Going green in Haute-Vienne

A verdant gateway to the south, pretty Haute-Vienne has a rich history just waiting to be explored, as Mary Novakovich discovers

The sound of the Occitan language usually evokes images of the sun-drenched vineyards, olive groves and lavender fields of the south. It’s not something you would necessarily expect to hear in the fertile green hills of Limousin and the department of Haute-Vienne. But many holidaymakers who pass through this central region of France on their way south aren’t aware that they’ve crossed a frontier – from langue d’oïl to langue d’oc. It’s like a north-south divide, this linguistic relic from the Middle Ages that determined how the French used to say ‘oui’

In Limoges, the regional and departmental capital, it’s not just the street signs in Occitan that hark to the south. The atmosphere is relaxed and laid-back in this city that made its fortune as the porcelain centre of France and is designated a Ville d’Art et d’Histoire. Its two historic quarters reveal a fascinating history that stretches over more than a millennium. Hovering over the banks of the River Vienne is the Quartier Historique de la Cité, dominated by the imposing Romanesque St-Étienne cathedral where Richard the Lionheart was invested as Duke of Aquitaine in 1169. And this certainly won’t be the last you’ll see of Richard, who has a whole Route Richard Coeur de Lion devoted to him in Haute-Vienne.

The former bishop’s palace beside the cathedral is now the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Limoges, whose collections include paintings by Limoges native, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. There’s also a large exhibit of medieval enamel – one of the city’s most important crafts prized by everyone from Eleanor of Aquitaine to the countless pilgrims on the Santiago de Compostela route that cuts through here.

A stroll through the botanical gardens takes you past the Cité des Métiers et des Arts, a showcase for the best of the local craft guilds housed in a former refectory. Follow the winding path down to the river past half-timbered houses and you reach the 13th-century arches of St-Étienne bridge, the cobbled surface of which is embedded with the distinctive scallop shells of St James. Nowadays, pilgrims aren’t the only people who appreciate the peace of the tree-shaded riverside path.

Limoges’ other historic quarter used to centre round the long-gone St-Martial abbey and castle, and contains one of its most delightful streets. The half-timbered 13th-century houses along narrow Rue de la Boucherie used to be the heart of the butchers’ trade, which you can explore in the Maison de la Boucherie at No. 36 (open July-September). Shops have filled the gap left by the butchers’ guild, which still owns the tiny chapel of St-Aurélien at the end of the street. Les Halles at the entrance to Rue de la Boucherie is the place to pick up cuts of tender Limousin beef, along with other local specialities including pâté aux pommes de terres (a puff pastry pie of potatoes and meat) and feuille de Limoges, a goat’s cheese tart.

Head about 40km east of Limoges and you soon spot signs for the Parc Naturel Régional de Millevaches. How fitting for a region known for its fine cattle, you might think, but the ‘vaches’ here are natural springs rather than cows. There are plenty of those too, of course. The River Vienne winds through thickly forested hills in this northern edge of the Massif Central, passing attractive towns such as St-Léonard-de-Noblat, with its medieval half-timbered houses and 12th-century church.

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Just before the eastern border with Creuse is one of Haute-Vienne’s most popular outdoor playgrounds, Lac de Vassivière. Limousin might not have the coastline that its fellow Occitan speakers in Languedoc enjoy, but it does have a large number of lakes and reservoirs where locals and visitors alike can cool off in clean waters and park their caravan. Lac de Vassivière is a man-made lake of nearly 1,000 hectares, edged by beaches, forests and walkways, and dotted with islands reached by eco-friendly electric boats. Water sports enthusiasts can kayak or waterski, while the forests teem with zip wires and mountain bikers. Those who want a lazy day out can just have a picnic by the water’s edge, or fish for trout and perch. There’s even a contemporary art gallery on one of the islands. Come winter, it’s the turn of snow sports such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

Similarly, 30km north of Limoges is Haute-Vienne’s other major summer hot spot, Lac de St-Pardoux. Families flock to this artificial lake of 30 hectares for more swimming, sailing, waterskiing, camping and easy cycling along the 24km bike paths that curve around the lake. This is Haut-Limousin, a rough dividing line between north and south. It’s here that you reach the first mountain range of the Massif Central, the Monts de Blond, where granite hills shelter megaliths and draw hikers and mountain bikers to their tranquil wooded interior.

