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motorway aires: 20

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motorway aires[1]

aires on the A20 - the Occitane
from Brive to Montauban

Autoroutes of France, highlighting the A20

Click for motorways and motorway aires in France.
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A20 autoroute
aire: Jardin des Causses du Lot
end notes

Motorway aires are designed to provide a suitable environment for relaxing, refreshing and recovering during the long, hard journeys. As well as facilities of often dubious nature, picnic tables and seats, a telephone kiosk, there are often optional extras such as a play area or a display related to some local interest or event.

the A20 autoroute

The A20 is the first complete north-south route which goes through the centre of France. ( The second is the soon to be completed A75.)

The A20 passes through regions of Centre, Limousin, Midi-Pyrénées. It was was proposed to reduce the travel time along the nearby trunk road, RN20.

The A20 starts in the north at Vierzon in Cher, not far from the glorious cathedral city of Bourges, and finishes in the south at Montauban in Tarn-et-Garonne. There are further sections, between Orleans and Vierzon (A71) and Montauban-Toulouse (A62), that could be renamed the A20 in the not too distant future.

Here we shall concentrate on the southern, tolled, section of the A20, from Brive-la-Gaillarde to Montauban (154 km, just under 100 miles), leaving the northern free section for the future.

aire: Jardin des Causses du Lot

This beautifully designed and appointed aire, between J56 and J57, is on the east side of the motorway but accessible in both directions. The Jardin des Causses du Lot aire is designed to give a real experience of the Lot countryside, while limiting the motorway functions, such as fuel and parking to the rear of a large, airy, modern building. With its wide, overhanging roofs and glassed walls, this building provides a feeling of coolness and shade after the baking Lot sunshine outside.

The result is a relaxing yet modern ambiance, which gives a real contrast to the harshness of the nearby motorway. The terraced gardens and lakeside walk, together with the adventure of the observation point, add to make an aire well worth a visit.

This is the only really interesting aire on this section of the A20. It is, conveniently, about half way between Brive-la-Gaillarde and Montauban.

View from main aire building, across the terraces, to Lake Bhutan.
View from main aire building, across the terraces, to Lake Bhutan.

The satellite image below gives no sense of how this aire is placed - on the heights of undulating landscape, so that in one direction the functional services are, at least, partially hidden in a fold of the hills, while in another the verdant, wooded and agricultural scenery is spread before you.

Annotated satellite image of the Jardin des Causses du Lot aire. Image:

Walking through the main building, past the gift shop and cafeteria, you come out to a wide balcony overlooking a series of terraces. The balcony overlooking the terraces is wide enough to provide a comfortable and shaded eating area.

The terraces and main aire building.
The terraces and main aire building.
( The light parts in the plantings are weed prevention material covering the soil.)

The terraces lead down to a lake (Lake Bhutan) and give views over Lot’s landscape. They are planted with mulberry trees, fig trees, cypresses and irises, emblematic of Lot’s position as an entrance to the region of Midi-Pyrenees and the South.

View from the observation tower [mirador]
View from the observation tower [mirador], showing the panorama indicating what can be seen in the distance, and the nearby aire service station.

From the aire building, in the opposite direction to the terraces is a path leading to an observation tower (a mirador in French) which provides panoramic views, even to the foothills of the Central Massif in the north.

There are at least two gates where you can leave the aire and walk in the neighbouring countryside, or visitors on foot may enter the aire [marked on satellite image map above].

The exterior of this aire was designed by Bruno Mader, architect, in association with Pascale Hannetel, landscape architect, and Pierre Verger, set designer.


Photo-montage of the Valentré Bridge at Cahors.
Photo-montage of the Valentré Bridge at Cahors.
It is very difficult to achieve a photo of the complete bridge unless you are on a river boat or in the sky

A diversion into the town of Cahors is worthwhile, so you can gawp at a great wonder of European mediaeval architecture - a fortified bridge.

