Les Eyzies à Cahors
An eight day walk through Périgord/Quercy
Aquitaine - land of rivers
This walk crosses the area known as Périgord/Quercy and passes through the centre of old Aquitaine. The area is now loosely known as "the Dordogne".

The walk follows the GR 36 and visits some of the prettiest and best preserved bastides, not all of which are on the most frequented tourist routes. It also introduces the walker to two of the loveliest rivers in France - the Dordogne and the Lot and their tributaries.

Here in its middle reaches, the Dordogne flows between castles, bastides, limestone cliffs and hillsides. It was, from ancient times an important transport route, accounting for the riverside development. The Vézère flows from the north east, through Les Eyzies to join the Dordogne a few kilometres west of St Cyprien.

The Lot, in these lower reaches between Cahors and its confluence with the Garonne, follows a winding route often with very deep loops such as at Luzech and Puy l'Evêque. These are known as
cingles. The Lot has come all the way from its source in the causse country of the Cevennes where it is known as the Olt, picking up along the way the Truyère at Entraygues and the Célé just upstream of Cahors.

It was May 1991 when we did this walk, still quite cold and very wet. Rainy weather may in fact be a characteristic of May. Another is the number of public holidays in the month.

Access is straight forward - a fast train from Paris to Périgueux and a local train to Les Eyzies.
Les Eyzies, where the walk begins, is well known as a centre of prehistory although exploration, excavation and historical interpretation of prehistoric sites only began in the 1860's. Since that time the discoveries in the valley of the Vézère have greatly increased the world's knowledge and interest in prehistoric times. Most of the caves and shelters at Les Eyzies are open for viewing by the public and they are extremely popular.

In late medieval times England owned this area, which caused centuries of war with France. The upside of that period is the architectural and cultural legacy that was left. There are many picturesque bastides built during the 12th and 13th centuries, some English, some French and some that changed allegiance over the years of fighting. Even more recently, the region has become a popular holiday destination for the English, and many maintain holiday homes in the villages and countryside.
Périgeux and Les Eyzies
Staying overnight in Périgueux we found a hotel conveniently close to the station. It had small basic rooms but there was a cheery and good restaurant.

As it was Sunday, most things were closed. Nevertheless Périgueux is a very fine town to explore. The old quarter is a fascinating jumble of streets and staircases, lined with interesting old buildings. The two towered cathedral, St Front, is an imposing building in an oriental style but, to some tastes, over embellished with successive restorations. The cathedral square was a perfect place to sip a glass of rosé and watch French holiday makers enjoying the first warm days of spring.
An early start for les Eyzies was necessary to be sure of bookings for cave inspections as, even in May, all inspections were heavily booked. The 7.13 train ran along in the mist through budding green forests and arrived in Les Eyzies at 7.45.

The town is a few kilometres from the station at the confluence of the Vézère and Beune Rivers in a gorgeous valley between huge limestone cliffs. On the way into the town is the very grand Hotel Cro Magnon, but there are several others in the town, including the Hotel des Falaises, which offered a lovely room at the back of the hotel with a view of the garden, an attractive arched bridge over the river and distant cliffs.
Those visiting Les Eyzies today would be well advised to make advance bookings for the caves over the internet. Tours are very limited and depart at set times throughout the day.

We made two tours. In the morning was the Font de Gaume cave with wonderfully clear, sensitive paintings, mostly of animals. Reindeer and bison were the star attractions. In the afternoon, in a small group of five, we visited Les Combarelles. Here there were engravings, some quite indistinct and superimposed over each other - horses, deer, bison, a lion, donkey, bear and woolly rhinoceros. Both were quite awe inspiring.

Above the town there is an excavated shelter where relics from eleven different prehistoric periods have been found, including artefacts, bones, tools etc and skeletons. A little museum next door has well organised displays of all the finds. There is also the large and very comprehensive National Museum of Prehistory.

The town itself was very busy. Being school holidays, there were many families around. It was also market day with stalls all along the narrow main street doing good business. Bergerac wine was being sold from the back of a truck and a lunchtime picnic by the river was a good opportunity to try a bottle.

