If you’re looking for French country charm, fine wine, and stone villages steeped in history all at affordable prices and removed from the tourist crowds, look to the lesser-traveled Lot department in southwest France. Along the loops of the Lot River, west of Cahors, lies a scenic valley lined with vineyards bearing grapes that have made Cahors’s wines famous since Roman times. Rows of vines lead to hilltop chateaux and surround medieval stone villages with colorful weekly markets. Almost every small vineyard offers a casual tasting room , and restaurants among the vineyards are elegant yet accessible. Small bed-and-breakfasts provide a romantic, French-country atmosphere. Beyond the serenity, what makes this side of the Lot Valley unique are miles of riverside paths and gentle trails dedicated to walkers and easy cycling. You can stroll through green and gold vineyards in picturesque scenery.
Start your three-day visit in riverside Puy L’Eveque, an impossibly picturesque pile of medieval towers and stone houses in the middle of the valley. Once you arrive, grab your shopping basket and set off for the area’s most colorful and aesthetic open-air market in nearby Prayssac. En route, stop in at Artisan Pâtissier Franck Tonel, on Puy L’Eveque’s main street, for the best chocolate croissants and walnut tarts around. Offerings at the market include artistic arrangements of fresh truffles, girolle and cèpe mushrooms, walnuts, apples, and the famous prunes d’Agen. Drop into the Prayssac tourist office in the market area and pick up a free map-guide to the local vineyards and, if you plan on doing any cycling, the Veloroute Circuit No. 1 map.
Dedicate the rest of the morning to exploring the vineyards, by car or by velo (bicycle). V-Lot can deliver rental bikes to your hotel, including electrically assisted bikes if your cycling muscles are rusty.
With more than 80 vineyards, ranging from world-renowned La Grezette (acclaimed by wine expert Robert Parker) to family-owned farms, the Cahors appellation is most famous for its hearty malbec-based red wines, best paired with beef, venison, or the local specialty, magret (duck breast). What may impress you most are the affordable prices for this excellent wine. Your map will tell you which vineyards have tasting rooms, what the hours are, and whether English is spoken–most often, it is.
Insider Tip: Avid oenophiles can read up on the history of the local vineyards in “Families of the Vines,” by Michael S. Sanders.
Aim for lunch in the charming courtyard of Le Caillau, a 300-year-old former winery surrounded by vineyards. A fresh-and-innovative, bargain lunch menu du jour features a main course, dessert, and a glass of local wine and coffee. Not that hungry? Share a platter of cold cuts, cheeses, and salad washed down with a carafe of the excellent house wine. Don’t skip dessert, which is outstanding here: buttery English-style cakes, and fruit crumbles with cream.
To work off lunch, hop back on your bike (or car), and head west along the veloroute signed Cahors, toward the tiny village of Grézels, where you’ll find a great photo op of vineyards and village, lorded over by the impressive, hilltop, 17th-century fortress of Chateau de la Coste.
If you’re driving, follow the signs, just past Grézels, to Belaye, up a winding, very narrow road to a viewpoint with panoramic views of the valley and two loops of the river.
You may not be wildly hungry after a late lunch, but if you get a little puckish once you’re back in Puy L’Eveque, cross the bridge and head for the stone tower of Le Pigeonnier, where the specialty is crepes and salads. From the restaurant terrace, you’ll have a picture-perfect view of the village at sunset.
After a light breakfast, drive or cycle 4 km west to Duravel, a storybook village that was once a Roman garrison before it became a prosperous medieval town with a monastery. Climb up to the restored remnants of the medieval wall for a sweeping valley view. The tourist office in the Mairie (town hall) has an excellent map of the village’s notable buildings, each marked by an informative plaque in English.
One of the Lot Valley’s celebrated historical treasures is the vaulted crypt in the village’s 11th-century church. You can pick up the key at Marty’s Boulangerie near the church and let yourself in to soak up the Romanesque atmosphere. Stone steps lead down to the vaulted crypt, where you’ll find 900-year-old columns with exquisitely carved capitals. Even if you’re not religious, the atmosphere here feels sacred.
For lunch, the gastronomic highlight in these parts is a meal at elegant Le Gindreau, a Michelin-starred restaurant presided over by Pascal Bardet, a former pupil of Alain Ducasse. Not only is this Michelin-starred restaurant relatively affordable but it’s also not pretentious or stuffy. At $65, the three-course lunch is a deal, offering main-course choices, along with delightful extras like exquisite amuse-bouches and a basket of delicate breads with flavored butters. If the weather is fine, book a table on the tree-shaded terrace, overlooking the countryside. The menu features traditional local specialties, updated in lighter, imaginative versions: foie gras, game, pigeon, an array of mushrooms and, particularly in the fall, truffles. There’s always seafood on the menu, too. The wine list focuses on local wines and the very helpful sommelier can suggest wines by the glass to complement your menu choices.
There isn’t much in the way of nightlife in Puy L’Eveque, but Le Stromboli, an excellent pizza and grill at the top of town, is lively and has a terrace with a bird’s eye view of the village.
Today’s the day to get out on the river. From the dock at the foot of Puy L’Eveque, take a one-hour, narrated cruise in a Gabare, a replica of the boats that once carried Cahors grapes downriver to Bordeaux. You can also rent a kayak or canoe and do the paddling yourself.
Join in the time-honored French custom of a long, leisurely lunch in the country, at Clau del Loup, a quintessentially French country hotel and restaurant in Anglars-Juillac. Here’s your last chance to indulge in foie gras, duck, and goat cheese in an elegant dining room or on a garden terrace shaded by huge trees.
Four trains a day from Paris arrive in Cahors, the closest long-distance train station. Closest airports are Bergerac and Toulouse. Puy L’Eveque is 35 km west of km Cahors, 83 km southeast of Bergerac, and 136 km north of Toulouse.
When To Go
Summertime in the Lot Valley is filled with village festivals, concerts and wine fairs. Tourism winds down the last two weeks of August as European families head home in what is called La Rentrée, the return to school and work. So, autumn is very tranquil, usually cool but sunny, and wildly scenic as the vineyards turn to russet and gold. In mid-September, grape-picking gets underway.
WHERE TO STAY
If you want a country hotel with easy access to biking trails and vineyards, Hostellerie Clau del Loup in Anglars-Juillac I a great choice.
A range of B&Bs, from luxury to budget, are scattered along the river’s edge and in the villages. Prices range from $50 to $85. Some B&Bs close in October and don’t reopen util the spring.
La Croze is the epitome of French-country elegance idyllically located on the river between Puy L’Eveque and Duravel. Nearby in Port de Vire, Au Clos de la Salamandre has comfortable rooms with artistic flair provided by the ceramic-artist owner, plus a fleet of bicycles for rent.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s France Guide