I was back in France last weekend to visit Papa Blue, and, as is now the custom, went in search of a few more historical treasures of the Corrèze and Lot departments. My planned visits (to Argentat and Mercœur) were curtailed by le crachin – persistent mizzly rain that only cleared an hour before I was due to leave le moulin and head back to Toulouse to catch my flight home. So I stayed nearer to home and sought out a few more myths and legends of Occitanie and Nouvelle-Aquitaine to add to my journals. And quite by chance, the three places I visited, all begin with C…
Capital of the Lot department, Cahors sits upon the river Lot and has a rich history. The Lombards, practitioners of usury (a sin!) were based here during the medieval period, and so the town gained an infamous reputation as a hub for shady bankers. It’s even mentioned in Dante’s Inferno as a place of great wickedness. It has a less notorious claim, though, as the town is also a stop on the Via Podiensis (the French pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela). The main purpose of my visit to Cahors was to see the famous Devil’s Bridge – the Pont Valentré. Construction began in 1308 and continued for almost seventy years.And it was the slow rate of the works that gave rise to the legend and nickname the ‘Devil’s Bridge’. The story goes that the engineer in charge was so dismayed by the protracted duration of the works and made a pact with the Devil to help him complete the construction in exchange for his soul. It so happened, that shortly after the deal was struck, the work-rate picked up (I can confirm this is typical sod’s law, as someone who has worked in the construction industry for 25 years, works never run to programme until you don’t want them to!) and as construction neared completion, the engineer tried to hoodwink the Devil by asking him to fetch some water for the workers, but gives him a sieve with which to do so! The Devil returns some time later, empty-handed and well and truly pissed off that he has been hood-winked. To take revenge, he instructs one of his imps to loosen a stone in the central tower of the bridge, and repeat the process every time the stone is replaced, so that the bridge will never be completed. For this reason, the central tower became known as the Devil’s Tower.
In the 1879 restoration of the bridge, a sculpture of an imp was cast into a stone at the very top of the tower, so that whenever the Devil came back to check, he would always see one of his imps doing his mischievous bidding. There’s lots more to see and do in Cahors next time, particularly the museum dedicated to the Resistance (currently undergoing refurbishment works); the Roman amphitheatre and also to track down and sample the famous AOC ‘black’ wine from the Cahors vineyards!
The village is on the D38 not far from Meyssac, going towards Brive, and is the founding member of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, an independent association of small rural villages established to promote tourism. It is certainly not a groundless boast, Collonges is indeed very beautiful, even on a soggy wet day out of season. The village is built almost entirely of the local, iron-oxide rich, red sandstone (hence the la-rouge in the name). It is also known as the ‘City of twenty-five Towers’ for its distinctive turreted buildings – although they say there were once thirty, some towers have mysteriously disappeared – rumoured to have been demolished so that their owners could avoid the hefty ‘window tax’ of 1798 (‘some things never change, eh?’ sayeth the grumpy recipient of her latest Council Tax bill from Horsham, the 2019/20 levy considerably increased as services conversely diminish… but I shall put my peevish digressions aside, so we return to the story…) – the towers now only number seventeen!
Collonges dates back to the 8th century. Benedictine monks established a priory here, and it later became an important stopover for pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostela via Rocamadour. There are plenty of artisan traders in Collonges (although many are closed at this time of year, not reopening until the tourist season begins). Of the few that were open (particularly the leather crafts and a boutique selling wonderful chapeaux), the goods on offer appear to be excellent in their workmanship, if a little over-priced. Belle-mère Blue and I have already pencilled in another trip to Collonges when all the shops are open. Having a penchant for magic, I particularly wanted to visit the Maison de la Sorcière, but it, too, was shut – even witches need a rest! And there are a few good looking restaurants too to tempt us back.
There is a village museum, that opens only in July and August, called the Maison de la Sirène. This, the ‘house of the mermaid’, named for the sculpture above the door, was once owned by a husband of French writer, Colette, and is a ‘listed building’, although I rather think that this is more for its construction than its tenuous link to French literature.
Carennac sits upon the Dordogne river. Another of the 156 Plus Beaux Villages, it’s on the D20, south of Bétaille.
The church, l’église Saint-Pierre was built in the second half of the 11th century, a Benedictine priory of the order of Cluny. Similar to Collonges, this Church of St-Pierre was another important stop on the pilgrimage route to Compostela (at this point I confirm this is just a coincidence I keep happening upon these holy places… the only pilgrimage that I’m on revolves around food!). Much of the ornamental stonework in the church has been removed/destroyed. Sunken tombs in the chancel have been removed and crudely covered with concrete – the result of either grave pillaging, or something more sinister… Being a conspiracist runs in the blood. Papa Blue, an expert in all matters pertaining to the Knights Templar, is convinced some Templar treasure is concealed behind the walls or beneath the floor of the church. Here he is, master of disguise, giving his best impression of an impoverished monk seated beneath the tell-tale cracked masonry. We searched for some visible evidence (something similar to the wall carvings in the Bastide at nearby Domme, where seventy Knights Templar were imprisoned in the 1300s) but there was none. It didn’t stop us coming up with a few hypotheses though!
Somewhere in Carennac, it is purported that there is a plaque honouring British secret agent, George Hiller (codename: Maxime). He was a member of the Special Operations Executive F section, engaged in espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance during WW2. Hiller and the Footman network were active in the region in and around the Corrèze. Sadly, I didn’t find the plaque as my search was halted by the weather closing in – I was hoping to discover why this DSO and Croix de Guerre recipient had a particular connection to the village. His story is fascinating. I’ll be on the road in France again soon…