Ex­plor­ing the si­lent vil­lage

Daphne Beames dis­cov­ers Oradour-sur-Glane’s tragic past

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - PROPERTY -

WHEN an im­age of Oradour first flashed into fo­cus on TV screens, it was seen by thou­sands of view­ers around the world. To­day it still seems haunt­ingly fa­mil­iar, though few know the full story. The first episode of the ac­claimed

World at War se­ries be­gan with a poignant black-and-white im­age of a ru­ined vil­lage in France. The pic­ture was of Oradour-sur-Glane – the French vil­lage that has re­mained a ruin and stands as a memo­rial to those who died one fate­ful day in 1944.

The name is un­usual and strangely sur­real. In fact the lilt­ing syl­la­bles seem some­how to slip into the re­cesses of mem­ory – and it was years be­fore we ac­ci­den­tally stum­bled upon this unique and mov­ing site.

We were vis­it­ing the old city of Li­mo­ges – fa­mous for its ex­quis­ite deep blue and gold, hand-painted porce­lain, and had cho­sen to stay at the el­e­gant chateau ho­tel of La Chapelle Saint-Martin, 4km from the air­port at Li­mo­ges.

This el­e­gant for­mer squire’s hall takes its name from the tiny chapel stand­ing be­side its gates. The minis­cule church – with its im­pos­si­bly slop­ing roof in a shade of weath­ered crushed-brick – looks for all the world as though it has slipped straight from the pages of Gul­liver’s Trav­els. The hostelry is fur­nished with fine Louis XVI an­tiques and stands in a 75-acre park on the edge of an an­cient for­est. The low­est boughs of the 100-year-old trees sweep grace­fully down to brush im­mac­u­late lawns sur­round­ing an invit­ing pool.

But it is the ferns that most im­press. A dense un­der­growth of del­i­cate, green fronds frames the roads, lanes and path­ways – reaf­firm­ing the beauty of na­ture and of­fer­ing great pho­to­graphic op­por­tu­ni­ties. Ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties have lived in peace here for more than a thou­sand years.

A name, posted in the hedgerows, pro­claims the prox­im­ity of Oradour-surGlane – the doomed hamlet still stand­ing tena­ciously in its green glade – 10 min­utes away from the cen­tre of Li­mo­ges.

The tall sign in the large, leafy car park is ar­rest­ing: it calls for si­lence and re­spect­fully re­quests quiet rev­er­ence. It asks that vis­i­tors pause to re­mem­ber – in the hope that the mas­sacre t hat occurred here will never be re­peated.

There is com­pli­ance – and the loud­est sound is the trill of bird­song from an at­ten­dant choir in the trees.

Walk across the lit­tle bridge span­ning the River Glane, pass through the gates and take a step back in time. The road winds slightly up­hill to­wards an old oak on the left: the only liv­ing wit­ness to the tragedy en­acted here 63 years ago. Its pres­ence some­how kalei­do­scopes the past into the present.

On June 8, 1944, two days af­ter D-Day and the Nor­mandy land­ings, a divi­sion of the French Re­sis­tance blew up a rail­way bridge at the small town of St Ju­nien – 10km from Oradour. This was on the di­rect route to the Nor­mandy beaches and the blast slowed the ad­vanc­ing Ger­man troops. The SS re­sponse was im­me­di­ate.

An ex­am­ple was made. On June 10, the men of Oradour-sur-Glane were herded into barns and garages while the women and chil­dren were shep­herded into the church. At 3pm the pupils from the schools ar­rived, ac­com­pa­nied by their teach­ers.

That day 642 vic­tims were ma­chine­gunned and their bodies burnt.

When, much later, French Pres­i­dent Charles De Gaulle vis­ited the site of the mar­tyr­dom he made two de­ci­sions: to pre­serve the ru­ins as a memo­rial and to re­build a new Oradour near the first one.

To­day tourists can look be­yond the sad­ness of the grey streets to­wards the new vil­lage ahead – a place of new homes where flow­ers bloom and chil­dren play. There is hope here and this im­age, with the more som­bre one, should be added to the mes­sage that is taken away.

