The Ancienne Grange at Sauliac-sur-Célé
Last summer before we’d hardly noticed the evenings were beginning to shorten we took a weeks holiday in the Célé valley, a little known tributary of the Lot river just up from Cahors in the centre of France.
Our intention was to explore the valley by canoe and foot, meander around some of the pretty villages along the way and make sure to visit the famous painted caves at Pech Merle. We left the hot and sulky city of Paris and took the slow train through the heart of France. The TGV has yet to penetrate these parts so we enjoyed our leisurely arrivals at Chateauroux, Limoges, Uzerche, Brives and eventually Cahors as we drew in on a hot and bright afternoon.
From here, and with some kerfuffle, we picked up our hired minibus and started our drive upstream following the course of the Lot, before bearing off at Conduché to follow the sinuous Célé past Cabrerets and onto Sauliac-sur-Célé where we spent some time trying to locate our gîte. Naturally, for such a tiny village, we drove around in several circles before finding our prize: the The Ancienne Grange at the Terrasses des Fargues.
We were met by our hosts Marian and Brian, and were quickly given the run down of the place and how it works. Somebody is supposed to pay attention during these things, but everyone is too excited to be finally here, slightly hot and bothered by the long day and the early start, and really, to be honest, keen to throw the luggage down, kick off their shoes and sit in the sun with a glass of something that says ‘now we are on holiday’. We can figure out how the oven and hob work later.
And here we are. Stop clattering about. Sit down. Look around. We are sat at a round table in a small garden in front of the house nestling below the track to the main house and divided by it by Lavenders and Gaura which are heavy with the drone of bees and aflight with numerous butterflies in myriad colours and shapes. Below us is the village road, and below that the valley road and just perceptible through the bank side trees glistens the Célé. We can glimpse a small bank with a tiny sandy beach and a wooden hut which we are told is a buvette. Across the river, almost hidden amongst the trees a Château of yellow stone, now falling into the sun’s shadow, is separated from us as the river turns away in a succession of small waves catching the last light.
Rising early and before the others were ready for breakfast I thought I’d go and explore Old Sauliac which lies behind us, higher above the road and tucked in below the cliffs. Before the road along the valley floor was even built a track meandered down the valley towards the major Lot valley and the original village was built alongside this.
This track is now known as the GR651 and is an offshoot of the famous GR51, known as the Way of St. James or the Camino de Santiago de Compostela: one of the many pilgrim routes that lead through France and over the Pyrenees to the cathedral at Santiago in northern Spain. The route now is a minor diversion off the main path across the Causse de Quercy, but still a relatively popular one. In times past the Priory at Marcilhac, further up the valley, was a major pilgrim destination, but it’s importance faded away as the fame, and holiness, of Rocamadour prevailed. The villages down the valley at Boussac, Espagnac, Marcilhac, Sauliac and Cabrerets still offer accommodation for walkers along this trail in gites d’etapes – above the door you can see the shell symbol of St. James.
This morning I stepped up to the track above our gites and turned left along the trail past the main house of Marian and Brian and turned the corner where the track went down. This seemed wrong so I hunted around and found another track leading up around the back of the other house until it broke onto a proper trail. I could sense that this was the main long-distance track. I could also see the tell-tale red/white flash painted on the rocks. I turned left again in the direction of Cabrerets. If I were a pilgrim that would be my destination for the day: perhaps a good stiff walk of 15 miles or so.
For me it was to be a gentle flat stroll for twenty minutes out and back along a path cut into the base of of the yellow limestone cliff; cut well enough and flat enough for a decent sized cart to be pulled along. On my right the cliff soared above me and to my left the cliff dropped away. On my right several caves, with doors, had been built into the cliff. On my left I was level with the tiled roof-tops of houses built into the cliff below me. Quite a few were still in use but several were merely ruins – walls grown over with ivy and trees growing through the floors. Newer houses, and indeed a new church, had been built closer to the valley floor when the new road had been built and most villagers had migrated down from the cliffs.
These houses were of necessity tight and constricted with tiny gardens cut into several terraces. It must have been a precarious existence. I followed the track around the cliff base until I came to a point where a gap in the trees below allowed a view across the valley. The river shone and glistened but what really surprised was the size of the Château. What could merely be glimpsed could now be seen as an extensive arrangement of towers, wings and outbuildings. What had it been built for and by whom. And who lives there now?
