History and local towns
The rural hamlet of Mercadiol is situated in one of the most beautiful and historic areas of south-west France. To the north is ancient ‘Périgord Noir’, a region of rolling hills, picturesque villages and rivers edged by dramatic limestone cliffs topped here and there with imposing castles. Mercadiol is in the department of the Lot but is just a stone’s-throw from the southernmost edge of the Dordogne department. It lies mid-way between the medieval market towns of Sarlat, the ‘truffle capital’, Souillac, a former river port, and Gourdon, a once-walled hilltop fortress and centre of the area known as the ‘Bouriane’. To the west are the wine regions of Bordeaux, St Emilion and Bergerac and to the south-east the vineyards of Cahors and Gaillac. An hour away are the prehistoric sites of the Vézère Valley (Lascaux, Montignac and Les Eyzies), Pech-Merle in the Lot Valley, the cliff-face pilgrim centre of Rocamadour, the bastide towns of Domme and Monpazier, and the spectacular Gouffre de Padirac with its subterranean river and boat ride. Along the river nearby impressive fortress chateaux perch on clifftops; many, such as Beynac, Castelnaud and Montfort were fought over by Richard the Lionheart. Close to home is the Chateau Fenelon and the stalactites and prehistoric paintings of the Grottes de Cougnac. The surrounding country roads are quiet and perfect for cycling.
(Approximate distances from Mercadiol in brackets.)
Masclat (3 km) Rural and old-style French, Masclat is the administrative centre of the commune. Tractors are often encountered trundling through the streets. Services are limited to a service station with fuel (24-hours with credit card), a restaurant and a bar-café (both open for lunch only, dinner by booking). The chateau (13th to 18th century) is privately owned and not open to the public.
St Julien de Lampon (4 km) Close to the river, this classic French village has a pleasant square beside the 12th-century church and an excellent weekly market on Thursday throughout the year. All services are available here – general store, bakery/patisserie (closed Wed and Sun afternoon), butcher, pharmacy, ATM, a bar-café (pizzeria) and a restaurant (on the outskirts).
Carlux (6 km) This pretty hilltop village north of the river Dordogne is nestled around the imposing ruins of a 13th-century fortress destroyed in the Hundred Years War. In the 19th century, stone from the castle was used in the buildng of the road to the river. It has a general store, bakery (closed Sun pm) and two restaurants; the GR6 walking trail goes through the village. The imposing Chateaux Rouffillac, nearby and visible from the river below, is privately owned, not open to the public, but can be rented.
Fajoles (7 km) In summer, the popular Sunday morning farmers’ market held in the square in front of the 12th-century Romanesque church draws crowds of locals and holiday-makers. The Maison du Paige museum is located here. No shops.
Local towns which offer most in the way of historical and architectural interest and shopping, are Sarlat, Gourdon, Souillac, Cahors, Domme and Rocamadour, but there are many more within a day’s drive such as Carennac, Figeac and Martel.
Gourdon (13 km) Gourdon is a hilltop town with narrow streets and stone buildings in the old centre. For two days each summer (traditionally the first weekend in August) a medieval festival transports the town centre back five centuries as knights and ladies, jugglers and troubadours stride through these narrow streets – there’s music, jousting, feasting and fireworks. The town has a year-round Saturday morning produce market and in summer there is a small farmers’ market on Thursday morning in the square at the top of the town. And from the square, it’s worth climbing to the ruins of the castle at the very top for the table d’orientation to take in panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Gourdon has all services and several supermarkets. A ‘plan d’eau’ (artificial lake) about 1.5 km out of town on the Sarlat road is a popular summer swimming and picnic spot.
Souillac (17 km) Medieval backstreets running down the hill between the old main road and the river are worth exploring; particularly impressive is the multi-domed basilica and belfry tower. Adjacent, is the Museé de L’Automate, a collection of 19th and early 20th century mechanical toys and models. The Friday food market held nearby is reckoned by some locals to be the best in the district and at the northern end of the main street, is what we consider to be one of the best boulangeries in the area, Boulangerie B.A. The town has all services, including several supermarkets, and a permanent Marché des Producteurs, opposite the E. Leclerc supermarket, open daily selling local produce. Musical events include a jazz festival in July. A large water park, Quercyland, has several pools and a waterslide.
