“It was in June 1950, as we rode by car… that I first saw Saint Cirq, blazing with Bengal Fire, like a rose in the night… It was love at first sight… Above any other place in the world, in America or Europe, Saint Cirq is my one place of enchantment… I stopped wanting to be elsewhere.”
Located in the Aquitania Prima, the ancient Quercy region in SW France, composed of the Lot, Lot-et-Garonne and Tarn-et-Garoone départments, possesses one of the most beautiful villages in France, St Cirq-Lapopie. It lies within the Parc natural régional des Causses du Quercy, but is specifically situated in the Lot. St. Cirq is just 18 km from Cahors, the charming province capital known for its full bodied red wine and picturesque bridges. Enclosed by fortified gates, the medieval village of St. Cirq grows out of a magnificent, rocky escarpment some 300 feet above the Lot river, like the roots of a petrified tree.
Historically, St. Cirq was a stronghold of the Viscounts of Quercy, the heads of 3 governing families – the Lapopies, the Gourdons and the Cardaillacs. In times of conflict, this site was strategically important. During the wars between England and France in the middle of the 13th century, southern Quercy was ceded to England by Henri II and in the middle of the 16th century it was the bastion of Protestants and the scene of brutal religious warfare. The 16th century Gothic church, l’Église de St. Cirq, sits nestled in the craggy palm of the chapel built during the Gallo-Roman era. The beautiful stone and colombage (half-timbered) houses which line the steep winding streets, date from the 13th through 16th centuries, 13 of which are listed in France’s historical register. The arterial locks of the Lot river, constructed in the 17th century, allowed the village to prosper commercially. Garbarres (flat bottomed boats) transported local produce, tobacco and wine to Cahors and Bordeaux. Coppersmiths, tanners and wood turners made their living within the village gates. In fact, the local wood turners collectively invented the wooden taps for wine barrels, without which the burgeoning wine industry would have suffered a dire fate. During the middle of the 20th century, the pointillist artist, Henri Martin and the Catalan artist, Pierre Daura lived in St. Cirq, as well as the surrealist writer, André Breton.
Over many thousands of years humans have left their handprints, quite literally, in the Quercy region. Some of the earliest traces of cave dwellers dating back to 25,000 BC, can be found in the Grotte du Pech Merle, just below St. Cirq-Lapopie. The caves are still open to the public, unlike the famous caves of Lascaux, a 100 km northwest, which have been closed since 2006, and the Altamira caves in Spain.
I visited St. Cirq-Lapopie at the end of August. It was a very hot day and the village was teaming with visitors. I tucked myself into open, less crowded shops to avoid the eating and drinking crowds and discovered that some of the same crafts which created the former wealth and health of St. Cirq are still being sold today. The height of the tourist season is July 1st – September 15th when the sites are open. I would suggest driving to the upper parking lot unless you’re a seasoned climber, as the lower parking lot is quite a strenuous hike to the village proper. It is estimated that over 400,000 people visit St. Cirq-Lapopie and I wondered as I tried to make my way to the top of the rock outcropping to photograph the stunning scenery below, behind slower, more tenuous hikers, whether this villages popularity and relative isolation would hasten its decline or preserve it for future generations.