The Hotel des Falaises didn't do dinner but one of the others offered confit de canard, a menu staple in this part of France but always delicious. Walking home under the floodlit cliffs the sensation was both eerie and magical.
The Walk
Day 1. Les Eyzies to St Cyprien - 10 km
Day 2. St Cyprien to Belvès - 16 km
Day 3. Belvès to Montferrand - 14 km
Day 4. Montferrand to Monpazier - 15.5 km
Day 5. Monpazier to Lacapelle Biron - 12 km
Day 6. Lacapelle Biron to Duravel - 27 km
Day 7. Duravel to Prayssac - 11 km
Day 8. Prayssac to Douelle - 17.5 km
Day 9. Douelle to Cahors - 7 km
Les Eyzies to St Cyprien
The first day of walking - and it was wet. The GR was a stony path climbing out of Les Eyzies, first alongside the cliffs, then though woods and forests and occasionally through farmland and alongside vineyards. In the forests, logs had been chopped and stacked by the side of the road and, once, there was a glimpse of some deer.
It was not a day for lingering picnics - some bread
in a woodshed on the edge of a hamlet called Pechboutier sufficed. In mid afternoon St Cyprien was a welcome sight for two very wet walkers.

St Cyprien offered the choice of a several hotels. We chose a small establishment, newish and run
by two young men escaping the rat race of Paris and trying hard to establish themselves. They still had some way to go. A cranky boiler in the bathroom was causing unpredictable problems and catering for guests who may or may not arrive seemed to present a challenge.

Dinner was consequently very simple - tomato soup, grated carrot, baked beans and a pork chop - but with everything given French titles and flair it became quite stylish. Soupe du jour, Crudités, Côtelet de Porc. A good comment by way of apology from one of our hosts as he served the carrot and baked beans was - "After all, crudités are only crudités".

St Cyprien is charming small medieval town with a huge 12th century church and steep winding streets with houses all squeezed in at odd angles. It looks quite affluent. The shops display big jars of confit de canard and Bergerac wine.
Les patrons recommended a hotel in Belvès and rang ahead to make a booking.
St Cyprien to Belvès
Wet again. In spite of this the first hour or so was a very agreeable walk along the Dordogne to Allas les Mines. The river here was wide and still and its banks were lined with trees jumping into their new spring growth. The track then climbed to join up with a network of minor roads running through woods, high above the valley and with extensive views. By then it was again raining steadily.

A little borie (stone shelter built by shepherds) provided shelter for lunch and some weak sunshine emerged from the clouds.
After lunch the GR signs led to a muddy field and disappeared. Thick red clay clinging to boots, we improvised a route till we found the signs again and aimed for the distant view of Belvès. From high on a hill, it appeared more as an illusion as the GR went right round and around and approached the town from behind.

A bus shelter offered some relief while the rain bucketed down. This was supposed to be only a 16 km day but it actually took from 9.30 to 5.00
The Hotel "le Home" lived up to its name and was strategically placed right on the GR route in the main square of the old town. We squelched apologetically into a large comfortable room, leaving muddy footprints everywhere.
The boots promptly went into the basin for a wash. Dry clothes raised morale and after a beer in a bar across the road it was time for dinner in the hotel restaurant.
This was a wonderful meal - potage, entrée, gigot d'agneau, salad, cheese and desert (an amazing frozen orange filled with lemon sorbet). The other diners included several English groups (this is the heart of English occupied Dordogne) and a young French couple (she possibly a former employee come to dinner with a new husband). There were no other guests in the hotel.

La patronne, when not attending to hotel business, spent her time intently stitching tapestries of rural scenes. This must have been a long term passion as framed tapestries were hung throughout the hotel.
Belvès to Montferrand
Belvès is a gem - an English bastide with a covered market, impressive ramparts and narrow streets lined with very old buildings, mostly used as residences. Pots of red geraniums brightened up the monotonal colours of the stone buildings. An idea emerged that keen photographers should carry round a pot of red geraniums to provide instant colour interest.

