Lost In Limoges

From the sheep-dotted pastures of France's underpopulated Southwest, Limoges rises in all its grey glory. The city's claim to fame: fine porcelain. The half-timbered houses of the Medieval center are surrounded by strip malls and McDo. Land-hungry Brits descend with flailing pocketbooks (thanks, RyanAir). The weather is remarkably cool year-round. Sure, I live on rue de Nice, but this is NOT the Cote d'Azur. Welcome to Limoges, "the middle of nowhere"-- or as Pierre says "everywhere"-- France.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Discovering the Lot: St-Cirq Lapopie and the Caves of Pech Merle

Drive west from Cahors, following the winding curves of the cliff-flanked River Lot, and you'll discover some of the most beautiful scenery in France. Hugging the river, the road passes through rock tunnels beneath the sheer limestone outcroppings. There are a smattering of villages built along the river's edge, accessible by narrow bridges.

The most spectacular of all the region's tiny medieval hamlets is St-Cirq Lapopie, perched on a cliff some 100 meters above the river. Stroll through flower-filled alleys and then brace yourself for the ascent. Cafes and artisans' shops now fill the half-timbered houses. And the gardens are magnificent. (When touring so many of these rural villages, I've been struck by the French devotion to aesthetics-- it's as if each village resident goes out of his/her way to beautify the house: planting flower boxes, guiding the rose plant to frame the front door.)

From the top of this 13th century village, the vertical drop to the River Lot is impressive, and the views, dramatic. When we visited the light was just right, bathing the fields below in a golden hue. The village has retained its charm despite the bus loads of tourists who visit. In fact, a tour bus had clogged the entire road the day we visited, as it tried to navigate a particularly narrow turn. So we opted to walk-- passing riders on horseback as we did.

Nearby (about 30 kilometers from Cahors) is the Grotte de Pech Merle, an extensive series of caverns that showcase marvelous prehistoric paintings along with the bizarre stalactites and stalagmites. Two boys discovered the caves in 1922, and we couldn't help but joke that maybe it was that pair who spent time marking up the walls. Most impressive are the footprints left behind-- a path across the mud.

Cro-Magnon people drew paintings of mammoths and polka-dotted horses in this eerie, sacred space some 16,000 years ago, and it's a marvel to behold. There are a bunch of negative human hand prints visible on the wall, like an artist's signature. It was also cool to see the bizarre tree roots hanging in the caverns, meters and meters below the earth's surface. They've marked the tree with an 'x' outside the grotte's entrance.


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