View to the weir on the Lot river, below Cahors bridge
above: view to the weir on the Lot river, seen through a crellation on Cahors bridge

right: stairs to the garrison located in one of the towers on Cahors bridge. When the bridge was used to defend against French or English aggressors, troops were garrisoned on/in the bridge.


Built in the days of the 100 Years War, the Valentré bridge is a spectacular example of French military architecture of that period, and one of the finest fortified medieval bridges still standing. Designed to defend the city against attacks from the south, in the end neither the British nor Henry IV attacked from this direction.

Building of the bridge started in 1308 and was finished seventy years later.

Drawing of the construction of the fortified bridge at Cahors

The contract for the building was given by the town Consuls to a local mason, proud at last to become a Master Mason.

Now follows a local legend:
The bridge at Cahors was taking ages to building, decades and decades, not helped by the river Lot often flooding. The town Consuls gave the mason a year to finish the bridge, else forfeit payment. The mason called the devil to his aid. The devil demanded the soul of the mason as payment. But the mason insisted on his side, his partner obey all his orders and whims, otherwise the compact would be broken. The devil agreed to this stipulation.

In a very short time, a true masterpiece was about to be completed. The mason then thought to save his soul. So he called the devil, gave him a sieve and ordered him to draw water from the river and bring it to the masons building the towers, so that they could thin down their mortar. Bringing water in a sieve is not easy. The devil knew that he had been fooled, but still made the attempt. There was not a drop of water let in the sieve when he arrived at the top of the tower.

The devil had kept his promise, but he thought immediately take revenge. The next day, the top of the middle tower collapsed suddenly. It was repaired, but only for the tower to collapse again. The tower was rebuilt again and again, and each time it collapsed. Even today the middle tower is unfinished.

When restoration work was done in 1879, a small model of the devil stealing a stone was put high on the northwest corner of the central tower, which you can see if you look carefully.

The photo below shows the central tower, with an enlargement of the devil. The town is behind you, and the weir is just beyond the bridge to the right. The path in the photo above is to the left, below the bridge and behind you.

Cahors coat of armsCahors may be the capital of the Department of Lot, but the rest of Cahors is a pretty ordinary country town, despite civic attempts to make it ‘interesting’. But going around the bridge, and viewing it from many angles, stopping for a picnic, and walking up and down the river banks is a pleasant diversion.

Cahors is also known for its Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) red wine. it is often tannic when young, and consider similar to robust Bordeaux wines.

For those interested in the byways of history,
  • The reputation of Cahors was such that Dante [1265 - 1321] mentioned Cahors in the context of Sodom in his description of hell.
  • Jacques Duèze, who some say was the son of a cobbler of Cahors, became pope in 1316 under the name of John XXII. He was elected by a conclave in Lyon, and was the second pope to set up his papal palace at Avignon, rather than at Rome. Louis IV of Bavaria set up an anti-pope against him.
  • Henry of Navarre [1553 - 1610], who became Henry IV, attacked the city with, allegedly, 700 men. He entered by blowing up the gate to the landward side, an early use of explosive. They fought for four or five days from house to house, the locals apparently having been happy with their present arrangements. Being annoyed with the resistance, Henry IV allowed his troops to go on the rampage when the city fell, the churches and convents being sacked.


The prefectural capital of Tarn and Garonne, Montauban is nicknamed “City of Ingres”, after the great nineteenth century painter, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who was born here. There is an Ingres Museum in the town with 4,000 drawings by the artist. It is installed in the former bishop’s palace.

Founded in 1144 by the Count of Toulouse, like many small towns in the south-west, Mountauban is considered as one of the first bastides, or fortified towns. As such, it meets certain criteria: all streets intersecting at right angles and a large central square. The old centre is very homogeneous, with no modern building breaking the harmony of red brick facades mostly built in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Although many people know of the siege of La Rochelle, where Huguenot Protestants held out against their forcible conversion to Catholicism, orchestrated by Cardinal Richelieu, not many know that Montauban was similarly besieged. It was the last Calvinist safe refuge to fall to the king of France and its cardinal, to cries of “Vive le roi, vive le cardinal” - “Long live the king, long live the cardinal” - as the town welcomed in the king and his chief minister.