A sign in estate agent's window proudly advertised - "We speak English - it's only natural" - we wondered which period of English occupation this might refer to.
Although very cold, it was not raining, so it was a good mornings walk, through a huge forest which was being alternatively logged and reforested. Nailed to trees alongside the track were signs warning "Chasse Interdit" and "Chasse Reservé". Some more deer, survivors of la chasse, appeared briefly. Hopefully they will survive les chasseurs . A pile of logs was the driest place for lunch and then it was a pleasant walk down a leafy forest track to Montferrand.

Just outside the town of Montferrand was Lou Peyrolle, a welcoming Logis de France hotel. A "chamber économique" had a lovely view up to the village. Again we were the only guests but would have missed out the previous night as a group of walkers, tired of camping in the rain, had booked out the hotel.

The little town seemed to be almost deserted. It clusters round a 12th century castle with most houses closed up with shutters tightly locked. There was not much shopping choice. In a tiny épicerie with shelves going up to the ceiling an obliging old lady found some Dutch cheese and a bottle of wine. Together we examined some things in tins to check the use-by date and, on her recommendation, rejected them. Bread comes on Saturday - today was Thursday.
The hotel provided an excellent meal, spiced with snippets of information from the owners, an elderly couple, and their daughter. Monsieur and Madame sat by a fire in the kitchen while their daughter brought dinner. Questions would be relayed to them and occasionally one or the other would venture out to inspect these curious guests.

Apparently there are no abandoned or vacant houses in the village - local people go to Paris to work but keep the houses for holidays. Lou Peyrolle is Occitan for a big iron pot a fine example of which, in fact, rests in the fireplace.
Montferrand to Monpazier
Madame packed a delicious picnic lunch - sausage and cheese wedged between big slabs of crusty bread.

For the first time on this walk it was a fine day and our sunhats came out of the packs. This proved to be over-optimistic as the day then got progressively colder. The walking was again great, hardly any roads at all, just forests and leafy paths. The forests were being mercilessly logged - some fast growing tree that withstands chopping down every couple of years. The main disadvantage of this for walkers is that the GR signs disappear with the firewood.

Although the weather can be variable in spring it is a wonderful time to walk. There are spring flowers and new growth emerging everywhere. The trees are either covered in leafbuds or bright green new foliage. Across the countryside the fields are being ploughed and vegie gardens made ready for planting. The early flowers in gardens have finished but in the countryside primroses, orchids, poppies and daisies are flowering along the roadside.
Monpazier was tonight's stop and the Hotel de France looked ideal, nestling under the colonnade of the market square. It was a simple, traditional hotel with big old fashioned rooms and a restaurant. For once the hotel was fully booked - a group of horse riders had also made this an overnight stop. The restaurant also full and busy offering a good value menu. The equestrian group, in particular, were having a great time.

Monpazier is the best preserved of the Périgord bastides. The main square is colonnaded on all sides, with a covered market in the centre. The narrow streets throughout the town are laid out in the traditional grid pattern.

It was very cold.
Monpazier to Lacapelle Biron
The morning was fine and crisp but the day became progressively colder and wetter. It was easy walking through fields and forests to Biron castle where we caught up with the horse riders for an 11.00am inspection of the chateau.

Dating from the 11th century the chateau is an enormous place. Now owned by the local Département, restoration is recreating many of the original features, particularly the gigantic kitchens which are really impressive. From the huge rooms on the upper floors there are stunning views over the rooftops towards the surrounding countryside.
On the track again, it began raining quite steadily. A well placed farm shed provided shelter for lunch, surrounded by old cart wheels and timber. Then it was on to La Cappelle Biron which we reached by 3.00 only to discover that there were no hotel rooms available. There was instead a big gîte d'étape down the road and an apparently highly reputed restaurant in the other direction.

