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

France - - Contents -

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...

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