The Limousin – the country around Limoges – is hilly, wooded, wet and not particularly fertile: ideal pasture for the famous Limousin cattle. This is herdsman’s country, and it’s the widespread use of the shepherd’s cape known as a limousine that gave its name to the car. The modern Limousin region stretches south to the Dordogne valley to include Brive and Turenne. But while these places, together with Limoges itself, are not without interest, the star of the show is the countryside – especially in the east on the Plateau de Millevaches.
Brive-la-Gaillarde is a major rail junction and the nearest thing to an industrial centre for miles around. Nevertheless, it has an attractive old town and makes an agreeable base for exploring the Corrèze département and its beautiful villages, as well as the upper reaches of the Vézère and Dordogne rivers. Numerous streets fan out from the central square, place du Général-de-Gaulle, which is home to a number of turreted and towered houses, some dating back to the thirteenth century.
Limoges is a pleasant city, if not one that calls for a long stay. It’s famed for its crafts – enamel in the Middle Ages and, since the eighteenth century, exceptionally fine china – though the porcelain industry itself is pretty much spent, hard hit by recession and changing tastes. The local kaolin (china clay) mines that gave Limoges china its special quality are exhausted, and the workshops survive mainly on the tourist trade, though some are now successfully diversifying into high-tech ceramics. On first glance, its centre is rather blighted by the ugly concrete buildings of place de la République, but delving into the quiet streets beyond, particularly rue de la Boucherie and around, reveals a more atmospheric and charming side to Limoges.
Some 25km northwest of Limoges, the village of Oradour-sur-Glane stands just as the soldiers of the SS left it on June 10, 1944, after killing 642 of the inhabitants in reprisal for attacks by French maquisards. On arriving, the SS took the men of the village into barns, where they opened fire with machine guns, deliberately aiming low to wound rather than kill, before setting the barns alight – only six men escaped, one of whom was shot dead shortly after. Meanwhile, the women and children were shepherded into the church, where a gas bomb was set off – when this failed, the soldiers let loose with machine guns and grenades, before, again, setting the church, and its inhabitants, and then the rest of the village, on fire. The entire village, which sits to the southeast of the modern village, has been preserved as a shrine.
Millevaches, the plateau of a thousand springs, is undulating upland country rising to 800–900m in altitude, on the northern edge of the Massif Central, with a wild and sparsely populated landscape and villages few and far between. Those that do exist appear small, grey and sturdy, inured to the buffeting of upland weather. It’s a magnificent country of conifer plantations and natural woodland – of beech, birch and chestnut – interspersed with reed-fringed tarns, man-made lakes and pasture grazed by sheep and cows, much of it now designated a natural regional park. It’s an area to walk or cycle in, or at least savour at a gentle pace, stopping in the attractive, country inns scattered across the plateau.
The small town of Eymoutiers has a primitive architectural beauty and an old-world charm; nearby, the Lac de Vassivière offers all sorts of sports activities and a beautiful setting for a contemporary art museum.