Lots to do in southwest France

 Bruce Robertson

The day starts better than it could have. I had to catch a train to Gourdon and there was a train strike that day!! If you've travelled in France you'll know this isn't unusual and normally only lasts for a day (or so I'm told). Fortunately it is only the local train network this time so my intercity train is unaffected.
The usual pick-up point for Lot Cycling Holidays, Gourdon, is my first taste of the region. The train station is just outside the town and I had a couple of hours before being picked up (my call as our obliging hosts will come out on request - it's only about 15km).
The station is a 15-minute walk from the town. Gourdon was founded as a medieval fortress on top of a hill surrounded by a moat. The 10th century castle is long gone - having been destroyed in the Hundred Years War, it was restored in the 16th century only to be razed again when the owner took the losing side against Louis XIII. The base of the old castle is now a lookout over the surrounding area giving a beautiful 360° panorama. Just below this is the magnificent church of St. Pierre and the mairie or town hall. The old medieval streets still weave around the hill and are immaculately maintained while now often housing classy restaurants and boutiques. The moat was later filled in to form an elegant boulevard encircling the hill and is today lined with cafés and bars. It is very easy to kill a couple of hours in Gourdon, or even more if you happen on one of the very popular markets.
The Lot valley is a much lesser known but very close cousin to the Dordogne, being just the next river valley south. As such it is much less crowded and popular, though equally beautiful. It may not have the chateaux but the quaint villages and by-ways are all there - and if you need to visit a Dordogne chateau just point your bike the other direction!

Lot Valley village with cyclist
On arrival at the beautifully restored Mas de Flory, and after the tour of the excellent facilities, it is time to relax and get acquainted with the other guests before being served the first meal in a series of what becomes one of the highlights of the tour. Aileen is our chef for the week and seems to outdo her excellent French dinners each night. All food is either produced on-site or locally. Today is a walnut and Roquefort salad followed by a cassoulet of pork, duck and sausage. A divine crème brûlée and cheese platter tops this off. Accompanying this feast is a couple of the region’s famous Malbec wines - a rosé and a wonderfully full-bodied red.
Breakfast is a typical continental croissant and coffee with optional baguette, juice and yoghurt. The local twist being the unpasteurised milk available with its more authentic or rustic taste.
The day starts with an option - being a self-guided tour it is full of options although in our case everyone chooses to ride together today. The choice is to be driven to Lamothe Casselle just outside the Parc Naturel Régional de Causses du Quercy or to ride the 25km there. We opt for the latter and are treated to a pretty, if not particularly scenic route, along quiet back roads until we crossed the busy A20 and entered the park. The excellent maps and briefing we received over breakfast - as we do every day - mean that navigation is a breeze and the route well researched. One thing we are rightly warned about was that this is a quiet and non-touristy area of the country - both a blessing and a curse – and although there were villages on the way there aren't many shops and even then they close early for a long break in the middle of the day.
On leaving Lamothe Casselle the ride becomes much more picturesque starting with a beautiful and gradual descent for several kilometres to the very pretty village of Saint Sauveur-La-Vallée. This sleepy commune has not recovered from its disproportionately high death toll among young men who fought in the Algerian War of 1954-62.
We continue south through lush countryside until we meet the Lot River, riding through more villages with romantic and enticing names - Vers, Saint Gery and Bouzies   This is a relaxing tour and we come across a lovely restaurant for a leisurely lunch where most of us enjoy le menu du jour - very satisfying and great value.
Riding alongside the Lot River we see a bit more traffic and more tourists but the gentle pace of the tour continues. At several points during the day our host John meets us with the support van, but no one needs to avail of a lift.
Our final stop for the day is the busiest. Saint-Cirq Lapopie - one of the prettiest villages in France (Les Plus Beaux Villages de France) is a tourist draw card. It is perched on a cliff above a meander of the river, and was originally a fortress - long since gone but leaving a great lookout. The views are magnificent; both over the surrounding countryside and the village itself, which dates from the 8th and 9th centuries, presided over by a beautiful medieval church. Little seems have changed since medieval times, albeit many of the buildings and houses are now occupied by local artisans, gift shops and boutiques with plenty of bars and restaurants.
The river below us has some traffic, being navigable through a series of locks and canals right over to Bordeaux on the coast. There is also a towpath or Chemin de halage, often carved right into the cliff face, which is very popular with walkers and hikers.
The car parks are located just outside the village and riding back up we sail pass tourists going back to their cars. In the car park John packs up the bikes and we head back to base in the van to enjoy another of Aileen's magnificent meals.
Although there are five cycling days on this tour, I am only able to join for two. The second day has quite a different tone as we head north towards the Dordogne River. It is certainly a busier area, with more facilities for tourists, but still has a laid back relaxed feel. We stay together until our morning stop at the delightful village of Daglan, at a café run by an English expat couple. The village itself was well worth exploring and a good place to stock up with delicious bread and cheese for a picnic lunch. Riding along with a baguette sticking out of your front pannier is very cliché but so much fun.

 Cycling in the Dordogne

We picnic on a riverbank in a little park below the magnificent Chateau de Beynac. This medieval fortress has been beautifully restored to its authentic historic past and is particularly fascinating for a history buff like myself – the restoration is an ongoing process which will continue until 2030. The views over the Perigord are breathtaking and you can see the rival Chateau de Castelnaud across the valley.
Although the group has split up today, as we are following the same route we do come across each other from time to time as people stop for varying lengths at cafés or historic or scenic sights.
The next couple of villages also proudly retain and display their medieval origins - the riverside Le Roque Gagnac and hilltop Domme. And being on a bike means you can avoid the trudge from the car park to the village and back! There are also some cave paintings nearby that I'm told are well worth a visit but it gets hard to fit everything in and do them all justice.
It is from from Domme we get collected today and driven back to enjoy our final dinner at Mas de Flory. Over the course of the next day we disperse, thoroughly relaxed, to the station, the airport or elsewhere in France.

[The author was a guest of Lot Cycling Holidays]