Fly to Toulouse -- as we did -- and drive a hired car north. Or drive southeast from the Dordogne. Or come by rail from Paris, on the 9:42 a.m., arriving in Cahors at 3:36 p.m. However you come, you are now in the old province of Quercy, in the valley of the Lot, surely one of the wriggliest, and most beautiful, of rivers. A tributary of the Garonne River, which angles across southwest France linking Toulouse with Bordeaux, the Lot meanders through pastureland, curves majestically below rugged limestone cliffs, and flows past astonishingly picturesque towns and villages which combine the advantages of a spectacular setting and ancient roots.
Cahors itself is a fortress town in one of the river's endless loops. It had its golden age in the 13th century. One magnificent medieval bridge still stands witness to the effectiveness of fortifications which kept the town largely free of English occupation about 600 years ago when the rest of Quercy -- of which Cahors was the capital -- was under that alien boot.
We came to this area principally because of the enthusiasm for it expressed by an American who lives here. Claudia de Gu`ere -- her name sounds French enough -- inhabits a cottage hidden at the end of a rough, wooded tract. This cottage and her small, newly built ``guesthouse'' a few yards away gaze down a sweep of grass to woodland, and beyond to great cliffs along the Lot. There might be no other inhabitants for miles -- although in fact the village of St. Cirq-Lapopie, breathtakingly pretty, pe rches nearby like an illustration from a fairy story.
Claudia offers her guests ``Six Days in Quercy, an Exquisitely Catered Holiday,'' from May to October (except August) -- an exploration of the riches of this tranquil, history-laden area (which includes, incidentally, the decorated prehistoric cave of Pech-Merle).
We discovered good advantages in this personal kind of tour by private car. Living here permanently, Claudia's close acquaintance with the locality and its people provides something impossible to find with an average tour guide, who can be almost as much of a stranger to a place as you. A fellow traveler, from California, was also very impressed with Claudia's energetic determination to give her a memorable time.
It was relaxing, too, not to struggle with driving, map-reading, and guidebook research. And I enjoyed forgoing my abysmal attempts at French-speaking (though the French were very forgiving).
On a Claudia-tour, you not only enjoy the Lot itself, but also go north to see various ch^ateaux along the upper Dordogne, and south to the Aveyron and the River Tarn into which it runs. Here, at Moissac, the cloisters and doorway of the 800-year-old abbey church of St. Pierre are ``two of the finest works of ecclesiastical art in the whole of France,'' according to the Shell Guide. This entire area abounds in the ``Romanesque,'' and anyone keen on that period's bold, rounded architecture and the dignity, imagination, and decorativeness of its stone carving will be in his element. Claudia certainly is.
She takes Romanesque enthusiasts down to the city of Toulouse itself, where two masterpieces -- the church of the Jacobins and the basilica of St. Sernin -- are located; for other guests, the farthest point south would be Albi, with its formidable cathedral and Toulouse-Lautrec collection.
These are some of the larger pleasures. But smaller things were just as memorable. On the way to Albi we paused in the village of Beauregard. Its attractive square contains an old ``halle,'' or covered marketplace, of much charm, with specially carved stones for measuring grain and a roof of horizontal, flat stones, or ``lauzes.'' Here, Claudia also took us into the old bakery.
At Caylus we saw, in the church, a remarkable modern sculpture. Created out of gratitude for protection in this town during World War II, it is a ``Crucifixion'' impressive for several reasons: The sculptor Zadkine was not Christian but Jewish; the giant figure is carved out of one tree trunk; and the sculpture has a vigorous surge of energy and triumph, not resignation.
We also visited the isolated, sky-high village of Cordes. Dating back to the 13th century, its medieval houses and steep, cobbled streets are now tidily preserved.
Another day we went to Conques, a magical place. Seen from high up, across the gorge, it looks all of a piece, its buildings of gray-brown stone ranging up the hillside among the trees, as if naturally grown. A stopping place for medieval pilgrims on the way south to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, its church is a Romanesque gem with superb carvings. Its tr'esor -- housed in a nicely appointed museum -- includes much beaten gold and precious stones, and tells its own story of bygone relic-worship and ecc lesiastical wealth. My preference was for the solid masonry of the church, the scent of a nearby plane tree, and a welcome glass of grape juice after a long, hot drive.
En route for Conques, we had detoured to Villefranche. Claudia had chosen market day for this visit: The Renaissance square was bursting with activity, with colorful umbrellas shading country people selling fruit and vegetables, cheeses and meat -- and livestock. A goat calmly surveyed prospective buyers, and there were pigeons, hens, geese, and ducks. One small boy was trying to find homes for a fluffy-cream clutch of Pyrenean puppies. How much each? ``As much as you like,'' he replied.
Except for one night in a hotel in Cordes, we returned each evening ``chez Claudia'' where we ate and chatted round a cozy fire. Our hostess just happened, apart from her prowess as guide and driver, to be both a good talker and an excellent cook. . . . Practical information:
For guests flying into Toulouse, Claudia de Gu`ere can arrange to meet you. (The same if you come by train to Cahors.) If you choose to stay a night first at Toulouse, however, and drive yourself to the Lot, go to the H^otel de Diane (3, Route de Saint Simon), telephone (61) 40.09.52. Comfortable motel rooms, pleasant service, swimming pool, superb outdoor restaurant. But obtain clear directions. It's hard to find.
``Six Days in Quercy'' costs $750 per person (deposit in advance of $350), all-inclusive. Dates available in May, June, July, September, and October. Write: Claudia de Gu`ere, St. Cirq-Lapopie, 46330, France. Or telephone (65) 31-23-04. Spring and early summer are probably the best times, but early July was still comparatively uncrowded, before the French holiday period. Nevertheless, the Lot is much less ``touristy'' than the better-known Dordogne.