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Travel Province of the Past

Illustration by James Noel Smith

A sojourn in the French départment of the Lot, where 25,000 years of human history are clear to see

by Peter Davison

THE French word causse (rhymes with "dose") denotes a certain kind of limestone upland. It has no precise equivalent in English, occupying the ground we cover with such terms as "heath" and "moor." There are several causses in southwestern France, but I'm especially in thrall to the Causse de Gramat, located in the département of the Lot, in the Quercy region, between the Dordogne River on the north and the Lot River on the south. The Causse de Gramat contains no urban center familiar to Americans except, in its southwestern corner, the ancient river town of Cahors, celebrated for its red wines. The region has been wonderfully evoked by W. S. Merwin in his classic prose book The Lost Upland, and is scrupulously described by Helen Martin in The Lot, in Columbus Books' Travelscapes series (published only, alas, in London). Of the forty books about Quercy listed by Amazon.com, only three are still in print, in English or French. Quercy's past is more eventful than its present. Call me reactionary, then: I've visited there three times in a decade.
Discuss this article in the Foreign Affairs conference of Post & Riposte.

More on travels and foreign affairs in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"On France's Blessed South Coast," by Hans Koning (December 1996)
The Côte d'Azur maintains a delightful, if delicate, balance between people and nature -- but it's an uphill struggle.

"A Moveable Feast," by Barbara Wallraff (February 1996)
A barge makes a splendid base from which to visit some of the most scenic parts of France.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Atlantic Abroad: "Dog Days in Paris," by Katherine Guckenberger (March 4, 1998)
"What once appeared to be a quintessential and seemingly untouchable aspect of Parisian life -- the lap dog as fashion accessory -- now seems to be under siege."

Atlantic Abroad: "A Convent With a View," by Katherine Guckenberger (January 22, 1998)
"The site in question, perched precariously on an outcrop of rock in the Vosges mountains of Alsace, is St. Odile."

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

A Lot of France
"Tourist & economic showcase of the Lot area." A site (in French), hosted by La Vitrine Touristique et Economique du département du Lot, offering general information about the region, with links to hotels, restaurants, and cultural and sporting events.

Vacation Rentals in Dordogne/Lot
Descriptions and contact information for properties for rent. Posted by Design-A-Tour, a company that offers tours, home rental brokerage services, and airline, car, and hotel reservation assistance.

Photographs of Lot and Avreyon
A collection of photographs of Lot and the surrounding area. Posted by a company that offers bicycle tours in the region.

La Maison Pierre
An advertisement for a country villa on the border of Lot/Dordogne. The site offers descriptions of the area, photos, and recommended tourist activities.

Région Aquitaine
A comprehensive guide (in french) to Aquitaine. The site offers news, general information, events listings, maps, transportation guides, and more.

My wife and I recently rented a little farmhouse (we found it advertised in Harvard Magazine) called Le Petit Manoir de Sept Fas, a name that might be rendered as The Country Cottage at Seven Beeches. The comfortable house is part of a larger, ancient farming site near the village of Vaillac (population: 84), close to the geographic center of the Causse de Gramat. The farmhouse sits above a stream, at the end of a tiny paved road, surrounded by cow pastures looming with huge, slow-moving white cattle, a breed known as blondes d'Aquitaine. As we came and went, the beasts showed a curious but not intrusive interest in us and would even amble mildly toward our fence if we made appropriate noises.

Illustration by James Noel SmithOur two-week visit took place in the spring, late April and early May, when along the hedgerows buttercups, dandelions (the French name is pissenlit), lilacs, and wisteria were blossoming. The air rang day and night with the sounds of cuckoos and nightingales, owls and blackbirds. The surrounding pastures, ploughland, and meadows were studded with stone farmhouses, many of them unoccupied, their limestone walls hairy with lichen and their roofs of stone and tile mossy with age. The landscape dripped moisture, and we were encircled by lime-nourished meadow grasses, bony adolescent oaks and hawthorns, hedgerows that had flourished in place for hundreds of years. The ploughed fields revealed a fibrous red soil mixed with splinters of limestone.