Returning from a day on the river and the converted barn that was our gites provided a welcome and cool oasis. After perhaps grabbing a beer from the fridge a lie down in the shade was welcome. Everyone else disappeared to their rooms. Outside all was silent. Nothing stirred. No breeze, Not even the drone of a summer aeroplane.
Some days on our return the swimming pool beckoned. A tiptoe downstairs and out the back door, a quick hobble across the stones in the back yard before reaching the smooth steps and the gate to the pool area. The hard turquoise reflected the glare of the afternoon sun. Some were already splayed on the loungers. Not brave enough to attack the cold water directly with a dive I edged my way warily down the smooth steps. I perhaps swam a length or two in leisurely strokes before sitting on the steps.
Nothing much was happening. The others dozed. Perhaps read. Nothing much needed to be said. Just a question of lingering here before deciding that perhaps it was time for a drink, or indeed perhaps it was time for someone to start thinking about dinner. It’s still silent. Not a bird can be heard. A faint buzzing from a Humming-bird Hawkmoth bothering the lavender if you listened carefully. And then a splash as someone else decided they were too hot. A few desultory slaps of water around the pool edges. “Ready for a drink?”
Before the day got started, which means before everyone is up, a couple of us decided to walk down to the river and give it an inspection. Let’s pretend we know something, act as water-bailiffs and nod sagely at the level of the river and suchlike.
So we walked down our lane to the village road, turned left down the hill underneath our place, until we came to the little track on the left which fell down the bank to the valley road. After ducking under a few trees we came to the road and skipped across it to the small park on the river bank. No-one is about at this time of the morning. It feels like the early morning mist has only just left but it’s still too early for any warmth to have crept into the day. The shack of the buvette is shuttered and empty. The river has fallen in the night and the shingle beach that is usually here is now beginning to be exposed. Usually I arrive at this beach by canoe, as I will later this afternoon, and it feels slightly incongruous to be here now at this time of day. The round concrete table and its three concrete benches remind me of many picnic lunches spent here over the years. Always the usual things spread over a check tablecloth: the breads, cheeses, charcuterie, salads and fruits. The sun beaming, the shade under the crab-apples, the happy voices and smiles, the river tinkling behind and the chinking of glasses. Ghosts and shadows in the shade.
I worry about the new buvette selling frites and cold beers, and coffee and ice-cream. Right here in the long grass on the bank above the beach is where, in the right month, I’ve glimpsed Blue Chafer beetles, dozens of them, clambering to the end of long grasses and shining like jewels in the sun. Tiny, half the size of your smallest fingernail and glinting metallic iridescent blue. It’s July now and I’m told these only appear in June. I really hope they still come. It’s seven years now.
And this reminds me of the Purple Emperor (in this case Apatura ilia, which is the Lesser PE), which I saw, for the only time, on this beach here at Sauliac. This was a barely credible eleven years ago now, and also in June. The Purple Emperors butterflies are notoriously difficult to see and photograph. Their lifetime as an adult is short, a matter of weeks, and their natural habitat is high in the canopy of trees, usually oak trees where they feed on the honeydew secreted by aphids. Sometimes they come to the ground to taste the minerals in the damp sand on the river bank, and this is how I came to see them here all those years ago. How you would have laughed to see me jumping up and down excitedly to witness them. How I ran around trying to show everyone how these brown and white butterflies would turn a beautiful flash of purple when they caught the light. It was hard to catch this purple on a photograph too and everyone was highly amused to see me crawling about trying to get a shot. I was supposed to be getting lunch ready but luckily Caroline was taking care of that and I could fool around to my hearts content.
And now, I wish it was always June when I arrive here. I will never see the Purple Emperor for the first time again. Their are many things to love about the Célé.
Our gîtes at Sauliac-sur-Célé was provided by Marian and Brian at the Ancienne Granges of La Terrasses des Fargues. We had a fabulous holiday here. The canoeing and hiking part of our holiday was provided by Green River Canoes with help from Steve, Didier and our selfless driver Jean-Marc, this too, naturally, was fabulous, not withstanding the occasional accidental wild-swimming. The brochure describing the canoe trip down the Cele is here.