The immediate surroundings of Cahors are some of the most discouraging landscapes in all France. The anomic clutter of the newer parts of town matches them well, but persevere – in the middle you’ll find a medieval city of surprising subtlety and character. Its star attraction is the Pont Valentré, which, as any Frenchman will tell you, is the most beautiful bridge on this planet.
What to see and do in Cahors
A canopy of plane trees shades the city’s main shopping street, replacing its medieval walls. Near the tourist office in Place François Mitterrand, an appropriately flamboyant monument to Léon Gambetta, shows Cahors’s Republican hero pointing dramatically, perhaps accusingly, north towards Paris.
As a lawyer and politician, Gambetta was a strong opponent of Napoleon III. After France’s defeat in 1870, he declared the Third Republic in Paris, and then dramatically escaped from the city in a balloon while the Prussians were besieging it. After that, he raised new armies in the south (though the Prussians whipped them too), and eventually became premier; all France mourned in 1882 when he accidentally killed himself while cleaning a gun.
If you stroll to the end of the Allées Fénelon behind Gambetta, have a look at the handsome Collège Gambetta on the right with its octagonal red-brick bell tower, a survivor of the 17th-century Jesuit college that stood here first. The Allées are closed off by a pretty Neptune fountain; turn right here for Rue du Président Wilson.
If anything is a sign of opulence in a medieval city, it’s the bridges. Cahors had three, where one would have sufficed, and the two that have disappeared, demolished in 1868 and 1907, were almost as good as this one. The Pont Valentré survived because it carried little traffic. Begun in 1308, and financed with the help of Pope John, the bridge nevertheless took 70 years to complete. With the Hundred Years’ War in full swing, it isn’t surprising that defence became the major consideration. The three towers that look so picturesque are three rings of defences to keep the English out; each had its portcullis, and slits for archers and boiling oil.
You can be sure the Devil had something to do with it. Here after working on the project for decades, the master builder made a deal with Old Nick: if he would do whatever the builder told him to do with his supernatural powers to finish the bridge, he would forfeit his soul. After the bridge was finished, the builder tricked him, of course, by giving him a sieve and ordering him to fetch water, but the Devil got his revenge by sending a demon to steal one of the stones near the top of the central tower, which had to be replaced every day. In the 19th century, restorers added the stone carved with a devil to trick Satan into thinking his orders were still being followed.
Cathédral de St-Étienne
Medieval Cahors is clustered east of Boulevard Gambetta under its mighty cathedral. Begun in the 10th century on the site of St Didier’s 7th-century church, this was the second of the domed churches of Périgord and Quercy, directly inspired by St-Étienne in Périgueux. Not completed until the 1400s, its western and eastern ends were completely rebuilt, resulting in a not unlovely architectural mongrel, a kind of Romanesque-on-Gothic sandwich.
The severe façade, the typical broad clocher-mur of a Quercy church writ large, was redone in the 14th century, when the original entrance was moved around to the side – then walled in and forgotten until 1840. This, the north portal, is one of the finest in southern France.
In the centre, Christ in a mandorla is flanked by angels tumbling down out of the heavens, and scenes of the martyrdom of St Stephen; below are the Virgin Mary and ten apostles (there wasn’t room for 12). The borders and modillions are fascinating, with a full complement of monsters, scenes of war and violence, and unusual decorative rose motifs that seem to prefigure the trimmings on Cahors’s Renaissance palaces.
Quartier des Badernes
South of the cathedral, this was the popular quarter of the city – though it had its share of palaces, mostly along Rue Nationale, the main street in medieval times; at its beginning, the Hôtel de Marcilhac has a lovely Baroque carved door. The narrow lanes to the left off Rue Nationale, give an idea of how dense urban life was in Cahors, with numerous half-timbered houses, and medieval palaces along Rue Lastié; many of these have big, pointed arches facing the street for the business façades and elegant twinned windows on the family quarters upstairs. Another feature is the soleiho, a sun porch on the top; in Renaissance palaces they are often made of brick arches and called mirandes.
The neighbourhood’s church, St-Urcisse, stands at the end of Rue Clemenceau with a 13th-century statue of the Virgin on the façade; if it’s open, don’t miss the set of carved capitals with fond naïve scenes of Adam and Eve and the Life of Christ. In Place St-Urcisse by the river, the hypnotic Horloge à Billes created by Michel Zachariou keeps the time with 54 marbles.
Quartier des Soubirous
North of the cathedral extends what was the wealthy merchants’ quarter; soubirous means superior, for the way it climbs uphill. Its spine, Rue du Château-du-Roi, is an elegant street reminiscent of Siena or Perugia. Its most impressive façade is at no. 102, the 13th-century Hôpital de Grossia.
Across from the Hôpital, the Château du Roi was one of Cahors’s grandest palaces in the 1300s, built by the pope’s brother-in-law but it was thoroughly wrecked in the 19th century when the state converted it into a prison; the tall donjon inside, visible only from the riverfront, once had a tall chimney as a landmark for river boatmen. Plans are to make it into a hotel and cultural centre.
Travel to Cahors
The railway station on Avenue Jean Jaurès has direct trains to Gourdon, Souillac, Brive, Paris and south towards Caussade, Montauban and Toulouse. Buses leave several times a day to Monsempron-Libos (some go only as far as Puy l’Évêque) and Figeac.
The city is easily doable on foot, but parking can be a challenge. The city bus line, Évidence, provides free park-and-ride shuttles every 15 minutes to the Chartreuse car park just south of the centre and Ludo-Rollès car park to the east; other car parks are at the north end of Boulevard Gambetta at Place Charles-de-Gaulle and south over the Pont Louis Philippe, and in an underground garage called l’Amphithéâtre under the Allées Fénelon because they found the Roman arena at one end.