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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
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The nearest town by boat from the east side of Cahors is Laroque-des-Arcs (population 500), a trip of less than 3 miles, and there we tied up to the quay, where there was a colorful Sunday plant and flower market. Next stop: Vers, 6 miles to the east.

Vers offers a long quay but it was chockablock when we arrived, so we dangled off the end and—no wind, no tide, no rude boaters—had no problems. There are spotless toilettes and showers as well as laundry sinks, and the only charge, a couple of euros, is for the shower. The town is delightful, and very walkable. It has its own small river (the Vers), and a sign at the river’s edge reminds fishermen that it’s catch-and-release only. There is also a ptanque court (if “court” is what it’s called), which was in use every time we passed by. We wandered around the town looking for treasures and came up with a wine store, a boulangerie, and a well-stocked small market. We missed the 11th-century church, Notre Dame des Velles, but there are many times in the course of a boating expedition when acquiring food and drink is the top priority, even when you’re just four days into it.

In the past few days we had moved through mostly agrarian scenery, with steep hills and villages and castles that could be seen from and were reflected in the river. Now we were entering a more dramatic locale, punctuated by high, steep limestone cliffs. St-Cirq-Lapopie was built on top of these cliffs, some 330 feet about the river, sometime before 1198, when Richard the Lionhearted tried to seize it. Our second goal was to visit Pech Merle, the painted cave whose wall art may date back 25,000 years. The most convenient access is through Bouzis, where we were lucky to find space at the quay, again with no charge.

On our first day in Bouzis, we biked up to Saint-Cirq-Lapopie. The route looks quite benign at the bottom, where we stayed on the towpath along the river. (It’s more than a little bumpy and was decorated with the droppings of an enormous animal, perhaps a cave bear, I thought.) The entire trip is 3 to 4 miles, including the towpath and the road up to Saint-Cirq, and there were times when it called for a bit of walking. However, the minute we caught sight of the village, we were awed and astonished—a quick fix for biking woes. My recollection is that we investigated every road in the village, stopping only for a cold drink in one of the inns.

The next day, feeling in need of stretching my legs again, I suggested that we walk to Pech Merle to see prehistoric wall paintings. We crossed a bridge over the Lot, took the road to Conduch, a nearby town, and followed the D41 highway, which runs alongside the Cl River, to the town of Cabrerets—all up, 3 to 4 miles to get to the village church, behind which a hot and rocky pedestrian path leads to Pech Merle. This was the day of my personal mea culpa: I failed to call for a reservation for a visit to the cave, even though I knew that entry is limited and it is essential to call ahead. And it was. We missed the only remaining tour for that day, and that was that. The best thing about the day was that a kind Pech Merle employee offered us a ride back to Bouzis.

It was hard to believe that the end was already in sight, and we were heading back to Cahors, specifically to have a farewell dinner that didn’t include leftover duck, which had already appeared as itself, in omelets and in a salad. Fortunately, Nikki had made friends with a shopkeeper on our first pass through Cahors, and we stopped by and asked for (and received) a restaurant recommendation. It was thoroughly satisfactory.

We had just one more day on the boat, and we thought we should use it wisely—for instance, by heading downstream one last time to pay a call at the Maison du Chateau Armandire, a vineyard that produces mostly Malbecs. Visitors are welcome there, and in addition to a tasting, we picked up some valuable information from the proprietor, Bernard Bouyssou. He gave us contact information for the agent who distributes his wines in the U.S., and a call to the agent when we got home gave us a list of where we could buy the Armandire wines. We’ve been enjoying them ever since.

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