Classic Cahors

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Tootlafrance has a look at one of the lesser-frequented impossibly beautiful French towns

France has been thoroughly explored by foreigners at this point, so there are no real “white” areas on the map of the country.

There are, however, places that are less frequented than others and there are superb mediaeval towns that are less visited than other superb mediaeval towns.

On a bend in the river - View of Cahors with its mult-cuppola Cathedral

On a bend in the river – View of Cahors with its mult-cuppola Cathedral

Cahors is one of those gems where you’ll find a bit more elbow room in its streets than, say, somewhere like Sarlat-la-Canéda in the neighbouring department of Dordogne.

Cahors is located in a large crook on the River Lot and the winding waterway surrounds its mediaeval core almost entirely. Its stand-out feature is undoubtedly its magnificent 14th-century 6-span bridge Pont Valentré.

The bridge was erected with protection in mind, of course – particularly from the marauding English – and it’s still in seemingly perfect structural condition, allowing visitors to walk across it, climb up the towers or hang out a while at its western end to see the hired cruisers, tour boats and locals negotiating the lock.

The town itself feels a little more grandiose in mood than its modest size would suggest and it’s a nice mixture of upbeat ordinary French town and important cultural/historical centre.

The central part is in the mediaeval grid pattern that centres on the magnificent Cahors Cathedral. This latter place of worship features a remodelled interior that’s hauntingly disappointing but its exterior has lots of Romanesque and even Byzantine flourishes, marking it out as a fine example of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture.

Dining al fresco - Cahors style

Dining al fresco – Cahors style

In front of the cathedral, the daily market takes place – a wonderful colourful example of the French open market that extends indoors to the covered market on the adjoining St Maurice Square. All around here, there’s a lively, earthy mixture of cute cafes, workers’ bars, curiosity shops, grocery shops and clothing retail outlets.

To the west of this oldest part of town, there’s a more open area of larger spaces – clearly demarcated by the Boulevard Léon Gambetta. Just across this busy tree-lined boulevard, an enormous park beckons, with the Tourist Office flanking it, set off the wide boulevard.

We arrived on the occasion of a great local food festival, involving the entire square decked out as an enormous restaurant. This is an area of hearty, inventive comfort food – foie gras, truffles, duck in its variant forms and the usual array of vegetables and fruits, all washed down by the heady “black wine” of Cahors. On Saturdays, this is the location for a large bric-a-brac market; the kind of place where you’ll find wondrous treasures ranging from miniature models of French cartoon characters to WWII-era farm machinery and everything in between.

Impressionist View: Artist Henri Martin's painting of Cahors Cathedral

Impressionist View: Artist Henri Martin’s painting of Cahors Cathedral

A short walk north of here is one of the town’s highlights – the Henri Martin Museum. The prolific and highly-renowned impressionist painter was originally from Toulouse but lived much of his life in Labastide-du-Vert – one of the many impossibly pretty villages in the region about 20km from Cahors. He had a successful career, winning strong cultural/artistic recognition as well as plenty of commercial success. Examples of his large-scale works can be seen in many town halls around the country, with his native Toulouse getting more than its fair share.

you have seen the permanent exhibition here, there’s more to see back in the old town: The Prefecture de Police – located just beside the Cathedral – has another Henri Martin worth seeing. If you press the buzzer and request to see it, they’ll let you in!

Get Yourself There:
Aer Lingus fly direct from Dublin to Bordeaux and to Toulouse. Cahors is a 2½-hour drive from Bordeaux and a 1hr20min-drive from Toulouse Airport.

Staying There:
The Château de Mercuès (+ 33 5 65 20 00 01, chateaudemercues.com) is only 8km up the road and offers magnificent accommodation in castle overlooking the Lot in the middle of a vineyard with an enormous cellar underneath.
For more modest accommodation in the centre of town, try the Hôtel de France (252 Avenue Jean Jaurès, +33 5 65 35 16 76, hoteldefrance-cahors.fr)

More Links:
The Cahors tourism website (tourisme-cahors.fr) has lots of information on the town in all main languages. The mairie has a site page dedicated to the Henri Martin Museum (mairie-cahors.fr/musee)

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