This is the fifth in a series of yearly bicycle rides that I have done along some of the great river valleys of Europe. I chose the Lot valley this year because of its proximity to the Auvergne where I’d been spending a family holiday. I also wanted to visit the Lozère region in which the river rises as well as the other départements – Cantal, Aveyron, Lot and Lot-et-Garonne – through which it flows for their scenic, historical, gastronomical and architectural richness. The fact that the roads along the river are for the most part of gentle to non-existent gradient also recommended it to me.
The maps below show the course of the Lot and the bits of the départements through which it flows.
The whole of the Lot basin is a goldmine of cultural wealth, from the decorated caves around the confluence of the Célé and the Lot with their paintings dating back over 25,000 years, through the dolmens from the early neolithic to the bronze age, Roman and the Gallo-Roman periods, the Middle Ages and the early modern period. All have left substantial traces in the Lot valley. This long history stares back at you on even the most cursory observation of the landscape.
The Lozère was created as a département of France after the Revolution but the name was known in antiquity when it was called Lesura. Pliny the Elder refers to it as such in his Natural History and comments on the excellence of the local cheese. It’s likely that the cheese in question was what is called today Laguiole (pronounced Layolle) or at least a forerunner of the stuff. It’s true that a bit of ancient Laguiole (not that ancient!) with a glass of old Cahors or Marcillac is a memorable experience, but the run of the mill product is a bit like a fairly indifferent cheddar.
It’s worth clicking on the image below to get a better flavour of this typical Lozère landscape. The fact that it’s the Tarn valley rather than that of the Lot makes no difference.
Lozère is part of the old province of Gévaudan and therefore the home of the notorious ‘beast of Gévaudan’. No-one seems to know what this beast was. It is a fact, though, that it was responsible for over a hundred human deaths in the mid eighteenth century. Even king Louis XV felt sufficiently concerned to send two professional hunters to catch the animal. They bagged a huge grey wolf that was subsequently displayed at court in Versailles, but the attacks continued. Eventually a chap called Jean Chastel shot a beast and that put an end to the attacks. However, for his pains, Chastel was accused of having been responsible for training the animal to attack human beings, of having been in league with the Devil and other uncanny practices. In my opinion, the Lozère is the most interesting bit of the Lot valley because of its wildness, ruggedness and beauty.
Mind you, the Aveyron is pretty spectacular, too. The Lot flows through impressive gorges here even though the valley is much wider than higher upstream. This picture is pure Aveyron.
The Aveyron is also the département in which the town of Conques is situated, one of the most beautiful medieval villages of France with its perfectly preserved romanesque abbey.
The Lot flows through only a small section of the southern edge of the Cantal region and it passes by indistinguishably from the Lozère and the Aveyron, though the loyalties change briefly and noticeably away from the Laguiole cheese and the Aubrac beef towards the analogous products bearing the Cantal name. The French are remarkably attached to their terroir – or local earth – and fiercely protective of all the names – or appellations – that are given to the rich variety of products springing from this soil. This is nowhere as evident in my experience as it is in the valley of the Lot, the quintessence of la France profonde – i.e. ‘deep France’ – as it is called by the French themselves.
The département of the Lot proper is the region around, to the east and to the west of Cahors. This is visibly the wealthiest region of the Lot valley, no doubt because of the Cahors wine. The wine is produced from a local variety of grape called variously malbec or auxerrois. This produces a very dark wine that is sometimes referred to as ‘black wine’, very rich in tannins and with a complex aging habit: it develops its fruity flavours well for three or four years only then to lose these and become uninteresting for a year or so. Thereafter up to ten years of age, it develops a quite different range of flavours: mushrooms and humus.
Cahors itself is an interesting jumble of old medieval streets around an impressive romanesque cathedral and squeezed into a loop of the Lot. Both the cathedral and the medieval Pont Valentré are well worth a visit.
The Lot-et-Garonne part of the Lot valley is perhaps the least interesting of the whole region. Here the river loses its gorges and the valley widens into broad agricultural plains. The gastronomy and the architecture likewise leave the first league. Fumel and Villeneuve-sur-Lot are pretty uninteresting, nothing remains of the Albigensian heretics’ time there in the case of the former, and no trace of the Spanish occupation of the latter has survived. Casseneuil and Aiguillon are likewise fairly undistinguished and show little evidence of having been English, as they were during the Hundred Years’ War. The cycling is easy, but it lacks the perpetual interest of the higher reaches of the valley. It resembles more and more the valley of the Garonne, and it’s for this reason that I decided to end my ride at Aiguillon rather than continuing along the Garonne, after the confluence, as far as Bordeaux – my original intention.
Nevertheless, this slightly less than positive judgement notwithstanding, the ride down the Lot was one of the most stimulating and pleasant that I have done and I have no hesitation in recommending it. I feel enriched from having gained at least some acquaintance with one of the most varied regions of a very varied country. Anyway, my intention was to take in as much of the interest of the Lot valley as possible while sticking to a schedule of daily progress on the bicycle. I think I at least partially achieved this aim, though there’s plenty more to do – enough to sustain another ride by slightly different routes.
Maybe in a couple of years’ time! Or maybe I’ll try the Ardèche and get to see stuff like this:
Anyone wishing to do the present ride, or something similar, should be sceptical of the boast on the Lot Valley website about a cycle trail from Entraygues to Aiguillon. The site claims that there is a well signposted cycle trail along the length of the river between these two points. It’s true that there are occasionally signposts indicating the presence of a cycle-route and encouraging motorists to ‘share the road’ with cyclists. But in my experience, the signage is rather patchy – I got completely lost at Fumel thanks to the signs – and in some cases one is well-advised not to follow them since they lead the unwary on a series of detours that turn out to be completely unnecessary. My advice is: plan your own route with the aid of Google maps along the minor roads that stick most closely to the river.The going is easiest here and the roads are among the most scenic.