There are villages and there are villages. Saint-Cirq-Lapopie in the Lot valley definitely falls into the second category. I was there six weeks ago and was left open-mouthed by its sheer beauty.
The Lot valley is craggier than the neighbouring Dordogne and its river is wider and deeper – which probably explains why you don’t see as many canoeists on it.
Saint-Cirq-Lapopie sits some 100m above the river, where it clings to the rugged cliff.
In the Middle Ages, four noble families each had a château in the village. None of these buildings has survived intact – instead, what stands out today is its 16th century church. As you look up at the village when you approach it, this is what dominates.
Over the years, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie has earned a reputation in the art world, having been discovered by the neo-Impressionist painter Henri Martin in the 1890s. Later, it became popular with the Surrealists. These days, an arty crowd likes to stop off and buy a painting, a sculpture or some such.
It’s precisely this that poses the biggest challenge for the village.
Although Saint-Cirq-Lapopie has around just 200 inhabitants, the visitors who come to admire it swell its numbers many, many times over. Current estimates put the annual number of sightseers at around 400,000.
The majority are French – thanks, partly, to the village having scooped top prize in a TV show to find the country’s prettiest village. It was the winner of the first series of France 2’s Le village préféré des Français, in 2012.
“The village scooped top prize in a TV show to find the country’s prettiest village, Le village préféré des Français, in 2012”
Damon and I passed through on a wet, prematurely autumnal day in August. Not many tourists had ventured out in the drizzle, so we were able to admire the village easily. We may not have seen it at its best, but at least we could see it.
Therein lies its problem. Like many of France’s plus beaux villages, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is working to strike a balance between surviving and being spoilt.