As May warms up, a dreamy stillness falls over the Lot, the next big valley south of the Dordogne. Orchids fill the meadows, red poppies line the roads and it’s finally warm enough to sit under the stars and be lulled by owls, nightingales and frogs. Even the river is in no hurry to go anywhere, winding lazily around vineyards and woods.
This year, however, the buzz in the valley isn’t just from the bumblebees. Last weekend we joined the crowds at the grand reopening of the Cahors museum – after a six-year £6million refurbishment it will now house dozens of newly acquired paintings and two exceptionally large paintings by Henri Martin .
Henry who? Lotois are always shocked to hear that their beloved artist is not a household name in the UK. Born in Toulouse, Martin (1860-1943) was so obsessed with light that he developed a unique dabby brushstroke to capture the shimmer of an instant. Unclassifiable (Post-Impressionist, Pointillist and Symbolist are the labels that struggle to contain him), he was hugely popular in his time — his luminous, iridescent murals adorn the Hôtel de Ville, the Sorbonne and the Council of State in Paris, and the capital of Toulouse, among others. Most depict the small village of Labastide-du-Vert to the west of Cahors, where in 1900 he bought the 64-acre Domaine de Marquayrol and spent every summer there.
The Church of Labastide by Henri Martin
Just as Monet created, painted and repainted his gardens at Giverny, Henri Martin created the gardens of Marquayrol, painting and repainting their pergolas and ponds as well as the landscapes of Labastide. For decades he has been an integral part of the village, planting his easel by its stream, bridge, church and cottonwood-lined meadows at different times of the day to catch the changing light.
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What makes visiting the Lot Valley so enjoyable today is that almost everything Martin painted still looked pretty much the same. The transparent light he loved (the Lot boasts the purest air in France), the sun-drenched limestone farms and villages. According to the census, even the population is almost the same (in number if not in quaint dress) as it was a century ago.
We were staying not far from Labastide in Puy-l’Evêque. Most people choose a holiday home or camp, but if you want to explore in the style of the princely bishops who once ruled the valley, it has to be the 13th-century Chateau de Mercuès, perched on a spur just outside outside of Cahors.
Valentre Bridge, Cahors
Cahors is the starting point. Before arriving at the museum, we strolled through medieval lanes that seem more Italian than French, thanks to the sharp Lombard bankers who settled when a son of Cahors was elected Pope John XXII in 1316. The lanes were built around the mighty double-domed Romanesque. – Gothic cathedral with two crazy dancing angels on the side portal. As it has for 700 years, the Saturday morning market filled the square below; we might as well have floated in the jam, so intoxicating was the scent of the strawberries. We walked over one of the most beautiful bridges in France, the Pont Valentré, built between 1308 and 1378 with three massive towers and, according to legend, a little nudge from the devil.
To the east of Cahors, buzzards floated high above the limestone cliffs. The Lot’s other five-star attractions are here: the 29,000-year-old spotted horses, mammoths, aurochs and bison at the Grotte du Pech Merle and the outrageously picturesque cliff-top village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie . Henri Martin painted here too and bought a 12th century house which was later bought by surrealist André Breton; today it is a cultural center dedicated to surrealism. Saint-Cirq may only be accessible in summer but was lovely in May; from nearby Bouziès, we pass just below on a path carved into the rock for the mules pulling the river boats upstream.
To the west of Cahors, the Lot meanders like a spring (it takes 470 km for fish to swim to cover 270 km as the crow flies) through hills that gave birth to Malbec and Cahors wine, the “black wine” that Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine drank at their wedding and which goes so well with Quercy lamb, duck breast and confit, goat cheese, wild mushrooms and truffles. Duck is so common here that the best restaurants pride themselves on not serving it – so look for these duck breasts and confits at the poultry-raised farmhouses further afield. In the Lot, the Château de Mercuès offers exceptional cuisine, as does Les Jardins in the middle of the vineyards in Parnac (restaurant-lesjardins.fr).
We followed the quiet D8 along the south bank of the Lot where bucolic landscapes follow one another and the 21st century seems far away. If you’re not lazy like us, you can hire a bike, cycle and do wine tasting at a series of chateaux, all well signposted in and around the golden villages that once sent barrels of wine to Bordeaux and beyond. beyond (Vélodulot will deliver one to any hotel or house in the region; velodulot.com).
If it’s hot, idyllic river beaches with kayaks and guinguettes await you at Douelle and Caïx, the latter next to the wine castle of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, which you can visit (an exhibition of Margrethe’s art is scheduled for July and August at the Henri Martin Museum). Pretty Albas overlooks the river (its Chateau Eugénie is an excellent one to visit near the river); in Luzech, where the Lot makes almost a complete loop, we went to the Planete des Moulins museum, filled with miniature working models of every type of mill ever invented – it left us in awe of human ingenuity.
Downstream, Castelfranc, with another beach and, high up on the wooded ridge, a circuit of the dolmens, with three dolmens and a group of huge partially standing stones aptly called Chaos. Then comes medieval Puy-l’Evêque, with its high towers and hanging gardens which are reflected in the Lot. We admired the reflections while sipping mussels and chips and confit at Pigeonnier.
Labastide-du-Vert itself is only five kilometers from Castelfranc. Away from the main road, we walked over to the bridge and — hey presto! — we were in a painting by Henri Martin. In October 2021, an opera singer, the delightfully named Jean-Jacques Lala, bought the Domaine de Marquayrol to turn it back into a cultural and scenic center for young opera singers. No one had lived there for years; like the castle of Sleeping Beauty, the gardens of Marquayrol were covered with brambles. Today, they have all been cleared by a band of volunteer gardeners, with the aim of replanting them as they were in Martin’s time. Mr. Lala, who kindly showed us around, said they would be open to the public a few days a month this summer. And it was buzzing. The bumblebees were back.
Dana Facaros traveled independently. His book with Michael Pauls, the Bradt guide of the Dordogne and the Lot, is published on July 11. Château de Mercuès offers double rooms from £238 (chateaudemercues.com). Coté Lot in Puy l’Evêque offers rooms with a view of the Lot (double room only from £58; cotelot.fr). cahorsvalleedulot.com
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