We are walking a grassy track between a hedgerow and a stone wall, a track that meanders according to the accidents of the landscape and the history of possession, keeping us safe from this man's sheep and clear of that man's crop. Beneath the wall sprout spring flowers, on this day in May as fresh as ever, white blossoms known as stars of Bethlehem, carried on thick stems with lacy leaves. A cuckoo is sending out his spring warning, as regular as a clock that strikes the quarter hours. Across the wall carries the sound of cows chewing, mouthing huge bites of the brilliant new grass, so fresh that it colors them where they have lain. The path proceeds past an old barn stained with lichen, its roof constructed of tile at the top but anchored with thin slabs of stone toward the bottom, where it meets the wall. Beyond the field, now that the path has risen enough to let us see, a larger building, of the same inevitable yet resourceful limestone, rises out of the grass a couple of hundred yards away. There is a ramp at one end to allow wagons to reach the second floor, and from this story rises a tower with openings under its peaked tile roof to admit the pigeons that were kept to signal prosperity, and to allow the collection of their immensely powerful manure. (In this country in the Middle Ages there were few cattle, mostly sheep, and pigeons had to do most of the work of fertilization.) From time to time, even in daylight, a nightingale, hidden in the thicket beyond the barn, pours out the liquid tale that we think of as signifying suffering.

This is ancient turf, divided and subdivided by family squabbles, laws of inheritance, feudal infighting, and the endless tribulations of owning property. It has shaped itself into a patchwork of wild and tame, cultivated and fallow, meadowland and cropland, hedgerow and lane.

Illustration by James Noel Smith

France south of the Loire owes much of its distinct character to the ancient principalities of Aquitaine and Toulouse and to the wispy memory of Albigensian heretics, extirpated by Crusaders in the thirteenth century. The sound of a forgotten language that gave the region its name of Languedoc still murmurs in the local dialects and accents, with their aftertaste of Occitan -- the Provençal and Catalan language spoken long ago, before langue d'oïl (the language of Oui) took over France. Modern France, governed from Paris, did not gain full sovereign power until the English were driven off the mainland, a mere 500 years ago, and the Protestants (spiritual descendants of the murdered Albigensians) were hounded out by the Wars of Religion. They eventually migrated to the Netherlands, Quebec, or New Orleans, leaving France firmly under the thumbs of such problematic curators as Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIV. The Quercy region, whose character survives despite centuries of suppression, answers to influences far older and subtler than the dominations and appurtenances of the modern nation-state. Languedoc, and especially the Lot, bear some of the earliest discernible traces of human culture in Europe.

About seventeen miles south of Vaillac, near the limestone cliffs of the Célé River, one may drive up a steep road toward the entrance to a series of huge caves called Pech-Merle (Blackbird Hill). Guided tours allow as many as twenty-five visitors at a time to walk through the winding caverns for about a mile and view, under incandescence, the paintings that Aurignacian Man daubed on the walls by torchlight 25,000 years ago. Here mingle bison and mammoths, aurochs and cave bears, huge red deer and spotted horses and antelopes -- visions created by men who crept far underground to celebrate in their subtle and exquisite paintings these fellow inhabitants of a vanished age. What inquiry, beyond mere curiosity, drove these fugitives to penetrate the darkness? Their very footprints are preserved in the stone, their hand prints outlined on the walls. Did they come here to depict and celebrate the now vanished creatures from which they "drew" the source of their existence, the animals they lived by or upon? We today worship the consequences of our industry: money or the devices that symbolize it. Yet we must still gasp when confronted with the mystery at which the wall painting of two spotted horses, with red pike superimposed, hints. The cave paintings of Pech-Merle radiate vitality off the moist walls of their cavern, but you need not travel to Quercy to see them: turn to the Internet and look for www.Quercy.net, and then click on the icon labeled "Le patrimoine." (In their online version the scale and context are of course lacking.)

