St-Cirq-Lapopie (nr Cahors), L’Auberge du Sombral
Route 3 From the Cevennes to the Atlantic via the Tarn and Lot
Price Band **
St Cirq Lapopie is a famous beauty spot overlooking the Lot: an old village steeply pitched on a rocky spur with castle ruins and a big church on top, and not a tawny stone nor roof tile out of place. André Breton, author of the Surrealist Manifesto, discovered and fell for the place in 1950 and spent his declining summers there. ‘Chaque jour au réveil, il me semble ouvrir la fenêtre sur les très riches heures, non seulement de l’Art, mais de la nature et de la Vie,’ he wrote. St Cirq became a village of artists and craftsmen, and many houses on its staircase streets are occupied by their studios and galleries.
That may ring alarm bells: Tourist Trap alert! At least, such was my expectation, and no doubt the streets are full of aimless admiring wanderers by day. But they depart, and Le Sombral, the only hotel in the old village, could not be less trap-like. The owners cherish their beautiful hotel and home, and it is not even particularly expensive. The restaurant is open for dinner only on Friday and Saturday.
Cyclists wanting to save energy might be tempted to stay down by the river at the Saint Cirq, a new hotel that gets a good review in the red Michelin. It is quite a long way from the village, but does have a view of it.
(from F2w, chapter 3)
…… To describe St-Cirq-Lapopie’s perch above the Lot as an eminence does not do it justice. It clings to the side of a small mountain, in the shape of a cliff. “You never know,” said G, “the Auberge du Sombral might be at the bottom.” Alas, it is at the top.
Very few hotels would be worth pedalling up that hill for, but the Sombral is one of them. It was worth every painful revolution. The house is small (only 8 bedrooms) and the family that runs it – a couple of a certain age and their daughter were the only members we saw, but the daughter has a conjoint in the kitchen – is modest and unassuming. But everything about the place breathes goodness and quality – furniture, fabrics, china, paintings … and food, naturally. This feeling, a kind of wholeness, is what drew people to the Lot and the Dordogne two generations ago. Surely it must be long lost beneath the tramp of beauty-spot tourism and expats? Not quite.
Father Sombral (I don’t know the name) has retired from front of house duties and busies himself, like a monk illuminating a manuscript, extracting non-existent weeds from tiny patches of flowerbed. The only place to store our bikes under cover was in his garden shed, a space of extreme confinement like everywhere else in this cliff village. Staying at St-Cirq-Lapopie is a bit like spending the night on a ledge of the Eiger. With permission, we manoeuvred our bikes and placed them carefully so as not to disturb any tools; and as usual Galaxy strung a bungee between the bikes to use as a washing line for his underwear.
In the morning, Father Sombral needed access to his place of work. I watched him dismantle the washing line, carry the bikes out in to the street one at a time, take the utensils he needed, carry the bikes back in to the shed, one by one, and carefully re-erect the washing line with its drapery exactly as before. He might have been replacing priceless china figurines after dusting the mantelpiece.
“Of course we can dry your clothes for you in the machine if you like,” he told me afterwards. “But I think perhaps you prefer them like that, on the line.”
In the morning we had a date with the nearby cave paintings of Pech-Merle, on the other side of the river at Cabrerets.
Nearby … at …. One says these things casually, thinking as a motorist, for whom the transfer from the Sombral to Pech-Merle would be the work of a moment. On a bike it is the work of several moments and needs planning, because the number of visitors admitted to painted caves is strictly limited and we had reserved spaces on the first tour of the day. Hurtle down to the Lot, 90 seconds flat. Rattle along the Lot valley, ten minutes. Ride up the valley of the Célé as far as Cabrerets and proceed to the cave entrance. How long would that take?
Mother Sombral smiled and inclined her arm steeply towards the ceiling. As steep as that? Could Cro-Magnon not have chosen a cave by the river?
Price bands: from * (B&B for less than 50 euros per person in a shared room) to ***** (expect to pay at least 175 euros)