Sarlat (21 km) The main town of southern Perigord, busy, prosperous and picturesque, Sarlat is known as a centre of the walnut and black truffle trades. Much of the old town has been meticulously restored. The cobbled streets and alleyways of the medieval section around the old covered market place and imposing cathedral (originally Sarlat Abbey) are now a pedestrian precinct. Near the old goose market with its much-photographed statues of three geese is the turreted Manoir de Gisson, restored and open to the public. And while Sarlat is famed for its excellent, and in season very crowded, Saturday food market, it is also great for patisseries, bookshops, restaurants, cafes, bars and clothing shops.
Cahors (60 km) This is the administrative hub of the Lot department and centre of the local wine trade. The town dates from Roman times and is surrounded on three sides by the river Lot; it’s well worth walking over the Pont Valentré, one of the most beautiful medieval bridges in France. There are good cafes in the town centre and fascinating backstreets wind down to the river. Cahors is an excellent place to break the drive to or from Toulouse. It has a walk featuring more than 25 secret gardens and a museum honouring local heroes of the wartime Resistance movement. In July Cahors hosts a blues festival.
Places of interest
Domme (20 km) This bastide town enjoys commanding views of the Dordogne valley. Beneath the main square lies a system of caves and tunnels which was used as escape routes during the Hundred Years War – a guided tour winds down through these, then regains the town heights in a glass-fronted lift up the cliff face (closed out of season). Apart from sweeping views, a range of restaurants, from a high-priced (but excellent value) hotel dining room perched on the cliff edge to modest country restaurants and cafes, make this town worth a visit despite touristy shops selling jewellery, fossils and pottery.
La Roque-Gageac (24 km) One of the ‘prettiest villages of France’ clinging to cliffs on the banks of the Dordogne south of Sarlat. There is a pleasant riverside picnic area on the western side of the village with swimming and canoe hire. It is very busy in high season. You can go out on a gabarre (the flat-bottomed boats used for freight in earlier times).
Rocamadour (34 km) This ‘national monument’ is perched high on the side of a steep valley; Rocamadour has been a centre for pilgrims since the 9th century. It is usually thronged with sightseers in high summer, and is best enjoyed on a clear autumn day when the crowds have gone – perhaps as part of a day trip that includes Gouffre de Padirac.
Moulin de Cougnaguet (30 km) An unusual, well-preserved fortified water mill in a pretty valley (Ouysse) near Rocamadour, visitors can see how the millstones were used, as well as inspect the living quarters above.
Les Arques (40 km) This hilltop village is the location of a fine church and a museum containing the works of the Russian-born sculptor and painter Ossip Zadkine, who, though based in Paris, maintained a summer residence here from the 1930s . The village is also known for its restaurant La Recreation, the subject of the book From here you can’t see Paris.
Monpazier (60 km) Medieval bastides (planned and fortified ‘new towns’) are a feature of the southwest, and well-preserved Monpazier is one of the best. Its 13th-century square is surrounded by a grid of arcades and alleyways with a range of antique shops to explore.
Cadouin (60 km) The 12th-century abbey here once housed the now discredited ‘Holy Shroud of Cadouin’, which for 800 years drew a stream of pilgrims to this narrow valley. The pretty village with its covered market can get very busy in summer. The abbey, with its magnificent cloisters, is open year round, as is the village’s popular restaurant, L’Abbaye de Cadouin.
Collonges la Rouge (60 km) All the buildings in this pretty medieval village on the edge of a green valley, are, as the name suggests, red (built from the local stone). Park in the pay car park on the road above the village then wander the pedestrian-only lanes (pick up a guide map from the information office); craft shops and goodish cafes for lunch. Exit from the A20 between Souillac and Brive, then a pleasant 40 min drive. The nearby small hilltop town of Turenne is quite spectacular and also worth visiting.
St Céré (63 km) A small market town that holds a music festival, usually with international artists, every August. The Place du Mercadial has some fine houses and nearby backstreets have many half-timbered buildings and ancient courtyards.