Just an hour north of Toulouse (southwestern France's main city), Cahors makes a fine base for exploring the Lot River valley. Less touristy and populated than most of the Dordogne, this valley has a subtler charm. The clustered towns lining the eponymous river and smaller waterways that cut through the dry, vineyard-covered plateau have a magical, abandoned feel. After visiting them, Cahors (the area’s largest
community) offers a pleasant change of pace—especially if you’re an oenophile. Once an opulent Gallo-Roman town, it's famous for vin de Cahors, a tannic red known to the ancients as "black wine." Caesar is said to have taken a supply with him when he returned to Rome; another booster was the local bishop who went on to become Pope John XXII—in the 14th century he made his hometown libation the communion wine of the Avignon church. Malbec is the most common grape used here; there's also a sizable amount of Merlot in the region, with other vintners specializing in the local Jurançon Noir grape. Many small estates offer tastings, and the town tourist office on Place François-Mitterrand can direct you to some of the more notable vineyards, including the Domaine de Lagrezette (in Caillac) and the Domaine de St-Didier (in Parnac).