From the South-East of France we are now headed down and around to the ‘Sud-Ouest’. Because of the mountainous area of the Massif Central rather than going directly West we go almost to the Mediterranean coast before driving North again to our next destination in Figeac. The drive itself is breathtaking, particularly the section between Montpellier and Millau, imagine the Rimutaka Hill Road, combined with the Buller Gorge, winding over bridges and through tunnels, surrounded by staggering sheer limestone cliffs, deep gorges, with small stone villages, all from the comfort of a well designed four lane divided highway. This culminates in driving over the Millau Viaduct, a triumph of engineering and beauty. The bridge spans the Tarn Valley, at 2.5km long, taking just 3 years to build and $500 million with record breaking span height and an unexpected graceful beauty.
We have arrived in Figeac in the Lot Department, a town of some 10,000 residents. The centre was mostly built in the 12th-16th Centuries next to the Lot River that slowly meanders through the area. The river is almost coffee coloured, leaching sediment from the brown and orange stone and soils of the region. We are staying on the outskirts in an old farmhouse restored to modern comfort levels, enjoying a sweeping vista of the surrounding countryside. The farmlands and woods seem like they are entirely unchanged in hundreds of years, combining with the almost complete absence of vehicle traffic on our road makes it extremely tranquil. We are also glad to have the use of a small swimming pool, it is very hot by Wellington standards, 32C or more in the afternoon.
While the Middle Ages and Roman history in the South of France is extensive, this area is also famous for its pre-history. Many tourists flock to the cave drawings at Lascaux further North, however some years ago the original caves were closed off to the public due to the risk of damage, with only replicas available to see now. Instead we visit a smaller but older cave system at Pech Merle. The cave art here is at least 29,000 years old, in an area known to have been inhabited for some 300,000 years by mans ancestors. The drawings were created by Cro Magnan man, a hunter gatherer culture. According to our guide the people did not live in caves, rather they were nomadic- following the herds of reindeer that made up the mainstay of their diet. The drawings themselves are amazing, featuring depictions of Bison, Mammoths, Auruchs, hand prints, and large breasted women. Mysteriously the women are often depicted with the mammoths. While the drawings are undeniably impressive, the technique is interesting too. The black markings are Manganese, the red being Iron Oxide (rust), that were chewed up together with animal fat and blown/spat onto the wall, the prehistoric artist using his hands and finger gaps as a stencil.
This part of France is also famous for its gastronomic delights, which we make full use of (only in the interests of education of course you understand). We feel obliged to sample the local delicacies including roasted duck breast, saucisson, local cheese, super fresh organic vegetables, Vin de Noix (an aperitif made from green walnuts macerated in wine), the best foie gras we can find, and of course the local wines.
The nearest major wine region is Cahors, famous for wines made from Malbec. After visiting multiple producers it is apparent that there is a much wider variety of styles on offer, from the cheap and cheerful juice bombs, rustic savoury examples, plus at the upper end there are impressively sleek and complex wines with bold yet ripe tannins that will easily last for 10-20 years. Then there is the cheap plonk, yes you are reading the label on that ‘hose’ correctly, its 1.45€ Per litre.
Figeac is also famous for being the home of Jean-François Champollion, a scholar and Philologist credited with deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs using the famous Rosetta Stone. His achievement in 1822 opened up a much wider understanding of the Egyptian civilisation, in fields of art, language, literature, and many aspects of the previous mysterious culture. The centre of the town boasts an excellent museum themed on the history of writing, named in honour of Champollion. There is an identical reproduction of the Rosetta Stone, while the original was discovered by a French soldier during the Napoleonic campaign in 1799, the stele was captured by the British in the capitulation of Alexandria in 1801, and has been the most visited item in the British Museum ever since.
Next we head west, briefly via the Bergerac wine region to catch a train back to Paris where we conclude our French adventure.