The esprit Mortemart once captivated a royal court and still survives in a corner of the Limousin, says Mary Novakovich
Life now moves at a slow pace in Mortemart, but the village was once celebrated for the quickness of its wit. The esprit Mortemart made famous by the village’s ruling family helped to propel one of its aristocratic beauties into the court of Louis XIV in the 17th century. Françoise-Athénaïs, daughter of the Duc de Mortemart, so captivated the Sun King with her repartee that she became one of his most enduring mistresses and bore him seven children. As anyone who has seen the 1996 French period film Ridicule will know, a sharp wit could get you far at the Palace of Versailles.
Mortemart is the only Plus Beau Village de France in the Haute-Vienne département and is set in the lush Limousin region of tree-shaded lakes, winding rivers and hills covered in forests of oak and chestnut. The village, which has a little over 100 inhabitants, wears its illustrious royal past lightly. For example, the Château des Ducs de Mortemart, which has its origins in the 10th century, has now been put to more egalitarian use as an exhibition space for local artists and writers.
The mayor, Nicole Gonthier, takes me inside, where the summer exhibition has just opened. “The château used to be an auberge, and this was one of the bedrooms,” she says, pointing to a handsome room with a large stone fireplace and beamed ceilings. “It was very nice, but they couldn’t afford to restore the interior.” It works well as an exhibition space, its simple, stark interior enhanced by beautiful views of the main square, Place Royale.
Around the back of the château, swans and ducks glide by on a lake fringed with trees. It’s a peaceful spot popular with hikers, who pass by while following the hour-long walk that winds through the village and into the countryside. The Monts de Blond mountain range is only five kilometres away and many visitors use Mortemart as a base for walking and mountain biking.
Some of those visitors are resting on the sunny terrace of Le Café de Mortemart as we head into the square. The most arresting sight is La Halle, a covered market built in the 18th century using local oak and chestnut. Merchants used to travel up to 25 kilometres to trade here; nowadays, local people gather every Sunday morning in summer to buy foie gras, cheeses and organic produce. In 2008, La Halle was in danger of falling into ruin, but the commune came to the rescue. After five years’ restoration, it reopened in June 2013. “It had to be taken apart, have each section repaired and then put back together exactly as it was,” Nicole recalls. “It took three teams of artisanal experts to get the work done.”
The village has had protected status since 1965, which has been vital in preserving several of its most historic buildings. In 1330, Mortemart native Cardinal Pierre Gauvin founded three couvents in the village, two of which are still standing. (The third, set up by the Carthusian order, disappeared centuries ago, its materials used to build some of the village houses.) The Augustinians set up a school, which has since become the mairie. Their couvent was bought by a family at the end of the 19th century, but not before the monks had renovated the façade to resemble the elegant exterior of the archbishop’s palace in Limoges. Now five branches of the same family own parts of this sprawling building.
The Augustinians’ chapel became the parish church in the 17th century and has exquisitely carved 15th-century oak stalls. The plain wooden ceiling used to feature frescos until about 1860, but they were taken down and sold to pay for the upkeep of the church. “A bad action for a good reason,” says Nicole ruefully. Some frescos survived, which add even more colour to the ornate altar.
Opposite the church is the legacy of the Carmelite order, which ran a hospital as well as a couvent. Thick ivy covers one large wing, which is now a B&B run by British expatriate Raymond Thomas. He and his partner are part of the ten per cent of the village population that comes from Britain. “It’s our third house since we’ve been in France,” he says. “That was in 2003. We were going to move further south, but with the canicule [heatwave]that year – weeks of 36°C temperatures – we decided to stay around here.” It’s easy to see why Limousin’s more temperate climate attracts both visitors and those looking for a new home. Greenery is everywhere, bringing a welcome sense of coolness, even on hot days.
The other wing of the Carmelite building contains social housing, as well as artists’ studios, some of which are open to the public. The original 14th-century staircase, a magnificent creation that winds its way up three storeys, is crying out for proper restoration. “The work has to conform to regulations and be carried out by qualified artisans,” says Nicole, “but we’re too small to get the funding.” She knows her little commune wouldn’t top the list of government priorities during an economic downturn.
But Nicole, who moved to Mortemart from nearby Bellac in 1969, has hopes for the future – and knows that much of it will rely on tourism. “Tourism for families is what we’re looking for: horse rides, walks, bike rides. We have a golf course, too, that the owner hopes to expand.” She gestures to a building that will soon be a bicycle hire centre, a sound idea in an area where cycling is extremely popular. “They’re going to have rides in a horse and carriage too, so people can explore the area in a slow, relaxed way.” Quite a different esprit Mortemart, but a highly appealing one, nonetheless.
By road/ferry: Mortemart is a six-hour drive from the northern ferry ports and a five-hour drive from Le Havre and Caen.
By rail: The most convenient main station is Limoges, 40km away. Direct trains from Paris take about three hours.
By air: The nearest airport is at Limoges.
WHERE TO STAY
1 Place Royale
Tel: (Fr) 5 55 68 12 09
www.logishotels.com Two-star Logis de France. Doubles €56 excluding breakfast.
Couvent des Carmes
2 Place des Carmes
Tel: (Fr) 5 55 60 20 23
www.carmes.eu B&B in a converted convent. Open April- Nov. Doubles €58 including breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT
1 Place Royale
Tel: (Fr) 5 55 68 12 09
Traditional dishes with menus from €19.80 to €47.50. Closed Monday (and also Tuesday Sept-June), plus February and two weeks in November.
Le Café de Mortemart
15 Place Royale
Tel: (Fr) 5 55 68 98 61
Open April-Sept for lunch; closed Saturday and Sunday March and Oct and closed completely Nov-Feb. Menus from €13.
WHAT TO DO
Golf de Mortemart
Tel: (Fr) 5 55 60 45 16
www.golfdemortemart.fr Guided tours of Mortemart Available from the tourist office (see below for contact details).
Monts de Blond
Mortemart tourist office
Tel: (Fr) 6 77 56 88 49
Haute-Vienne tourist office
Tel: (Fr) 5 55 79 04 04
www.tourisme-hautevienne.com Limousin tourism board
Tel: (Fr) 5 55 11 05 90