St. Cirq provides a peaceful escape from modernity

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

WE'D seen photographs of it. We'd read the Shell Guide's assessment of it as ``like a dream of all that a remote, cliff-edge, medieval French village should be. It has a storybook site on a sheer crag, with a river curling dramatically, anciently at its foot. It is a hill-climbing clutter (seeming more natural than man-made) of old houses and cottages in warm stone, with reddish, steeply pitched roofs. It has a bold church, dominant above it all (the castle or castles having long since been in ruins), with its square tower roofed like a pointed hat, with its round turret, with its fortress-thick walls.'' Perched like an eagle, this precipitous little village gazes with hundreds of eyes across the Lot River and valley below, as if its security and coziness even now can only be preserved by constant watchfulness. In the past St. Cirq (pronounced, approximately, ``sang seer'') was indeed a stronghold, sometimes under attack. In 1199, Richard Coeur-de-Lion tried to capture it, but failed. It was captured and recaptured several times during the Hundred Years' War, and the protestant Henry of Navarre, during the religious wars of the late 16th century, took the village and destroyed its castle.

``Village,'' suggesting a small population, may be misleading. Few more than a hundred live here today, but in the Middle Ages there are reputed to have been as many as 3,000. Even in the 19th century a thriving local industry, wood-turning, made St. Cirq a lively community of some 1,500 inhabitants. Up to World War I it was famous for producing wooden taps used in wine casks. But modern methods put an end to such specialized craftsmanship, and the village fell on bad times. It was saved largely by one man, Paul Rignault, a painter and art collector from Paris.

The whole village became a classe monument, to prevent the ravages not only of time and neglect but of unscrupulous antiques dealers. The fruits of Mr. Rignault's protective efforts are splendidly visible today. The dilapidation (romantic only in illusion) evident in some old photographs of St. Cirq has been transformed into a cared-for village, restored and conserved with good taste and still largely free from jarring elements of modernity.

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Not a few houses were bought by friends of Rignault, and the place became something of a magnet for artists. Many were simply attracted by its picturesque drama and ancientness, but perhaps the strangest member of the artistic fraternity to fall in love with St. Cirq and to buy a house in it was the founder and theorist of the surrealist movement, Andr'e Breton (1896-1966).

The story of his first encounter with the village poetically outdoes everyone else's. He and his wife (who still comes to stay in their house here, and whom we glimpsed in her garden) were rowed across the Lot by a silent oarsman after dark. Accounts differ, but apparently they caught their first sight of St. Cirq by Bengal (a blue flare) light. He said St. Cirq was ``comme une rose impossible dans la nuit'' (``like an impossible rose in the night'') -- and you can't get much more surrealist than that.

Artist friends followed the Bretons, sharing their enchantment with the village, so secret and inaccessible (with no main road, only a recent bridge, water piped in only 11 years ago, and no electricity until after World War II). Most visitors stop first on the hillside road opposite, irresistibly captivated by the need to photograph the whole scene: the rooftops, the precipice, the surging river. Then they drive or walk farther up until reaching the narrowest imaginable street, which curves down to the right between houses and into the square. It is a charming experience.

Locals are saddened by the inevitable inroads of tourism: post cards, advertising, the ubiquitous souvenir shops, parking chaos, and a threatened camp site by the river. Here, of all places, such tastelessness is surely grotesque, and could be destructive to the beauty of the place, which was its initial, and should be its only, appeal.

Much that seemed authentic (or at least felt good) to the part-time ``residents'' who would come back from Paris each summer to reopen their houses in St. Cirq has gone in the last few years: the village blacksmith; old M. Cabasut, the local postman, with his donkey; iron tables and chairs at the Auberge -- now plastic; the community bakery where a fellow used to blow a horn when the bread was ready; the yearly fete with old costumes and dancing in the square.

Our briefest of brief visits to this architecturally entrancing place occurred in early July, before the main tourist influx. We ate a pleasant enough salad on the terrace of one of the restaurants. We visited the little museum, which seems to float in space. We wandered up and down the tight little streets (there is scarcely a level spot anywhere). And we were privileged to see inside one of the oldest and most attractive houses.

Classified as a historical monument, this uniquely isolated three-story house, with its stonework, timber studs, and corbeling, is the lovely second home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Vaillat.

Thought to have once been the home of the collector of taxes, this enchanting house has superb fireplaces, an unusual carved wooden staircase, and many features dating to the 15th or even the 14th centuries. The owners have furnished it with enviable antiques, and the entire house shows their sensitive appreciation of old buildings, of history, and their affection for that rare gem in the Lot Valley, St. Cirq-Lapopie. Practical information

The easiest way to reach St. Cirq-Lapopie is by auto. However, you can travel by train to Cahors or by air to Toulouse and make your way from there by auto or bicycle.

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