Explore the medieval buildings and secret gardens of Cahors on the River Lot.
Nestling within a meander of the River Lot, Cahors is a treasure trove of medieval architecture, gourmet treats and vinous discoveries, says Dominic Rippon
Amid the rolling hills of the Lot département, where goats graze in remote pastures and vines cling to the sun-baked limestone slopes, the town of Cahors, its capital, is embraced on three sides by the River Lot, over which its emblematic bridge, Pont Valentré, proudly sits. A warm breeze whipped across the glistening water on a clear spring morning, as I awaited my tour guide in the shadow of one of the bridge’s three imposing roofed towers.
As I admired the renovated majesty of Pont Valentré, Valérie Noyé, from Cahors tourist office, arrived to explain more. “This is the only complete medieval fortified bridge left in France,” she revealed. Built in the 14th century during the Hundred Years War, it is as remarkable for its meticulous construction (90 per cent of the stone is original) as for its apparent lack of use: the bridge led nowhere, not even to a minor road out of town. It was built largely for symbolic reasons – as a show of military strength and economic prosperity – and as a means of raising taxes on goods carried by boats sailing upstream. It was the last of three bridges to be built in Cahors in the Middle Ages – and the only one to survive demolition in the 19th century.
We took the underpass beneath the railway line, to join Rue Président Wilson toward the old town centre, and then cut across the green spaces that border the Allées Fénelon, where the Festival Gastronomique takes place in early July. Before pausing to admire the imposing statue of 19th-century statesman Léon Gambetta, Cahors’s most famous son, we descended the stairs into Parking Fénelon. This is the only subterranean car park in France in which you can leave your vehicle beside an excavated Roman amphitheatre!
Across Boulevard Léon Gambetta, Cahors’s medieval town centre revealed itself in a hundred narrow streets, flanked by a dazzling architectural mix of timber, fired brick and limestone. “Cahors is one of the most important conservatories of medieval architecture in France,” Valérie told me, as we stopped to admire the ornate facade of the Maison du Patrimoine, in Rue de la Halle. This small exhibition centre was once home to a medieval merchant’s family, a reminder that although Cahors is now a sleepy provincial capital, it was once one of south-west France’s most important trading centres; its powerful merchant class, the cahorsins, was renowned throughout medieval Europe.
The bridge was built largely for symbolic reasons – as a show of military strength and economic prosperity
In Place Galdemar, the indoor market was buzzing with its own trade, as stallholders vied to sell Quercy cheeses, fresh spring fruit and vegetables, locally reared meat, and fish caught from the River Lot. Bottles of the famous ‘black wine’ of Cahors, made from the deeply-coloured malbec grape, were being squeezed into already laden shopping bags in preparation for the long Saturday lunch.
The market extended outdoors into Place Jean-jacques Chapou, where white asparagus and plump cherries weighed down the wooden tables. At the far end, we entered the Cathédrale SaintEtienne, the focal point of the medieval quarter.
Like Pont Valentré, the cathedral is a Unesco World Heritage site, as part of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail. Most of it was built in the 12th and early 13th centuries in the late-romanesque style, with two giant domes – the largest in south-west France – perched above its knave. Outside the cathedral’s northern gate, my gaze was drawn toward a stone sculpture above the door. This remarkably complete work of art, Valérie concluded, is one of only two surviving Romanesque sculptures in France that depict Christ’s ascension to heaven (the other is in the Basilique Saint-sernin in Toulouse): a crowning architectural jewel in a town where a new discovery awaits around every corner.
The Unesco-listed Pont Valentré spans the River Lot on the outskirts of Cahors
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: The Romanesque Cathédrale Saint-étienne with its distinctive twin domes; A quiet corner in the cathedral cloisters; The statue of Cahors-born statesman Léon Gambetta in the Allées Fénelon; The Moorish exhibit on the Secret Gardens trail