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A gourmet journey among Michelin Star restaurants in the Lot

The Lot is a remote French department that is away from busy cities, and hides, amongst its unique natural surroundings, so many places to visit. Middle Age castles, old churches, historic villages and cities, natural wonders, romantic landscapes... the list of not-to-be-missed places is endless.

But what you will soon discover here - after the great sense of hospitality of the Lot inhabitants - is their shared addiction to gastronomy and great cuisine! In any village, you will find an unpretentious restaurant or café, providing simple and tasty cuisine based on fresh local products to enjoy your day. Who can say "No" to the simple delight of Rocamadour goat cheese and a glass of Malbec wine for a little gourmet break... Lot is one of the best places to enjoy an authentic and simple French art-de-vivre. So let's go and discover it, hopping from one Michelin star restaurant to another!

Cahors and the 5* Château de Mercuès (One Michelin star restaurant)

For the French, the name Cahors is linked to a great red wine. Of course, Cahors wines have made the city world-famous for centuries. If there were only one word you would need to know and remember when talking about Cahors wines, and not look disgracefully ignorant in doing so, it would be Malbec. Malbec is the name of the grape variety used in all red wines of the area, which gives the wines their unique deep purple colour, rich aromatic complexity and powerful and well-balanced tannins. These wines age well and need at least three years to fully develop their aromas. Quality ones can easily wait many more years and you will appreciate them with a grilled prime rib, roasted duck, blue cheese…

But don't forget that Cahors is a complete tourism destination and deserves a few days’ stop. When arriving in Cahors, you will know at once that this is a city where it feels good to live. You can start your visit in the old historical centre and get lost in the maze of little streets lined with medieval and Renaissance houses before taking a walk in the gardens along the river banks to get to the city’s absolute must-see spot, the Valentré Bridge (large photo above). This remarkable fortified bridge was built in the 14th century. Six stone arches span over the Lot River and three towers were built on top of them to defend the entrance to the town and to collect taxes. This amazing bridge has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998 as one of the landmarks on the Road to Santiago.

Château de Mercuès, a 5 star "Relais et Châteaux" is the place to stay close to Cahors. Perched on top of a high cliff, the chateau offers great views over the Lot River. Behind the walls of its four towers, the castle hides beautiful rooms and suites, each one with its own style and decoration. The lounges and dining rooms have a typical 18th century spirit, with wall panelling, heavy chandeliers and stylish French windows draped with precious materials. In the garden, a large swimming pool is the perfect place to relax after a day of visits. Gastronomy is also part of Château de Mercuès. The Chef Julien Poisot is in charge of “Le Duèze” gastronomic restaurant and has been awarded with one Michelin star for his inventive cuisine.

The owners of Château de Mercuès, the Vigouroux family, also own the Château de Haute Serre, their second property, a few miles away. This wine estate has an exceptional terroir (soil), ideal for growing vines and especially Malbec. Whether or not you’ll be staying at “Chateau de Mercuès,” you are welcome to visit the Chateau de Haute Serre vineyard very close to Cahors, have a wine tasting, participate in the harvest in late summer, take cooking courses and most of all enjoy Chef Allan Duplouich’s delicious cuisine under the vault of an ancient stone cellar.

At Château de Haute Serre, the menu changes according to seasonal local produce and Allan achieves a perfect match between his cuisine and the wines made on the estate. There, Chef Allan Duplouich will help you discover how the Malbec wine perfectly expresses all of its aromas with a “chocolate foie gras“, a “truffle risotto“, a “roasted lamb with thyme“, a “saffron crème brulée” or even a “Gariguette strawberry soup with Malbec“…

Stay at Château de Mercuès to visit the nearest part of the Lot Valley

Staying in Cahors provides a great opportunity to discover the Lot River Valley and its unique landscapes and wonders. Back 29,000 years ago, when the art galleries of the time were artists who painted frescoes of all sizes on the walls of caves, Pech Merle cave is part of the 13 adorned caves of the Lot Valley, but it's the only one still open to the public. Discover it before it is closed for preservation reasons, like its twelve other sister caves have already been. Today, to preserve the site, only 700 people are allowed to visit the cave each day. In high season, online booking is highly recommended. Guided tours of 25 people (including English speaking tours) are organised all day long.