We walk on and find, as our path approaches the road with the tower on it, that there is a stream on the far side. This limestone country conceals water in every crevice. A quarter mile farther along the road we pass a high old shed that now shelters two immense green John Deere tractors. Soon afterward evidence of their obtrusive work shows up along the road, where a steep swath of hillside, uncultivable in the old days, lies turned up by the plough. We hear a stream forcefully cutting its way through the layers of stone that underlie it, and soon we begin to see on the hill to our left a crenellated castle and its stable, empty now but in the sixteenth century capable of holding 200 horses and their warrior riders for raids against the English. Below the castle, as we walk a little farther, we can make out through the trees the low gray walls and tile roofs and blunt church tower of Vaillac. As we approach the village, the houses seem to reach out to embrace us, some with their ancient stone walls intact, others covered with a cosmetic stucco, and a few even showing, in shocking colors, plastic children's playthings behind the old walls -- a swing or a wagon. Just to our left a neatly walled-in ditch gurgles with the runoff from yesterday's rain; at intervals three or four chiseled steps lead down to the water's edge, to enable the washing of clothes. The water streams with long green grasses, and a wagtail bobs its feathers at us but hustles away as we approach. Soon we will have the option of crossing the stream on a small stone bridge to reach the larger part of the village, on our left, or continuing another hundred yards to the end of the lane, where a steep path up the hillside to our right ascends next to a pasture holding four chestnut horses with stars on their foreheads, who stand and stare at us. We return their gaze, and they walk, and then trot, forward out of curiosity.

Not far north of Pech-Merle, just short of a little village named Cras, lies a later relic of human society: traces of the Gaulish enclosed settlement known as the oppidum of Murcens, claimed by some to be the site of Uxellodunum, where in 52 B.C. Julius Caesar defeated the great chieftain Vercingetorix and, to discourage further opposition by the contumacious Gauls, chopped off the right hands of 6,000 warriors, thus eliminating Gaulish resistance to the Pax Romana. Very little physical evidence remains to hint at the sort of life the Gauls led in pre-Roman times. Pastures are still available for twenty-first-century cattle, and a few stone farmhouses stand where the countryside would expect them to. Archaeologists have excavated remnants of a long, broad wall, called the murus gallicus, which is thought to have surrounded parts of the settlement, enclosing the human population as well as its cattle. By Caesar's time the tribes of Gaul had retired from their nomadic existence to graze their herds in one place and to plant and cultivate their crops behind natural redoubts and the artificial defenses of the wall.

Illustration by James Noel Smith

Visitors may stumble half a mile or so among the remaining traces of the murus gallicus to the upper edge of the high cliff-rampart that defended the oppidum from such enemies as might pass through the winding emerald valley of the little Célé River, far below. As we sat atop the cliff, eating hard-boiled eggs and ruminating on the Gauls and their fate, two Vietnamese couples hiked in and pulled their own meal of cold spaghetti in tomato sauce out of a backpack, creating a certain resonance with regard to the consequences and duration of empire. When we departed, leaving the river to them, we noted in our guidebook that a spring underlying this site became the source, after the Gauls' defeat, for the water supply of the Roman Divona Cadurcorum, or Cahors, seventeen miles to the south.

It is beginning to rain, so we leave the horses to it and cross to the village of Vaillac. Perhaps the church will be open, in preparation for a wedding or a funeral, and we will be able to peer inside at its fifteenth-century ceiling frescoes and two lithe twentieth-century wooden statues: Mary holding up a joyous infant, and a beardless Jesus hanging in melancholy triumph from his cross. Besides the church there is nothing in Vaillac likely to be open: the villagers either drive to Labastide-Murat or buy their groceries from a market truck that visits often enough.

Cahors became a considerable center of Roman commerce, able to ply maritime trade along the lower Lot River, which empties into the Garonne and then into the Atlantic, after Bordeaux. Later Cahors became the site of a medieval university founded by a French Pope, John XXII, whose reign at Avignon, from 1316 to 1334, earned such notoriety that no subsequent Pope was willing to take the name until John XXIII of Bergamo did so in 1958. Today Cahors is the center not only of the old province of Quercy but also of the wine industry along the Lot. The huge cathedral of St. Etienne; the thriving Saturday market in the cathedral square; the marvelous fortified bridge, Pont Valentré, that crosses the river west of the city -- all these make Cahors a place to visit, and a place to shop for wine or regional specialties or clothes (of which I was in need, owing to the baggage-handling delinquencies of Air France). There is also a first-class restaurant, Le Balandre, in the railway hotel, with gentle-pink walls, considerate bilingual service, an enormous wine list, and an ingenious and elaborate cuisine, where we enjoyed a sumptuous lunch of seafood delicacies and an amazing hazelnut dessert. (Le Balandre sports a well-merited Michelin star.)