Fellow guests in the gîte were a French couple - amateur paleontologists who were exploring some of the fields and quarries in the area. They were very wet and muddy.
It was indeed a good restaurant and an excellent dinner came to a suitable finale with a very fine Armagnac and the return to town of the local Rugby team which had today beaten a neighbouring rival. The Rugby team celebrated long into the night and, in the early hours of the morning, the silence was again broken by a procession winding through the town, led by an accordion playing a haunting little folk tune.
Limestone cliff - les Eyzies
Les Eyzies village
Market - les Eyzies
From the hotel window
St Cyprien
St Cyprien - wet day begins
Along the Dordogne - wet day continues
Lunch at the borie
Farm near Montferrand
Covered market - Monpazier
Central square- Monpazier
Walking in the wet
View from Biron castle
View of Biron castle
Bonaguil castle
Another castle
Lacapelle Biron to Duravel
A long, long day.

We were up and away early in the hope of finding some form of transport along the way. Tentative attempts to find a taxi in Lacapelle Biron were unsuccessful but there were hopes of other opportunities. At the very least we hoped for an occasional coffee stop.

It poured with rain for most of the morning. St Front was a pretty town but offered no transport and no coffee. So, on to Bonaguil castle, via some improvised short cuts taken along the sealed roads. Bonaguil is a knockout - a great towering castle, now in ruins, but built to be an impregnable fortress. It was, in fact, never attacked and remained intact until the Revolution.
A break in the rain made it possible to have a picnic lunch admiring the castle. Optimistic hopes for a bus here were dashed, so we continued on the GR, climbing out of town along a narrow pathway that had great views back to the castle.

St Martin de Redon followed and still no coffee. So, after 4 km we reached Duravel, an attractive town with an 11th century church and very old houses. This is now the valley of the Lot and the Bergerac wine is replaced by that of Cahors.

The only hotel in Duravel was an auberge run by an Englishwoman and constructed in the style of a badly designed Australian motel with little rooms entirely lacking in character.

Even more disastrous, after the long wet day, there was no hot water to sooth the pain of tired, sore legs. Dinner was expensive and not particularly interesting. Fellow diners were a German couple and two tables of very English people who talked loudly and endlessly about their real estate and who had recommended the hotel to them. We pretended to be French.
Duravel to Prayssac
The water was still cold and the proprietor very embarrassed - "un catastrophe", she said. She took F50 off the bill but it didn't really compensate.
It was a misty morning, but the rain held off for about an hour. After a coffee in Puy l'Evêque some other randonneurs appeared, also struggling along in the rain. A pretty stretch along the Lot was followed by some ups and downs in the hills at the edge of the valley. Along this stretch, apparently in the middle of nowhere, was a notice board with the Council minutes pinned to it. They appeared to deal with the usual roads, rates and rubbish.

At Prayssac, lunch in the bar of a small local hotel - a bowl of soup and pichet of rosé - was so good, and the weather so bad, that we decided to stay the night. This is a real town, rather than one for tourists. All the houses were neat and well kept with pretty flower gardens and prolific vegetable patches. This became an afternoon to enjoy a well earned rest and retire to the bar to observe the locals till it was time for dinner.

The hotel was run by a very young couple. She, Sylvie, sat in the bar all day doing jigsaw puzzles. Like the tapestries of la patronne at Belvès, they then get framed and hung on the walls. He, Jean-Maurice, knew all about Australia, kangaroos (Skippee) and rugby (his hero was Serge Blanco). Dinner was punctuated with discussions about kangaroos and the topics of the moment, the Rugby World Cup and the America's Cup
Prayssac to Douelle
It seemed appropriate to give le patron a little furry kangaroo carrying a hastily made banner with a prediction for the World Cup 1991 (France 25/Australia 26). He seemed quite pleased and put it on the bar as a talking point. (In fact Australia won, France came nowhere.)

The morning's walk was exhilarating - climbing up steep hills from the river, then taking in wide views over the valley. There was a dolmen at an archaeological site called l'Impernal (a celtic/Roman/Barbarian settlement) but to inexpert eyes there seemed only to be piles of rocks.