From one cavern to the next, you will discover hundreds of amazing drawings, horses, buffalos, mammoths, aurochs, bears, fish, deer, ibex, feline and also male and female human figures. The cave masterpiece is a set of two horses drawn with points of black paint 29,000 years ago. You will also see human hand drawings as well as mysterious geometrical patterns, before walking through other huge cavities filled with geological formations such as stalactites and stalagmites, earth-made stacks of plates and rare cave pearls. The one-hour tour always seems to end too soon. 

In the nearby village of Cabrerets, the "Hôtel des Grottes" has, for more than a century, belonged to the family of one of three teenagers who discovered the Pech Merle Cave. Today, the fourth generation is in charge and their restaurant offers lunch and dinner consisting of great homemade regional menus served on an outside terrace overlooking the river Célé. A tasty meal in a relaxing setting! Who could ask for more?

Continuing your way along the river Lot, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie awaits. This ancient village has been classified by the French as one of their most beloved villages. Although some people call it a “museum-village” because of its well-preserved Middle Age houses and thousands of visitors, its 200 inhabitants will tell you another story, including that of real people who don’t feel like living in an amusement park! After leaving your car at one of the car parks at the entrance of the village, get ready to walk up and down the narrow, twisting pedestrian streets. Over the centuries, several aristocratic families lived in Saint-Cirq-Lapopie in castles or fortified houses until the late 15th century. During the 20th century, many artists came to live in Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, such as André Breton, the leader of the Surrealist Movement, who in the 1950s bought a house in the village, making it famous among the artist communities of those years.

A few more curves of the river away, the Château de Cénevières is an extraordinary castle perched on the top of a cliff, seventy metres above the river Lot. This private castle, owned by the Marquis de Braquilanges and his family, mixes a beautiful Renaissance building with a strong defensive system with walls, machicolations and covered ways. A fascinating visit ends on the huge terrace, where a view over the river and the valley lets us imagine how great life could be in such a place.

Padirac, Rocamadour and Pont de l'Ouysse (One Michelin star restaurant)

Leaving Cahors in the north, in one hour you will reach the Hôtel de Pont de L'Ouysse at Lacave. This comfortable hotel belongs to the Chambon family, and its restaurant has been a one Michelin star restaurant for years, first with the father, Daniel Chambon, and nowadays with his son, Stéphane. Mathieu, the other son, is the talented sommelier of the house, while their mother manages the staff.

Set at the foot of a high cliff, the restaurant that originally was a mere farm has lovely gardens along the river banks and a quiet outside terrace, ideal for lunch or for an enjoyable summer dinner. Menus change according to the season and the best local products are, of course, favoured. Duck foie gras, lobster with Quercy saffron, sole with white and green asparagus, lamb from Quercy with thyme and garlic, pig’s trotter with truffle, chocolate millefeuilles, strawberry and coconut vacherin… traditions and innovations mix and match in the mouth-watering menus! (menus start at 40 Euros). 

The Pont de l'Ouysse is a great base for a few days to visit the area. Two sites are an "absolute must see," Padirac and Rocamadour.

Rocamadour

Rocamadour is a remarkable village in many ways. Famous since the 12th century throughout Europe as one of the major Christian pilgrimage sites, it also is the unlikely result of unique construction. The road leading to Rocamadour will take you to the foot of a 150 meter-high cliff overlooking the Alzou River. Looking up, you will discover this amazing village is built on a steep, rocky side… and then realise that your visit is going to be a demanding one! Today, tourists, like generations of pilgrims before them, need to climb up the 216-step staircases to get to the top of the cliff and to be rewarded with a spectacular view over the village and the river valley. A lift can take you up, but you will miss all of the charm of the small cobbled streets lined with medieval houses, churches and sanctuaries.

Rocamadour is also the name of a famous local cheese made with raw goat milk. It is a versatile cheese that can be eaten cold or cooked. Thirty farmers still make this tasty cheese and visitors are welcome to meet breeders and their goats and discover the process of making Rocamadour. Nicely wrapped in vacuum packaging, you can easily take home a few for a cheese tasting, full of special memories.

Padirac, a journey to the centre of earth!

