The village people
France’s favourite hamlet has been turned into a tourist hot spot
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.’’