Europe

River Cruising

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A pamphlet I picked up in a tourism office in Cahors, the big city” of the Lot Valley, refers to the area as la France profonde (“deep France”). The phrase is in fact the title of a book by a French academic, Michel Dion, and refers to the culture and traditions of village life in rural France—the “real” France as it was. The pamphlet doesn’t elaborate further, but this part of France is also rich in medieval buildings, castles and fortifications, including the towers on the iconic Valentr bridge in Cahors that were built during or even before the Hundred Years War (1337–1453).

Prior to our river adventure, I talked with Debbie Peterman of Le Boat to get suggestions and make arrangements. I told her I was hoping to be in the southwest, perhaps in Aquitaine; she suggested the Lot River, which, she said, remains pristine. I’m not sure what “pristine” means in this case, but the river is indeed pristine, with only farming and viticulture occupying its banks. Or it could mean something similar to la France profonde, in that the medieval inhabitants wouldn’t be too shocked if they were transported today to one of the riverside villages, many of which have dwellings and churches that date to medieval times. The fact that sluices and weirs, and then a primitive locking system, were installed on the river in the 14th century is an indication that the river was used early on for trade, likely in the local wines.

We—my husband, George, and I—spent a couple of days in Paris with about-to-be-riverboaters Ken and Nikki Hauck, friends from Milwaukee, and then took a fast train to Cahors, where we spent the night and had time to do some sightseeing, sample the local wines—the famous “black wines” of Cahors, deep, fruity Malbecs—and buy a few bottles for the boat (no boat should be without, especially in this part of the world). We were due at 1600 at Le Boat’s base in Douelle, a small town to the west of Cahors, where we investigated our boat—a 43-foot Calypso with three cabins, two heads, a conveniently arranged galley, and indoor and outdoor dining areas—dumped our stuff in our cabins, checked the fit of the bicycles we’d rented, and awaited the arrival of photographer Malcolm White, our fifth crew.

With a firm date and an 1800 appointment for our tutorial in Getting the Boat Through a Lock, George took the helm and did some downstream slaloms to confirm that the boat was handling well. Fortunately, since we hadn’t done any provisioning, we were told that stopping at a frescoed quay (unmistakable) on the other side of the river would give us access to a neighborhood grocery store. Le Boat will provision for you from a list on their website, but we elected to check out the local markets and select the edibles ourselves.

Before we met the Le Boat crew at the nearest lock, we agreed on a division of labor: George at the helm, Nikki and me as line handlers, and Ken and Malcolm as sluice and gate openers/closers. Clearly, ten hands would make light work. We line handlers were instructed in the importance of our job—namely, if we didn’t haul in and let out the lines quickly and at the right time, we could experience the ultimate embarrassment of leaving the boat dangling several feet above the water in the lock.

The lesson complete, and armed with the excellent cruising guide Le Boat provided ahead of time, we headed farther west for a practice cruise and found it was getting dark pretty quickly—misty, too. There were no tie-up-here signs (a placard showing a bollard) visible in the gloaming, so we tied up to two well-placed trees and attacked the provisions, not to mention the wine supply.

When we awoke, the mist was thick enough to be mistaken for a New England fog. I’d already been amazed when first coming upon the Pont Valentr with its exact reflection lying horizontally on the flat water of the river, closing its arches into ovals. That morning, even in the mist, the reflection of our boat and the surrounding vegetation was lying beside us. We decided, as the fog gradually lifted, to take a cruise downstream (east, with the current) as far as the Chteau de Cax, high up in the hills, which—not surprisingly—also left a doppelganger lying flat on the river.

We thought we did a good job of coming back through the Cessac lock, where we’d started, and were feeling quite comfortable about tackling the lock between us and a megamarket at Laberaudie, on the west side of Cahors (confirmed on the chart by an icon of a grocery cart). We tied up at the access point, but still had to make a call to Erica, Le Boat’s base manager in Douelle, to figure out the walking route. Malcolm led the pillaging of the shelves, filling a huge shopping cart with everything from roast duck in a can (which turned out to be quite tasty and was recycled through several creative meals) to boat shoes. After a passage through the Valentr lock, which lies alongside the bridge and offers a terrific view of it from the bottom up, we decided to spend the night tied up at Port Bullier, on the other side of the river, and devote a little time to exploring Cahors and its excellent march central in the morning.

We never did discuss how interested we were in covering the greatest possible distances and visiting the greatest number of places, but we were on vacation and the Lot is a very mellow river—placid, scenic, flat as a pancake, and not conducive to racing around. Hustling of any kind seemed antithetical to the mood it created. So we decided to cruise upstream (that would be east) in a leisurely way and eventually go far enough to fulfill our two goals: visiting the Pech Merle caves and the medieval village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie.

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