Although exploring the Pit of Padirac won’t quite take you to the centre of the earth, it will, however, take you on a fascinating 103-metre deep journey, navigating an underground river and walking through impressive caves. The site was equipped with elevators in 1930 to facilitate the way down and up the abyss. Then, during your underground journey, you will go up and down stairs and walkways to get through the largest caves.

You will follow a 1.3 mile-long tour, mostly onboard small boats skilfully driven by a guide pushing a long pole, just like a gondolier would do on the canals in Venice! Attractive light and shadow effects illuminate the river, the stalagmites and stalactites, or the mineral constructions, evoking stacks of plates, chandeliers, rocky lace or whatever your imagination might help you see. 

There are also so many places around that are not to be missed, such as the medieval city of Martel, known as the Seven-Tower Town. Martel is a very well preserved village. At the center of the village is a beautiful square and an impressive covered market surrounded with typical medieval shops and Renaissance mansions. Getting lost in the maze of small streets surrounding the square is like travelling back in time and you will easily fall under the spell of this lovely village.

Loubressac, Carennac, Autoire (classified as the "Most beautiful village of France") are some smallest villages, but they are worth a visit. They are the hidden gems of this Northern part of the Lot Department. Castle, churches, fountains, Middle Ages and Renaissance houses are some of their jewels.

Saint-Céré, Montal, Castelnoux and "Les 3 Soleils de Montal" (One Michelin star restaurant)

Moving east, less than 40 kms away, your next stop will be the hotel "Les 3 Soleils de Montal," which is only a few miles away from Saint-Céré and very close to Montal Castle and the Montal 9-hole golf course. Frederik and Florence Bizat are the lucky and talented owners of this bucolic hotel hidden in the middle of a vast park. Frédérik Bizat has been the chef of “Les 3 Soleils” since 1991 and was awarded with a Michelin Star in 1999.

Far from resting on his laurels, he never stops creating new recipes with an undeniable savoir-faire. In summertime, the outside terrace is the perfect place to enjoy a delicious dinner. The menus often change according to seasonal produce. His cuisine is a successful mix of French classics and exotic flavours. Kyoto miso and foie gras, scallops with oyster cream, roasted suckling lamb from the Pyrenees, chocolate sweets with Bourbon vanilla ice cream, Tatin pear pie with grapefruit sorbet… far from unlikely taste associations, but an imaginative mix and match! The hotel rooms are simply decorated but comfortable and large, and the swimming pool is the ideal place to relax after visiting Saint-Céré and its surroundings. 

The closest place to visit is the Château de Montal, a true Renaissance masterpiece built for Jeanne de Balsac from 1519 to 1534. Even though only two of the four originally planned aisles were completed, this castle has unique architectural feats. Emerging over the high trees of the park, its peaked towers and turrets are covered with black tiles, making it look like Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Its outer stern façade hides real treasures, such as the monumental staircase, the impressive fireplaces and the exquisite courtyard.

However, its history has not always been a bed of roses. Turned into a simple farm after the French Revolution, it finally fell prey to speculators at the end of the 19th century. They ravaged it, selling its sculptures, its ornate dormers, doors and fireplaces, not to mention its furniture and works of art. The chateau was saved by Maurice Fenailles, an erudite and wealthy manufacturer, and one of the most prominent patrons of French museums from 1880 to 1930. Maurice Fenailles bought Montal Castle in 1908 and devoted five years of his life to restoring it, travelling the world to buy back many of the original missing parts. His friend Auguste Rodin and the artists working in his workshop remade the sculptures that Fenailles was not able to find or buy back. In 1913, Maurice Fenailles donated the chateau to the French State, fully restored and refurbished with genuine works of art. Thanks to this remarkable man, we can admire Montal Castle, as beautiful as ever. 

Close by, Saint-Céré is a medieval town crisscrossed by several branches of the Bave River with medieval and Renaissance houses and mansions forming a harmonious architectural ensemble centred by the Mercadial, the large market place. Perched on top of a hill overlooking St Céré, the Château de St Laurent les Tours, a medieval fortress, is now the Jean Lurçat museum. Born in 1892, the French painter Jean Lurçat came to the Lot where he took an active role in the French Resistance during WWII. He discovered the castle, fell in love with it and finally bought it in 1945 and turned it into his summer home and workshop.

