In 1994 we made our first trip to Saint-Cirq Lapopie, a village I had read about in a travel magazine. The photographs accompanying the article were stunning, and I knew I had to go there. A small village of about 200 residents, located in the Lot Department in southwestern France, St-Cirq is perched high on a limestone cliff, 100 meters above the Lot River. Driving up the winding road, we had glimpses of the cliff top and church steeple, but nothing prepared us for the incredible setting high in the sky.
When we arrived, we were like kids in the candy store wanting to see and savour every site, as we scurried from the rocky château ruins to the church, only to be stopped in our tracks by the mesmerizing views. Hungry after our cursory exploration, we chose the terrace of the casual café-restaurant Lou Bolat, where we could gaze out over the village and valley below. With limited French, our Swedish waitress– with limited English– helped us order.
Because lunch service was ending, Kristina spent extra time with us, answering questions and describing aspects of the village. Her French-speaking boyfriend, chef Pierre, came out to meet us, the Americans. We all seemed to hit it off, and an amicable bond instantly formed.
Wisely, we had reserved a room in the only hotel in the village, the small but charming Auberge du Sombral. Kristina and Pierre invited us to return to the café for a late dinner and to take a digestif with them after dinner service ended. We had lots of laughs that night, using gestures to make up for our lack of language skills. Returning late to our hotel, we found it locked. We had to pound on the front door to wake up Madame to let us in. She ranted at us in French; we felt bad and knew she was upset. But we didn’t know it’s customary to take the front door key when returning late in the night.
Besides the château-fortress ruins at the highest point in the village, we visited the 15th century fortified church– which is quite imposing from the outside. Both sites offer exquisite views, as do many other places along the cobbled, pedestrian-only streets.
St-Cirq was home to André Breton, leader of the Surrealist movement, who upon discovering the village said he “stopped wanting to go anywhere else”. Many artisans live and work in the village and display their goods in small boutiques or medieval houses, half-timbered or constructed of local stone with beautiful gardens. Musée Rignault is situated in an old mansion and has displays of village artifacts. Not far up the hill is a hike to the tiny Chapelle Sainte-Croix, nestled in the woods. In the opposite direction down the cliff, an old tow path follows the river where flat-bottomed wooden boats, used for transporting merchandise, were pulled by boatsmen in ancient times. This path is now a popular walk with an intricate limestone carving, made by a local artist, along part of the cliff wall.
Over the years we’ve been back to St-Cirq Lapopie numerous times, we’ve had many new experiences and discoveries and have witnessed many changes. Kristina and Pierre now live in nearby Cahors and have a grown daughter. A large paid parking lot has been installed above the village. Are there more colourful flower gardens? More captivating boutiques? More people? It’s easy to understand why tourists are compelled to come here, yet the village still retains its authentic, lived-in appeal. St-Cirq Lapopie is one of les plus beaux villages in France and it’s certainly worth every effort to make it your next destination.