No one gets lost if they follow a the routes of the grandes randonnées, I told myself as I set off to the region of the Lot, in particular to discover the historic watermills or moulins that line the valley of the Alzou river.
The nearby town of Rocamadour is a fascinating stop on the pilgrim route to Santiago di Compostella in Spain. It’s perched amongst the cliffs overlooking a dramatic valley, and as such it seemed like an excellent base for such an adventure.
But my first walk turned into an eight hour marathon. After 28 kilometres during which I completed some interesting circles, my interest in the landscape had been replaced by a grim determination to complete the route I had planned. Later I discovered that I marched past a beautiful ancient watermill Le Moulin de Cougnaguet giving it barely a second glance, so determined was I to get back to the hotel swimming pool.
Luckily I was staying at Les Vieilles Tours, where the hotel’s proprietor Laurent Tayebi quickly realised that here was someone who needed looking after. He looks after all his guests as though they are his family and it’s not surprising they go back year after year to bask in his warmth and care.
The next day I was chauffeured to the start of my day’s walk, heading in the opposite direction up the Alzou gorge. ‘Just go straight ahead!’ he called out after me, looking at his watch. ‘I can come and pick you up if you call me.’ Thus was I free to enjoy the loveliness of the leafy glade without a care in the world. There was no missing the route this time, and the well marked path meandered upstream past a series of haunting, ruined mills.
There are four abandoned watermills on the route, of which the last and most dramatic, Le Moulin de Saut, was barely put into use before it was burned down. Its owner, an 18th century miller, committed suicide shortly after and it has retained a sinister atmosphere as it clings precipitously to the side of the gorge.
Fires in those days were commonplace due to the friction caused by the huge grinding wheels in an atmosphere of flammable dust and straw and the only mill which survives and is still in use to this day is Le Moulin de Cougnaguet, the one I had ignored on my first walk.
‘But you must see it!’ exclaimed Monsieur Tayebi, who insisted on driving me up the valley the same afternoon so that I could see the mill and watch Hubert, the charming proprietor, put the four huge grinding wheels into action.
As we sped back to Rocamadour in the hotel car for an impromptu visit to the shrine of the famous black madonna, I reflected that the wheel was indeed a great invention.
Stay at: Les Vieilles Tours, Lafage, Rocamadour – *** Hôtel de Charme et Caractère