Just to the north-west is Bellac, a village étape where many a tired traveller has stopped to break their journey. But the birthplace of the novelist Jean Giraudoux is more than just a place to rest your head for a night. From the main Place du Palais, follow the Chemin des Côtes’ winding steps that hug the sides of the haut village down towards the River Vincou. A medieval drying shed for tanned hides stands by the river’s edge, a reminder of what made Bellac prosper during the Middle Ages. The path leads to the 13th-century cobbled Pont de la Pierre and the shaded riverside path, with lovely views of the village above. Relax at one of the picnic tables before hiking uphill to the Place de l’Église and the Romanesque Notre-Dame de Bellac church.

For the past 60 years, Bellac has been holding one of France’s oldest theatre festivals, the Festival National de Bellac, which was created in honour of Jean Giraudoux (whose birthplace has been turned into a museum). Every July, more than 100 actors perform in the purpose-built Théâtre du Cloître as well as in the town’s gardens and marquees.

Less than 15km south of Bellac is the only village in Haute-Vienne to be designated one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France. Mortemart was built around three convents established in the 14th century, two of which are still standing. What is now the parish church was originally a school run by Augustinians, and the exquisite sculpted wooden stalls used by the monks are still there. The 15th-century Château des Ducs has a more egalitarian role in the village these days, holding exhibitions of works by local artists. A handsome covered market was added in the 18th century, taking pride of place in the main square and drawing people from miles around during its summertime Sunday market.

If the people behind the Plus Beaux Villages de France association are looking for new members, they should visit Mortemart’s very near neighbour, Montrol-Sénard, which is barely two kilometres away. A local heritage group, Nostalgie Rurale, has re-created the village’s rustic past with evocative exhibits showing how life was lived in the early years of the 20th century. They’re set in the original buildings, including the communal oven, clog-maker’s workshop and village school. Even the lavoir still has the old washboards propped up against the basin’s edge. They’re free to visit from April to November.

The more recent past haunts one particular village in Haute-Vienne in a way that’s almost indescribable. Oradour-sur-Glane stands as a testimony to man’s brutality, the scene of a massacre by the Nazis in a war that had already exceeded any known boundaries of human behaviour. On 10 June 1944, a German SS division murdered 642 men, women and children in this village 23km west of Limoges, including six cyclists who happened to be passing through. The Nazis herded the men into barns and garages, shooting them in the legs to cause the worst agony, before setting fire to the buildings. The women and children, who made up two-thirds of the dead, were locked in the church, where they met the same fate. The German soldiers then set fire to the village in a half-hearted attempt to cover their crimes. A few villagers ran away as soon as the Germans arrived; a sole woman survived by jumping out of the church window; and one boy escaped with his life because, as a refugee from Lorraine, he knew what the Nazis were capable of, and had fled.

This is the village that now remains with its blackened ruins open for all to see. It was decided to keep Oradour-sur-Glane as it was left in June 1944 – a ‘village martyr’ – with burnt-out cars, smashed household goods and dangling street lighting among the shells of the buildings that are still standing. The 642 dead have their own underground memorial by the cemetery, with some of their possessions displayed in glass cases. You enter the village via the modern visitors’ centre, where exhibitions examine the background to the massacre. Charles de Gaulle said in March 1945: “Oradour-sur-Glane is the symbol of the calamities of the country. The memory must be kept alive, for a similar calamity must never occur again.” As you enter the village itself, a sign at the gate says simply: “Souviens-toi. Remember.”

Centuries before the Nazis blazed through France, the country was in the grip of a north-south fight as 12th-century imperial powers tried to expand their empires. In the midst of this was the Plantagenet king, Richard the Lionheart, who was trying to fend off French monarch Philip Augustus and Raymond, Count of Toulouse. Travel along the Route Richard Coeur de Lion and you can tour the châteaux where Richard took shelter in those fraught years. Some are in private hands, while others were built in later centuries but have been included in the tourist route. Some, such as Château de Nexon, have wonderfully elaborate gardens that are open to the public.

One of the most elegant is Château de Rochechouart, which overlooks the Graine and Vayres river valleys in the town of Rochechouart, 43km west of Limoges. Since 1985, its stately walls have housed a museum of contemporary art. The Château de Châlus-Chabrol in Châlus, where Richard was killed in 1199, is in ruins but it is open to visitors from June to August.

Haute-Vienne’s turbulent history has been submerged in its mellow landscapes of rolling hills, serene lakes, lush valleys, gorges and forests of oak, chestnut and pine. For centuries, travellers have made their way through this green gateway to the south, with more modern visitors finding a pace and lifestyle that recall a simpler time. And many have discovered that this is the place to stop – and not just for the night. LF