Exploring the Causses du Quercy Regional Natural Park
You have perhaps never heard the name of the Causses du Quercy Regional Natural Park, but if you have visited the south of France you might have ventured in and across the park without realising it.
Among the famous places you may have visited without realising that you are within the Causses du Quercy are the pilgrimage village of Rocamadour, the picturesque village of Saint-Cirq Lapopie and the prehistoric caves at Pech Merle. Each of these sites is listed among the 'Grand Sites of the Midi-Pyrenees' and highly recommended.
Where are the Causses du Quercy?
The Causses du Quercy cover an extensive area in the south-west of the Massif Central, largely within the Lot department of the Midi-Pyrénées region.
The boundaries of the park are roughly given by Rocamadour to the north and Cahors to the south-west, with Figeac just outside the eastern border of the parc. Gramat is the principal town within the boundaries of the parc itself.
The Causses de Quercy extend beyond the limits of the area that is designated as a natural park, for example to Martel to the north.
This extended geography also helps explain why visitors typically don't think of the region as a single natural park. Most visits are to Rocamadour in the north as a detour from the eastern Dordogne, or to Saint-Cirq Lapopie when following the Lot Valley to the south, with less visitors being based in the heart of the park itself.
Highlights within the Causses du Quercy Regional Natural Park
- Rocamadour, one of the most beautiful villages in France and a historic pilgrimage town - see Rocamadour
- Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, a very lovely village on the Lot river - see St Cirq-Lapopie
- the Gouffre de Padirac, an astonishing cave system entered by boat to reveal enormous subterranean caverns - one of our favourite cave systems in France
- Pech-Merle caves, near Cabrerets north of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie and one of the most impressive cave systems for those interested in prehistoric cave paintings
Parc geology - caves, plateaux and rivers
The landscape of the Causses du Quercy is typically raised limestone plateaux, forming cliffs and canyons in places, interspersed by small areas of woodland, streams and rivers in the valleys, and rather exposed in the higher areas.
There are several of these chalk plateau, called Causses in French, with the Causse Corrèzien in the Correze department to the north, then the Causses called Martel, Gramat, Saint-Chels and Limogne as you travel south through the Lot department and the Causse de Caylus to the south in the Tarn-et-Garonne department.
The region is crossed by several rivers, and it is the river valleys that help define the character for visitors, and provide much of the scenic interest having spent millions of years carving gorges through the landscapes:
- The Lot River to the south which crosses the Causses between Figeac and Cahors - see Lower Lot Valley for details.
- The Célé river through the centre and south which runs from west of Figeac through the southern Causses to join the Lot near Bouzies
- The Upper Dordogne Valley between Bretenoux and Souillac across the north of the parc
- The Alzou river in the north and to the north-west of Gramat as it passes through Rocamadour and on to the caves at Lacave.
It is also the soft limestone and the rivers that have given rise to the large number of caves in the causses du Quercy. The most well known of these are the Gouffre de Padirac, the Grottes de Lacave and the caves at Pech-Merle.
Exploring the Parc des Causses
With few villages and even fewer towns, especially away from the rivers, the whole region is ideal for quiet enjoyment, and there are hundreds of kilometres of marked trails and small roads ideal for cycling - although cyclists should note that the parc does have quite a lot of hills! Hikers will find a good choice of trails, from short walks for all the family to longer hikes through the countryside.
Pilgrims walking the historic route to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain will be familiar with the region because of the GR65 long-distance footpath that crosses the Causses du Quercy between Figeac and Cahors and forms part of the famous pilgrim route. See pilgrims in France.
As you explore you will come across many small hamlets and traditional farms that also help make the region so appealing, as well as pigeonnieres and stone huts that are unique to southern France.
As well as the more famous sites, other attractions of interest in the Causses du Quercy that we enjoyed visiting include:
- the Phosphatieres at Bach to the south where you can see ancient phosphate mines, now excavated to explore a deep gorge and fossils in a picturesque wooded gorge;
- the Upper Dordogne Valley including the Grottes de Lacave, is to the north. You enter the Lacaves cave complex on a small train, then follow a long route through the extensive caves with a great deal of stalactites and stalagmites to see.
Other sports such as climbing, kayaking and exploring underground caves are also popular.
The sky at night
Due to the relative isolation of much of the centre of the region, there is said to be less light pollution in the sky here than in any other part of France. As a result it is an exceptional place for amateur astronomers to enjoy the night-time sky.
Outside the parc boundaries
There are many sites of great interest just outside the boundaries of the park, depending on where you are based.
Our favourite among these is Figeac, a very lovely historic town to the east of the park and with several picturesque villages in the vicinity - see Figeac.
To the west at Cahors you can see the the famous Pont Valentre (bridge) and the historic old town - see Cahors, and to the north we also suggest you visit Martel which has a very picturesque and interesting historic centre - see Martel.