Make a first stop at the ru­ined 12th­cen­tury church on the left. It is open to the skies and the black­ened re­mains of the stained glass win­dows look out over the new green of the coun­try­side. There is an al­tar of carved, white stone – con­stantly adorned with fresh flow­ers – and a worn, stained floor. The height of the win­dows made it vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble for those im­pris­oned here to es­cape and only one woman was able to clam­ber through and, though wounded, to sur­vive. She lived an­other 43 years and is, t oday, buried in the vil­lage. It is an un­for­get­table, evoca­tive scene – a place for reverie and re­flec­tion.

Mov­ing on through an out­door mu­seum of wind­ing streets that have re­mained un­changed and locked in time, the tram­lines are still vis­i­ble in the roads, though no trams run here and the only cars to be seen are the rust­ing, burnt-out wrecks that ran in the days be­fore the sol­diers came. Old-fash­ioned street­lights and droop­ing ca­bles are in place but can of­fer no source of light.

The charred build­ings re­main as they were left on that ter­ri­ble day: the roofs have col­lapsed but the bricks have sur­vived – with some of the homes’ con­tents. There are old cook­ing uten­sils, tan­gled reels of barbed wire and there is even an old Singer sewing ma­chine. It is strangely dis­turb­ing and al­most as though th­ese items still speak for own­ers who were forced to leave them so sud­denly.

The houses are well tended: they are swept clean, the ru­ins are pris­tine, there is no lit­ter, the lawns are mowed and the trees in the yards are care­fully pruned. The homes are just un­in­hab­ited. An aerial im­age shows an im­mac­u­late site. Some­one is watch­ing over Oradour.

Then there is the ceme­tery. When the ashes set­tled - kins­men car­ried away their dead. They es­corted the ox-drawn carts that bore the in­no­cent vic­tims to their fi­nal rest­ing place – be­yond the fair ground and be­yond t he t own: a level field where the sun shines and eight black mar­ble plaques com­mem­o­rate t he dead. Two tall col­umns rise above them: an os­suary and an an­cient lantern for the dead.

The name “Oradour” comes from the Latin “ora­to­rium” and means “place of prayer”.

An­other ob­ser­va­tion is that the older gen­er­a­tion forms by far the largest per­cent­age of vis­i­tors. Per­haps those who lived closer to the time are some­how more able to em­pathise with the chill­ing events of 1944.

By way of con­trast, make a stop at the next small town: St Ju­nien – named for the pa­tron saint of trav­ellers and hos­pi­tal­ity. It is bustling and beau­ti­ful and has been a fa­mous glove-mak­ing cen­tre since the Mid­dle Ages. There is a fine 11th-cen­tury col­le­giate church boast­ing a dis­tinc­tive statue of St Madeleine, clothed en­tirely in her own blonde hair! It is a pop­u­lar hol­i­day venue of­fer­ing many at­trac­tive va­ca­tion vil­las and a va­ri­ety of sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.

Do not leave Li­mousin without pay­ing court to Li­mo­ges. The an­cient heart of the old cité first beat for the Ro­mans 2 000 years ago. It was cov­eted by the English, be­sieged by King Henry I I , sacked by the Black Prince and fi­nally set­tled into its creative phase as a cen­tre of ex­cel­lence for ce­ram­ics and enam­el­work.

Stop in the old paved town square, where un­der­ground park­ing costs only

€ 3 a day – and ad­mire the ar­chi­tec­ture of the 13th-cen­tury cathe­dral of St Eti­enne. Walk to the won­der­ful, cov­ered food mar­ket where ev­ery­thing from freshly caught fish to home­made breads and a se­lec­tion of amaz­ing cheeses is on dis­play. It is huge, colour­ful, aromatic and ad­dic­tive. This is a great gas­tro­nomic find. Browse through Ga­leries Lafayette and the myr­iad spe­cial­ist bou­tiques and hand­made chocolate shops. Fi­nally, treat your­self to a per­son­alised, sou­venir box of hand-painted Li­mo­ges porce­lain – the per­fect gift.

You will for­get nei­ther old Li­mo­ges nor its haunt­ing neigh­bour: the si­lent vil­lage that waits in the for­est. Both are truly mem­o­rable.

IN RU­INS: Oradour-sur-Glane bears si­lent tes­ta­ment to the hor­ror of WWII.

BLACK­ENED RE­MAINS: One woman sur­vived by climb­ing through a win­dow.

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