feeling up to this, but there is a fantastic view of the city from the summit. An early evening excursion perhaps, just a little exercise to give you a healthy appetite for dinner in one of Cahors dozens of delicious restaurants.

The Dueze Palace and the Medieval Streets
Near the Place Lafayette lies the palace of our local Pope, with its thirty-four metre high tower. Cahors is not a large city by any stretch of the imagination, and you can easily walk around the medieval streets on the western side of the Boulevard in an hour or two. Try the Rue de la Chanterie – and take a look at the Musee de Vin. Stroll down the Rue de la Daurade and Rue de Saint Urcisse – collapse outside one of the cafes if it gets too hot – then take a look at the remains of the Roman baths on the Avenue Freycinet. If you end up in the Rue de Saint Urcisse, take a look at the water clock.

The Secret Gardens
The city of Cahors has created a tourist path; marked by acanthus leaves, to enable you to visit some of it’s beautifully laid out and enclosed gardens. Start at the foot of the Pont de Valentre, and walk back in time to the days of the crusades, when pilgrims would come to Cahors in order to cross the river on their way south to Santiago de Compostela or Jerusalem. The medieval gardens include the plots of the Augustinian friars, the Moorish gardens and the charming cloistered garden of Henri IV.

Restaurants
Ready for a relaxing lunch or a delicious dinner? Here are one or two suggestions from the dozens of restaurants.

The Balandre restaurant at the Hotel Terminus is reputedly one of the best in Cahors. A little formal perhaps and predictably expensive.

For lunch try the Bordeaux on the Boulevard de Gambetta. It’s always very busy and serves good, inexpensive food.

For an early dinner, take potluck. Stroll eastwards along the riverbank from the Pont Louis-Philippe towards the old quarter, there are lots of little restaurants here. Divona is a good one, so is the Bistrot de Cahors.

If you’d like to eat outside try one of the cluster of little restaurants at the end of the Rue Saint Urcisse. If they’re all full – a tad unlikely – book a later table and while away a pleasant hour or two outside one of the cafés. Sip your Kir or Pastis and listen to the shrill screech of the cicadas, the wonderful, evocative sound of warm southern Europe. Bon Appetit!

……………………….

Cahors really is an enchanting old town. With its ancient quarters and medieval bridge, cobbled streets, secret gardens and leafy boulevards, wonderful cafes, restaurants and relaxed street life.
It has it all.

© Amanda Lawrence 2005

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Cahors – Capital of the Quercy from French Vie

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