One of the many charming restaurants in the medieval village of Sarlat-la-Caneda
A counterclockwise tour of southwest France, starting in Toulouse, can be easily created using France’s SNCF train system which connects the cities. Our trip included stops in Cahors, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, Sarlat-la-Caneda, Perigueux, Bordeaux, and Lourdes before returning to Toulouse for a final week to enjoy a concert-intensive festival of Bach classical music. While only a few trains ran each day between cities, the schedules were accurate and trains were mostly on time, save for some minor weather delays due to periodically heavy spring rains.
In most towns we chose lodgings with kitchens to enjoy a combination of local restaurant fare and self-catering preparations from fresh local market foods. While all accommodations were comfortable and cost from 70 to 80 euros (about US$100) per night, some were standouts worth mentioning.
Our choice of digs for three nights in Cahors was the Chambre d’Hotes Cours Vaxis, a well-appointed bed-and-breakfast apartment located opposite the scenic River Lot. The proprietors Dominique and Herve Priels, both local artists, offered gracious hospitality, a comfortable one-bedroom apartment with a city view, a generous daily breakfast, and much good advice about the best local attractions and dining spots. The Priels’ chambre d’hote is a member of Gites de France, an association of thousands of privately-owned bed-and-breakfast apartments throughout France.
Cahors is a wonderful walking village known for its pedestrian alleys with little shops in the center, and its green parks that follow the serpentine River Lot for several miles through the village. These are perfect for enjoying picnics comprising fresh goods available from small food shops or the Wednesday outdoor market in the cathedral square. The UNESCO World Heritage site in Cahors is the Pont Valentre, a three-tower bridge spanning the river since the 14th century, best seen from a small park below the bridge on the opposite side from the center city. Other compelling attractions are the art museum of native-son artist Henri Martin, and the Museum of the Resistance, a small but memorable history museum that recounts both the Nazi atrocities of World War II, and the heroes of the French underground resistance, many of whom were based in Cahors.
A highlight of the trip to Southwest France was Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, a village voted in 2012 as the “most beautiful village in France” on a French public TV poll. Perched on an impossibly scenic 1,275-foot mountaintop location overlooking the Lot River, the little village dates from the Middle Ages, when it was a stop on the pilgrimage route to Spain. A roundtrip bus ride from the Cahors train station costs about 20 Euros (US$ 26) for a 40-minute ride each way that is worth the money for both the scenery and the destination. Those unable to trek up a mountain road to the top from the bus stop in the village of Tour-de-Faure down below should arrange a taxi or seek a tour guide from Cahors.
The pedestrian lanes, outdoor cafe overlooks, artisan workshops and breathtaking views from Saint-Cirq make it a day-trip adventure worth taking. Be sure to visit the bake shop near the bus stop in Tour-de-Faure and meet the boulanger Isabel Roux whose grandfather opened the store in the 1930s. Apprenticed at a young age to her father and grandfather, Roux has worked in the bakery her entire life and is a master creator of fresh breads and mouthwatering pastries.
The medieval village of Sarlat-la-Caneda, northwest of Cahors, has a picturesque, welcoming pedestrian zone in the center, with a wealth of shops, restaurants, sidewalk cafes and small hotels. Foie gras is served in every eatery and sold in every store, but our favorite meal was the cassoulet served by hosts Nora and Olivier at their charming Chez le Gaulois restaurant in the town center. It was only a few steps away from the Sarlat-la-Caneda tourist office, in the same historic building where we enjoyed a free choral concert of French chansons performed by a local choir, with a reception of wine, light desserts and conversation that followed.
At La Maison du Notaire Royal, a chambre d’hote constructed from three conjoined 17th-century houses just off Sarlat’s main square, we had a comfortable, if simple, front room without kitchen. We were surprised, however, at the popularity of the place with some Americans we met on our trip, including David and Beth from Oregon and Denis and Carol from San Francisco. It was notable that the few Americans we met in southwest France lived on the U.S. West Coast.
More comfortable accommodations were found at Au Soleil Levant, a garden apartment chambre d’hote hosted by Christine and Bruno Donne on Rue du Tunnel, just up a small hill from the Sarlat-la-Caneda city center. The downstairs studio apartment here was richly appointed with a full kitchen, flat screen TV and stereo system, comfortable bed and couch, and a lovely garden with patio furniture and barbeque area just outside a sliding door from the apartment. Upstairs was a second accommodation of bedroom without kitchen, but affording a great city view.
The Vesunna Gallo-Roman Museum affords views of excavated 1st-century Roman structures.
During a visit to the lively Wednesday street market in the cathedral square of Cahors, a vendor sold us a pair of comfortable summer shirts for 30 euros (US$ 40). He excitedly told us that in his many months working in the market we were the first Americans to whom he had ever sold merchandise. The lone Americans we met at the Cahors market were a pair of Oregonians shopping for olives at a popular food stall.
A similar experience occurred in the Sunday street market in the gourmet city of Perigueux, where foie gras and duck confit are the specialties, but our taste was drawn to a popular, freshly-made paella. After demonstrating his aromatic, bubbly technique in creating the Spanish-style concoction, the sidewalk deli butcher Jean Claude Rouvrais happily promised to save us a generous double portion, costing 10 euros (US$ 13.40) for our lunch. We enjoyed it after returning from church to discover that the rest of his enormous pan of paella had sold out in one hour. While delighted to meet some rare American customers, Chef Rouvrais declined to share details about his lip-smacking secret ingredients, including the handmade chorizo sausage that gave the dish its spicy kick.
At Perigueux’s nearby seafood market, the fishmonger Adrian Unia at the “Bob the Fisherman” counter sold us a dozen fresh oysters from the Atlantic coastal village of Marennes-Oleron, considered home to France’s best shellfish. At his suggestion we washed down the sweet-tasting oysters with Tariquet, the dry white wine produced in the Dordogne Valley, the northern sector of the Midi-Pyrenees. Good eating in public places takes an almost daily center stage during a visit to the Midi-Pyrenees. The enjoyment of fresh offerings at outdoor street markets is a best way to eat well while meeting the locals who relish the experience even more than the tourists with whom they often share communal tables.
Perigueux’s helpful city center tourist information office on Place Francheville helped us find a newly-renovated self-catering apartment just around the corner at Les Suites de la Tour. The space was in a walkup building with several spotlessly clean units popular with business travelers, but well suited for visitors touring the city center just outside the front door. Our third-floor one-bedroom apartment had windows with street views, skylights allowing natural sunlight to stream in, and a well-stocked kitchen perfect for enjoying goods from the best outdoor food markets in southwest France. We enjoyed majestic choral music at church services in the cavernous Cathedral of St. Front, dating from the 11th century, an evening concert in the same church by a popular local chanteuse, the weekend markets in the city squares, and a lengthy visit to the Vesunna Gallo-Roman Museum, yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ancient Rome in Perigueux
A short walk from the city center, the Vesunna Gallo-Roman Museum is an award-winning modern glass structure surrounding the excavations of an entire Roman city dating from the first to the third centuries. Discovered in 1959 and excavated until 1993, the Gallo-Roman excavations were opened as a new museum by the city in 2003. The site includes modern catwalks that visitors crisscross while studying the monumental Roman city details below. The contents of the excavation grounds include a Roman tower, the remains of a 1st-century amphitheater, Roman ramparts, walls with fresco remnants, hundreds of household artifacts, and the fascinating lower interior of a Roman spa.
The Cathedral of St. Front in Perigueux dates back to the 11th century.