Friday, 1 July 2005

Anybody who knows this crowd, with all our scientists and engineers involved with the South Bay aerospace industry, is probably wondering why I made no mention of Airbus yesterday in Toulouse, center of the French aerospace industry. Well, our escorts really tried hard to get us into the plant tour in the afternoon, mining their contacts at United Airlines and more; however, what with all the publicity surrounding the new A380 jet, tours are booked solid a couple of weeks in advance, so no go. They said, though, that when Ambassador sets up itineraries through Toulouse in the future, they'll be sure to gauge interest in such a tour so arrangements can be made in advance.

Abbey Church

On the way from Toulouse to Sarlat, we stopped twice; the first time was in Moissac. This was a very quick stop at the Abbey of St. Pierre, which has some of the oldest medieval buildings we've yet visited on this tour, dating to the early twelfth century. The "tympanum" of the Romanesque abbey church, the sculpture over the entrance shown here, depicts the events of the Book of Revelations. We were able to go inside the church very briefly to sing a couple of our a capella songs before we had to move back out to make way for a funeral; the priest asked if we could stay to sing at greater length after the funeral was over, but we had to move on.

Cloister with sculptures

We also had a little time to look around the cloister of the Abbey, with its 76 columns. These display the hands of five or six sculptors, with the capitals of the columns showing a great variety of biblical, historical, or natural scenes. The church and cloister had a narrow escape in the 19th century, when the railroad was planned to go right through their location; concerted lobbying by local preservationists convinced the Powers that Be to change the route slightly and leave these ancient monuments here for us to discover, though the other buildings of the abbey were sacrificed.

Capital with martyrdom of St. Sernin

Traditional Corinthian capitals were present; doves were a recurring theme, and we saw Celtic knotwork that might have become known to the monks via its inclusion in illuminated manuscripts. We also found this sculpture of the martyrdom of St. Sernin, whose church we visited yesterday in Toulouse.

On road between Moissac and Cahors

There were speedier highways from Toulouse to Sarlat, but we took the winding scenic route through rolling hills with livestock, wheat, corn, sunflowers and (somewhat to our surprise, but George Jackson recognized it) tobacco.

Pont Valentré

Cahors was founded by the Romans in the first century AD; it is located on a sharp "hairpin" meander of the river Lot, so as to form almost a peninsula. Thus it was surrounded on three sides by the river, with only one narrow connection to the surrounding land. Those Romans knew how to pick defensible places to build towns! This is Pont Valentré, a medieval fortified bridge that is the only survivor of three bridges that crossed the Lot in the 13th century. There's a local story that the architect, tired of the long delays in construction (it took thirty years), sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his help. When the work was almost finished, to get out of the bargain the architect slipped the devil a sieve instead of a bucket to carry water to the workers; in revenge, every night thereafter the devil would remove the highest stone in the bridge so the workmen had to replace it during the day. The bridge was restored in the 19th century, and there's a carving of the devil on a stone at the top to commemorate this story.


We had the entire afternoon free in Cahors, so I went for a fairly long walk around the city. Here we are looking at the city from across the river on the opposite side of the peninsula from the Pont Valentré. The highest building is the St. Etienne Cathedral, dating from the twelfth century but with Gothic additions from the next four centuries.

Remnant of wall in Cahors

The city didn't always occupy the entire peninsula; during the barbarian invasions of the fifth to eighth centuries, a landward wall was built that protected about the eastern one-fourth of the area, and the medieval city developed in this location. The current main thoroughfare, the Boulevard Gambetta, runs where this wall used to be; there are still some remants, like this segment, of the older wall that ran perpendicular to it and cut the peninsula off from the surrounding land.

Arc de Diane

Another surviving ancient remnant is the Arc de Diane, a vestige of the Gallo-Roman baths here, supplied by an aqueduct.

St. Etienne's Cathedral

Later in the afternoon the clouds broke up, and many of us enjoyed walking through the narrow streets around the Cathedral of St. Etienne (St. Stephen) in the center of the medieval town, shopping and having a leisurely lunch.

A four-flower town

You have probably heard of the star ratings for hotels in France. They also rate towns for their beauty; here is a sign I found by the road that designates Cahors as a four-flower town, which is among the best of the best.

Wine on bus

Cahors is known for its very full-bodied, "black" wines, as well as the foie gras of the region, and many of us sought out these local specialties. On the bus I was riding (one of two), various people had been detailed to buy bread, cheese, wine, and cups, and these were enjoyed the rest of the way to Sarlat! I'm sorry to be writing this page a day late; we arrived in Sarlat rather late (dinner was at 9 p.m.), so in order to avoid losing time to any more afternoon naps I parked the website and just took care of email, and then turned in early and got eight continuous hours of sleep for the first time since at least a week before the tour started...

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