The Lot spent centuries as a battlefield -- from the Albigensian Crusade, in 1215, during the papacy of Innocent III, right through the Hundred Years' War and the Wars of Religion and into the seventeenth century, when the Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin finally centralized the territory of France to harden under the autocracy of Louis XIV at Versailles. It's curious that the Lot today should look so harmonious and peaceful when it has suffered so many years of strife and intolerance. Perhaps it has exported everyone with a genetic tendency to be disagreeable -- but it has retained plentiful evidence of past disagreement in the form of castles, fortified towns called bastides, and even a domestic architecture that strikes attitudes of defense.

This is a region to tour in, if you choose. In addition to fortifications, it includes historic sites, churches, towns by the dozen, and villages by the score, no two alike, each of which deserves its own long story, steeped in human distress. The verdigris of this history has tinted the region with a melancholy beauty. The Lot is less touristic than the Dordogne district to its north, so beloved of the British -- though it has its share, in July and August, of tourist buses.

Illustration by James Noel SmithTo settle down for a week or two in this sweet rolling countryside, among its limestone buildings, and to walk along its quiet back roads and well-marked upland paths, transports one to a pre-industrial existence. The Lot has so little in common with the more fevered society far to its north that after a fortnight I felt a severer culture shock on arrival in Paris than I had after my flight across the Atlantic.

As we walk back along the road toward our little farmhouse, we look in at the house of M. and Mme. Lacam, proud septuagenarian owners of the blondes d'Aquitaine that keep us company by day. The Lacams' daughter, an arboriste (who, unlike her parents, no longer speaks in Occitan accents), is visiting from Perigord. She is building a new house of old stones on the family property, and is investing the ground that slopes down to the stream with an aggressively terraced and "landscaped" garden system that will, I expect, insist on broadcasting its glories across the whole valley to attract the attention of tourists driving by on the D-2, the "scenic" route from Gourdon to Figeac. Perhaps the Lot is reaching out to a larger world at last. The daughter and a nephew walk us around the premises with a proper pride in what they have imposed on the neighborhood -- here a bed of roses, there one of azaleas, over yonder a piscine, a round pool whose bright-blue chlorination will effect a Contrast. The elder Lacams smile and giggle a little at their middle-aged child's grands projets.

In the Lot one can make imaginative journeys into the past on foot. The motor vehicle serves mainly to transport people, livestock, and such genial crops as walnuts and strawberries from farm to market. The larger economy services the region but does not yet govern it, though a huge highway connection (the A20) now under construction to link Toulouse and Limoges threatens to change all that before long. The district's biggest industry today, apart from cookery and the production and export of such commodities as truffles and pâté de foie gras, is tourism, but it's not surprising, perhaps, that such contrarian French institutions as surrealism and the Maquis flourished particularly in this part of France. The Lot has been steadily decreasing in population for centuries: today it has half as many people as it had a hundred years ago, and one does not often see school buses or tiny children.

We return home but get a glimpse of the Lacams once more toward sunset, when they are herding their cattle out of the pastures for the night. These two old people are able to control a herd of fifty large beasts using just the sounds of their voices -- an insistent "Allez, allez" -- and the occasional wave of a big stick, together with the quiet intercession of the industrial world: each pasture is edged with a fence that includes a single strand of bright-blue electrical wire. Mme. Lacam, after she has turned off the fence and opened the gate to let the cattle out, stands holding a length of harmless blue twine attached to a fencepost to keep the cattle from straying away down the main road. The animals treat the blue filament as though it contained a thousand volts; keeping a respectful distance, they lumber warily back into their corral for the night. Clearly this countryside operates on a personal scale. I say a word to Mme. Lacam about the magic power of the blue twine, and she giggles again.

Peter Davison is The Atlantic's poetry editor. His most recent collection of poetry, Breathing Room, was published in September.

Illustrations by James Noel Smith.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2001; Province of the Past - 01.01; Volume 287, No. 1; page 30-33.