This strange and austere place soon became his main source of inspiration and this is where he created his major masterpieces such as “Le Chant du Monde” (the World’s Song) or the “Tapisserie de l’Apocalypse”. The castle is open to the public and really is worth climbing up the hill to visit its rooms still filled by the artist’s presence. Stylized climbing plants ornate the fireplace, stars, suns and moons cover the ceilings, colourful farandoles and fabulous figures have taken possession of the walls! Each room, each beam, each stone is reminiscent of the artist’s touch.

Last but not least, the Château de Castelnau-Bretenoux probably is the most impressive medieval fortress of the area and you will see its huge silhouette on top of a hill from far away. With its high ramparts and nine towers built with local red stones, it really looks indestructible. If its walls could talk, no doubt that they would have a lot to tell! Founded in the 12th century, it took an active role in the Hundred Years’ War. The Castelnau family turned it into a more comfortable residence when the conflict was over. Mullioned windows were created, allowing floods of light in the formerly dark rooms and rich decor brightened up its reception halls. When the last Castelnau died in 1715, the chateau was abandoned and started to fall into ruin. In 1851, a big fire destroyed the last remains of the apartments.

Charmed by these romantic ruins, a famous opera singer of his time, Jean Mouliérat, bought the chateau in1896 and put all of his energy and money into restoring it. A lifetime achievement! Today, guided tours allow us to discover the whole castle, including Jean Moulierat’s apartments, decorated in the neo-Gothic style that was so fashionable in the late 19th century. Don't forget to take a complete tour at the foot of the walls to enjoy the most beautiful circular view of the landscape. 

Back to Cahors, via Figeac with a gourmet stop at Sousceyrac (another One Michelin star restaurant)

On the way back to Cahors, the hotel and restaurant "Au Déjeuner de Sousceyrac" is an unpretentious one Michelin star restaurant. It has been at the heart of this small village’s life for over a century. Unlike its stern looking stone façade, this restaurant is a warm and welcoming place. Mr. and Mrs. Lagnès know what hospitality means, and you will have a wonderful meal with a no-less wonderful value for money. After working at the “Ritz” and the “Tour d’Argent,” Patrick Lagnès came to Sousceyrac to passionately cook local products, reinventing local recipes with a touch of magic. Foie gras, meats, seafood and duckling perfectly matched with chestnut honey, an apricot crémeux melted in chocolate… each dish is a culinary marvel and you’ll truly have an experience and afterwards make yourself a promise to return. Patrick Lagnès rightfully earned his first Michelin star in 2008 and has kept it ever since. A well-deserved recognition! 

Then, going southward, you will pass by charming little villages and then arrive in Figeac, another beautiful city where it is very pleasant to walk in its old streets. Figeac is also known for being the home city of Champollion, the man who uncovered the secrets of the hieroglyphs, the ancient Egyptian writing system. A very interesting museum has been installed in the family house of Champollion. Not far away, Capdenac is another quiet and charming pedestrian village on top of a huge cliff, providing a wonderful view over the countryside. From there, a one-hour drive will return you to Cahors.

Inviting detours that deserve time

This cultural and gourmet trip in the Lot department will take you at least 7 to 10 days, but you will soon find out that with more time, it will be even better. In the Lot, it will not take you long to get from one point to another since distances are very short, but there are so many places that deserve a detour that you will want to spend more and more time in this lovely and attractive region.

Frédéric de Poligny

More info at  www.tourisme-lot.com/enfr/en
  


 

Typical house in the Lot

Tempting smoked trout

Wine tasting in Cahors

Tempting food at Château de Haute Serre

Château de Mercuès

Lemon souffé at Château de Mercués

Painted horses Pech Merle cave

Mammouth, Pech Merle cave

Unique 7-hours lamb confit, Hôtel des Grottes

Saint-Cirq-Laponie

Rocamadour

Rocamadour main gate

Château de Carennac

Hôtel des 3 Soleils de Montal 

Appetizing cuisine by Frédérick Bizat, Les 3 Soleils

Inside Château de Montal

Saint-Céré old square

Tapestries at Jean Lurçat museum

Château de Castelnau-Bretenoux

Photo vignette: Pont Valentré, Cahors

Photos © Frédéric de Poligny, except those of  Pech Merle cave which are courtesy of Lot Tourism.

 

 

   

 

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