Then a slippery track led down to Luzech and its donjon. This is a river town, squashed into a bend in the river with narrow little narrow little streets and alleys running down to the river.

There was just time to buy lunch things before the midday whistle blew and the shops closed. After taking a short cut to bypass a big loop in the river we rejoined the track and climbed again to find a spot among the juniper berries for lunch. Here there was active recultivation of land for grapes and some fields where old vines have been allowed to die.
A long steep descent to Douelle led us to the only hotel in town with another old fashioned room, bathroom and lots of hot water. Dinner was in the hotel's cave-like restaurant where the patron took much pride in cooking things over an open fire. The wine list was amazing, including about 20 pages of Cahors wine.

The most important thing about that day was that it didn't rain.
Douelle to Cahors
It was just a two hours walk across a long and pretty plateau to Cahors and a triumphant, exhilarating walk across the wonderful Pont Valentré.

Possibly the prettiest bridge in the world, the Pont Valentré was one of three that once spanned the Lot at Cahors. Sadly, the city fathers saw fit to demolish the others, in 1868 and 1907, and replace them with new cast iron constructions.
Replacing an even earlier Roman bridge le Pont Valentré was built early in the 14th century to defend the city. Its three slim fortified towers and six great Gothic arches separated by pointed spurs contribute to a superb example of mediaeval defensive architecture- even more so when a mirror image is reflected in the water below.

Legend relates the Devil to the construction. Apparently work was progressing so slowly that the architect promised his soul to the Devil in exchange for his help. But as completion neared he tried to trick the Devil out of the deal. The Devil took revenge, each night removing the top stone of the central tower.

When the bridge was restored in 1879, that architect made no promises and played no tricks. Instead he had a little devil carved on the top of the central tower.

Just near the station we found the Hotel Terminus, with lovely rooms and an excellent restaurant. We had a celebratory end-of-walk dinner here and spent some time looking around.
Le Lot near Puy l'Evêque
Luzech and le Lot
Quercy farmland with iris
Le Pont Valentré at Cahors
The Wines of Cahors
The "black wines" of Cahors, so called because of their dark colour and long life, have an illustrious history.

The first written record is from the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian in 96AD. Later they were very popular in England, exported there even before Bordeaux appeared on a map. Over time Bordeaux wines developed a stranglehold of over those from Cahors as the port of Bordeaux heavily taxed competitors.
The Russian Orthodox church adopted Cahors wine as its Communion wine and it is said that Tsar Peter the Great treated his delicate stomach with this great black wine.

After a gradual decline and the phylloxera outbreak in the late 19th century, frosts in 1956 were the final disaster. In 1962 there were only 500 acres of vineyards. A resurgence came as tenacious winemakers sought out the original malbec grape, locally called Auxerrois, and attained AOC status in 1971. There are now over 650 growers tending 10,000 acres of vines and 2 million cases are produced each year.
After the walk
Cahors is a significant large town with an attractive mediaeval centre and a splendid cathedral, flanked by a traditional market place which comes to life on market day. In the 14th century a local boy was installed as Pope in Avignon.
To finish the trip as we started we made an excursion to the gallery of prehistoric cave art at Pechmerle east of Cahors. The upper system was discovered at the turn of the century but the prehistoric galleries remained unknown till their discovery in 1922 by two young boys. The cave has been open to the public since 1926 and is now classed as a 'historic monument'. As well as the cave art, there are spectacular limestone formations in the two kilometres of galleries.

We also visited the famous cave at Padirac which is a huge intimidating hole in the causse landscape. It remained unexplored for millennia, presumably because it was too intimidating. In 1889 EA Martel made the first descent on a rope ladder. These days visitors descend 75m in a lift before getting into small boats to navigate an underground river system. The river system extends many km under the causse before it emerges in the Cirque de Montvalent 12km away to join the Dordogne. There is no prehistoric art in Padirac, a visit here is more a fun adventure trip than an exploration of prehistory.
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The Authors in the front row at Padirac
A cingle in the Lot near Puy l'Eveque
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