The vil­lage peo­ple

France’s favourite ham­let has been turned into a tourist hot spot

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - KIM WILL­SHER THE OB­SERVER

BUSI­NESS is boom­ing as vis­i­tors flock to Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, but some lo­cals fear the vil­lage could lose its char­ac­ter.

The road to Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is as me­an­der­ing and bu­colic as the River Lot, above which the me­dieval vil­lage perches. On a sum­mer day, it winds past rows of sun­flow­ers, their up­turned heads sway­ing hyp­not­i­cally in the light breeze, past neat reg­i­ments of maize and up­hill along the nar­row route with its gal­leries hewn from the rock.

You can see Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, on its aus­tere stony out­crop, long be­fore you can reach it. Ris­ing from a sheer bluff at least 100m high, the vil­lage has taunted and re­pelled in­vaders for cen­turies.

In the Mid­dle Ages, it saw off war­ring seigneurs, reli­gious fa­nat­ics and the English with its for­mi­da­ble de­fences. To­day, how­ever, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie has a new bat­tle to wage. Since it was crowned France’s favourite vil­lage in a vote of tele­vi­sion view­ers in June, the ham­let of only 217 in­hab­i­tants, 30km east of Ca­hors, has been be­sieged by tourists.

Even be­fore TVs­tar­dom beck­oned, the vil­lage was on the ‘‘must-see’’ map, with about 400,000 vis­i­tors ev­ery sum­mer, the vast ma­jor­ity of them French.

The re­mains of the an­cient gates at ei­ther end of the vil­lage, named af­ter the child mar­tyr Saint Cyr, and La Popie, one of the feu­dal dy­nas­ties that ruled in the Mid­dle Ages, stop no­body these days. Closed, they had ren­dered the vil­lage al­most im­pen­e­tra­ble, as Richard the Lion­heart dis­cov­ered when he laid siege to Saint-Cirq with­out suc­cess in 1199.

Dur­ing the Hun­dred Years War in the 14th and 15th cen­turies, the vil­lage changed hands of­ten, lead­ing to one hid­den en­trance be­ing named La Porte des Anglais. Later still, the vil­lage was on the front­line of the 16th- cen­tury French reli­gious wars be­tween Protes­tant Huguenots and Ro­man Catholics.

Af­ter World War II, it be­came a haven for French sur­re­al­ists when An­dre Bre­ton, the move­ment’s founder, bought a house here and es­tab­lished the vil­lage as a haven for artists. Bre­ton wrote in 1951: ‘‘Saint-Cirq-Lapopie has cast a sin­gle en­chant­ment over me. One that has fixed me for ever. I no longer wish to be any­where else.’’

Saint-Cirq-Lapopie still has its art gal­leries and its old magic. The im­pos­ing gothic church with its panoramic view far over the Lot Val­ley is flanked by the ruins of sev­eral an­cient chateaux that lord it over a vil­lage packed with his­tory, in­clud­ing 13 clas­si­fied build­ings. Peer­ing down, the clus­ters of stone houses with their ar­row-sharp, flat-tiled roofs cling to the rock and each other. Some are built on pas­sages so steep their roof ends where their neigh­bour’s gar­den be­gins.

There is sur­pris­ingly lit­tle 21st-cen­tury ur­ban clut­ter — elec­tric­ity ca­bles and tele­phone wires have been hid­den un­der the eaves and cob­bles, TV an­ten­nae ban­ished to lofts; there are no satel­lite dishes, ad­ver­tis­ing hoard­ings or neon lights.

The cars, coaches and car­a­vans wind­ing their way to the rocky es­carp­ment are di­verted to one of six car parks a short walk or shut­tle ride away.

In sum­mer the restau­rants are full and a queue snakes out of the ice-cream shop into the hot sun. So­phie Dar­rieux, who runs the It’s So gift shop down one of Saint- Cirq- Lapopie’s lower streets, is de­lighted. ‘ ‘ As a busi­ness­woman, the more peo­ple the bet­ter,’’ she says. ‘‘In any case, with tourism it’s all or noth­ing. Ei­ther vis­i­tors come or the vil­lage is dead.’’

Patrick Vinel is the fifth gen­er­a­tion of his fam­ily to live and work in the vil­lage. He is also its last re­main­ing wood­turner. Once there were more than 100 en­gaged in the pro­duc­tion of wooden taps for wine bar­rels. To­day, Vinel pro­duces gifts, toys and sou­venirs. ‘‘I live thanks to the tourists,’’ Vinel says, sit­ting in his work­shop near an old belt-and-pedal lathe.

He points to pho­to­graphs of Saint-Cirq cov­ered in snow and de­serted. Asked what he does in win­ter when the tourists have gone, he an­swers: ‘‘I re­plen­ish the stock. This stuff doesn’t come from Tai­wan, you know. It’s all made by hand.’’

Mayor Gilles Harde­veld ad­mits it is cru­cial the vil­lage keeps its au­then­tic­ity. ‘‘Of course, there are some lo­cal peo­ple who com­plain about the tourists,’’ he says. ‘‘But there are vil­lages around us who have noth­ing, not even in sum­mer, so we have to ad­mit we are very lucky.’’

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