Saint-Cirq Lapopie: In search of the surreal thing

In 1950, the poet André Breton fell in love at first sight with Saint-Cirq Lapopie, a medieval village in south-west France. And, as Rhiannon Batten discovers, he wasn't the only one
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The Independent Travel

If a Surrealist had painted a vision of a southern French village, it might have included a molten trail of red roof-tiles, a miniature castle suspended in the desert-like distance and, in the foreground, an oddly distended head (to portray the significance of the village baker, perhaps). Luckily, Saint-Cirq Lapopie is nothing like this. It is a quintessential medieval village hovering, eye-catchingly, on a clifftop above the river Lot in south-west France.

If a Surrealist had painted a vision of a southern French village, it might have included a molten trail of red roof-tiles, a miniature castle suspended in the desert-like distance and, in the foreground, an oddly distended head (to portray the significance of the village baker, perhaps). Luckily, Saint-Cirq Lapopie is nothing like this. It is a quintessential medieval village hovering, eye-catchingly, on a clifftop above the river Lot in south-west France.

In the Middle Ages, this was an important metropolis, which is why narrow lanes with elegant stone and half-timbered houses were squeezed in protectively between an enormous fortress and heavy, fortified gates. Arriving from the east, the Porte de Pélissaria is still the most dramatic way to enter the village. Many of the original houses have survived – although they're now accessorised with geranium-filled balconies, and shops selling caramelised walnuts and wine from Cahors.

Once, you could only get here by wading through the river or clambering up the cliff face. These days, it's a lot more accessible. With such well-preserved streets, it is not surprising that Saint-Cirq Lapopie is besieged by tourists in summer. In July and August, it's only in the early morning – when the blurry sunshine pierces through tangled leaves and hard, geometric shadows – that you can get a picture of proper village life.

As the stone turrets, red-tiled roofs and gaudy, overgrown gardens slowly warm up, stroll through the cobbled lanes that wind steeply past the whitewashed 16th-century church, and you'll be hit by a waft of baking croissants and a medley of coffee cups being clattered around. Throaty songs drift out from open windows. Old men with strangled voices catch up with their neighbours as they come back from the boulangerie burdened with fresh bread.

Leave it any later than that and the quiet will be replaced by hard-selling shopkeepers, and the sound of cars and buses doing a jerky, mechanical tango to get past each other on Saint-Cirq's skinny streets.

Few of the daytrippers, though, realise that Saint-Cirq spent a large part of the last century attracting Surrealists, drawn by the art, nature and life contained within its steep-sided structure. André Breton, the poet, came here in 1950 and wrote: "Saint-Cirq, set aglow by Bengal lights, appeared to me like an impossible rose in the night. There was certainly something of love at first sight about it, if I think back that the following morning I came back with the intention to discover the very heart of this marvellous flower: it had stopped growing but had stayed intact."

Henri Martin moved to the village in the early 20th century. The Spanish artist Pierre Daura lived in one of the crumbling houses in the 1930s. Breton, who described Surrealism as a way of resolving the contradictory conditions of dream and reality, followed suit. Many other masters of the genre – such as Toyen, Man Ray, Paalen, Alechinsky, Dax and d'Orgeix – also visited.

If you're interested in what the Surrealists produced while they were here, some of their work can be seen in the small gallery that opens each summer inside the village castle. But the Surrealist painters of the 1950s were not the first to exploit the artistic opportunities of the region.

Around 100 kilometres and 17,000 years away, past the windmills and wild mint and the shuttered windows of the Vézèré valley, palaeolithic painters were covering the walls and ceilings of Lascaux – a deep, dank cave – with frighteningly large, blood-coloured pictures of wild, galloping horses, giant bulls, jagged deer and a dreamlike animal that looks a bit like a unicorn.

Creative smudges of blacks, browns, reds and yellows, many of the Lascaux images have clumsily long, distorted necks and thick bodies. But a particularly impressive section of the cave shows four enormous wild bulls, drawn in thick black lines, with intricate details added in on their bodies. The contours of the rock on which they are painted are cleverly used to give a three-dimensional impression. Then there are several small handprints and what are thought to be ritualistic signs – a frenzy of perfect rectangles, hatches, circles, dots and squiggles.

As descriptions of animal and human life, and the world they once inhabited here, the Lascaux cave is revered by archaeologists as rare documentation of palaeolithic life. But look closely at the animals, with their crooked, out-of-perspective bodies and their dancing on the cave's ceiling – without so much as a nod to gravity or physical possibility – and you could be forgiven for thinking these Stone Age artists were the first true Surrealists.

Having been discovered by local teenagers out searching for their dog, the cave was first, proudly, opened to the public in 1948. But by 1963, 15 years of the effects of human breath had taken their toll. The green fungus that had started growing over the paintings was causing the colours to fade. The cave was quickly closed off again and a reconstruction, Lascaux II, was built a few hundred metres away for the 2,000 daily visitors. As André Breton and his fellow Surrealists would probably appreciate, Lascaux is not quite what it appears to be.



Travellers' Guide



Getting there: The nearest airports are to be found at Toulouse and Bergerac, both about two hours' drive away and served from London Stansted by Buzz ( www.buzzaway.com, 0870 240 7070). You can also reach Toulouse from Gatwick on British Airways (0845 773 3377, www.ba.com), and from Heathrow and Birmingham on Air France (0845 084 5111, www.airfrance.com).

Attractions: In Saint-Cirq Lapopie, the castle is open from 1 July to 15 September, from 10am-7pm daily (00 33 056 531 2748). Lascaux II, near Montignac, is open all year round, but the caves can only be visited as a member of a guided tour (the cost is around £5, and it last half an hour). For more details, telephone 00 33 5 53 35 5010 or visit www.perigord.tm.fr. The National Museum of Prehistory is opening this summer at Les Eyzies de Tayac (00 33 5 53 06 45 45).

Where to stay: The most romantic option is the Hotel La Pelissaria (00 33 5 65 31 25 14, www.quercy.net/lapelissaria).

Information: Saint-Cirq Lapopie tourist office, telephone 00 33 5 65 31 29 06, www.quercy.net/quercy/st-cirq-lapopie.

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