Montauban coat of armsIn Occitan (the language of Languedoc), Montauban was spelt Montalban, meaning ‘white mountain’. A likely reason for this name is that the heart of the city is located on a slight hill where there were many willows. The backs of the leaves being white, gave an impression of a ‘Mont Blanc’[white mountain] when it was windy. The willow is also one of the emblems on the crest of the city.

Part  of the Place Nationale - the main square at Montauban
Part of the Place Nationale - the main square at Montauban

The marvellous main square of Montauban has buildings in shades of red and pink that glow in the southern sunlight. This square in the centre of Montauban is still reminiscent of the original central square of the bastide town, though much larger and grander, with arched arcades at the base of the buildings that provide sheltered and shaded areas for shops, stalls and cafés.

In the Middle Ages, the merchant guilds met under the arcade arches, over which hung the symbols of their trades - clogs, wheat sheaf, cloth. Justice was meted out in the square and it was not until the Revolution that the pillory was demolished, to be replaced by a cross. The medieval facades of wood and cob were destroyed in two fires in the 17th century, but it was not until a hundred years later that the rebuilding was completed. The architects reproduced the original arcades, topped by different facades according to the tastes of their owners.

A corner of the Place Nationale, Montauban
A corner of the Place Nationale, Montauban

A corner of the Place Nationale - National Square. Cars drive through the corner arch to enter the surrounds of the square.

The 1808 sundial, Place Nationale, Montauban

The sundial in the Place Nationale, erected in 1808, to commemorate a visit by Napoleon I. The sundial’s motto reads, “UNA TIBI”, which translates as “There will be one for you”. The motto continues, “May it be as late as possible”.

end notes

  1. aire: in this context, an area —
    aire de loisirs: recreation area;
    aire de pique-nique: picnic area;
    aire de repos: rest area;
    aire de services: services , motorway (GB) or freeway (US) service station.

  2. We have used the letter J, signifying the English nomenclature of junction for access points on motorways/dual carriageways. The French name is Sortie, exit. However, as this would lead to using an unfamiliar (to Anglophones) letter S, in this instance we are remaining English.

  3. Other aire buildings designed by Bruno Mader are Correze and Garabit.

  4. The coat of arms for the Department of Lot, which is very similar to that of Cahors. Lot coat of arms
on first arriving in France - driving motorway aires, introduction
travelling by rail to and within France individual aires                                             
A75 autoroute from Clermont-Ferrand to Béziers and its aires Les Pyrénées, A64 Poey de Lascar, A64
A89 autoroute from Bordeaux to Clermont-Ferrand and beyond - aires Pic du Midi, A64
Hastingues, A64
Dunes, A62
Mas d’Agenais, A62
A7 - aires on the busy A7 autoroute from Lyons to Marseille Pech Loubat, A61
Port-Lauragais, A61
Mas d’Agenais, A62
Garonne, A62
A9- aires on the motorway to Spain Ayguesvives, A61
Renneville, A61
Catalan village, A9
Tavel, A9
A62 - aires on the autoroute of two seas three aires on the canal du midi, A61 Lozay, A10
Poitou-Charente, A10
A65 : the autoroute de Gascogne, from Langon to Pau Carcassonne, A61 Les Bréguières, A8
A64 and A61 - aires on the other autoroute of two seas  
A83 motorway in Poitou-Charentes - aires A63: the French Wild West, Bordeaux to the Spanish border - formerly the N10
A837 motorway in Poitou-Charentes - aires A20 - aires on the Occitane autoroute, from Brive to Montauban
A42 and A40 motorways - aires from Lyon to Switzerland and Italy A87 motorway and its aires in Poitou-Charentes

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