Travel back in time with Solange Berchemin on a drive through the beau­ti­ful vil­lages of Limousin

France - - Contents -

Take a trip back in time through gor­geous coun­try­side in a clas­sic Lan­cia car.

Since its cre­ation, at the time of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, the pop­u­la­tion of the Cor­rèze dé­parte­ment has hardly grown. There is no mass tourism, and the in­fra­struc­ture wouldn’t sus­tain it. For all that, it is not cut off from the out­side world; Cor­rèze is criss-crossed by two au­toroutes and has an in­ter­na­tional air­port, at Brive-dor­dogne-val­ley.

Here, the pace is gen­tle, the tra­di­tions are strong and con­cepts such as well­be­ing and qual­ity of life are val­ued. To best ex­plore this off-the-beaten-track area, I joined a Lan­cia clas­sic car road rally for a day, fol­low­ing an itin­er­ary us­ing the sec­ondary D roads. Be­fore de­par­ture, ev­ery équipage was given a set of de­tailed route notes and a sym­bolic, but nev­er­the­less com­pul­sory, rally plaque to com­mem­o­rate the event.

The un­usual con­voy of 57 clas­sic Lan­cias set off from the vil­lage of Cor­rèze as a ghost-grey, early-morn­ing mist was just lift­ing. The orig­i­nal plan had been for me to join the rally from the start as a pas­sen­ger in a 1920s Lan­cia. How­ever, due to the raw wind, I was asked, to my re­lief, to board the or­gan­is­ers’ car for the morn­ing trail.

It was in the com­fort and warmth of a Rover 75 that I learned about clas­s­ic­car ral­lies, a pop­u­lar mo­tor sport in the area. Jean-paul Brunerie, known as one of Cor­rèze’s am­bas­sadors and the or­gan­iser of sev­eral car events, told me: “Ev­ery clas­sic-car owner has the same pas­sion. This hobby is a great lev­eller; in a funny sort of way, it doesn’t mat­ter if your car is worth €3,000 or €30,000, ev­ery club mem­ber is con­sid­ered in the same way. What mat­ters is the in­ter­est in and the love for clas­sic cars.”

As Jean-paul shared his en­thu­si­asm, we turned on to the D10, which winds its way through sleepy vil­lages, soft bends and gen­tle slopes shaded by al­leys of ch­est­nut trees, known lo­cally as ‘bread trees’ be­cause chest­nuts were the main food sta­ple here for cen­turies. For Régine Chas­sagne, from the dé­parte­ment’s tourist board, “Cor­rèze is ideal for this sort of road trip as it com­bines beau­ti­ful scenery and the dis­cov­ery of

lo­cal her­itage.” Soon we were able to catch a glimpse of our first des­ti­na­tion, Aubazine. a stern and proud vil­lage perched on a promon­tory.

Aubazine is best known for its link with one of the world’s most fa­mous fash­ion de­sign­ers; for it was at the aus­tere or­phan­age within the Cis­ter­cian abbey’s walls that the ado­les­cent Gabrielle Bon­heur ‘Coco’ Chanel drew the in­spi­ra­tion for her sig­na­ture blackand-white de­signs. You have to see it to be­lieve it but the proof is there; her iconic CC mono­gram can be spot­ted on one of the abbey’s stained-glass pan­els. The best time to visit Aubazine is in the early spring, when the vil­lage holds the Foire aux Chèvres, one of the few re­main­ing mar­kets where live goats are sold.

Hair­pin bends

But today, on the vil­lage square, the only goa­tees are sported by driv­ers and co-pilots, who jos­tled one an­other like big chil­dren. Some headed straight for the boulan­gerie, en­ticed by the smell of warm crois­sants, oth­ers made a bee-line for an espresso in the ‘ café du vil­lage’. Most lin­gered in the car park, where bon­nets had been lifted and en­gine restora­tions were be­ing ad­mired.

Back on the trail, just as I thought routes dé­parte­men­tales couldn’t get much nar­rower, the car­a­van of cars turned on to the D14 – a sin­gle track, for the most part, with hair­pin bends. The Lan­cia driv­ers were now en­joy­ing the ride to the full, and vil­lagers who had come out to line the route were ap­plaud­ing and tak­ing pic­tures, my Au­drey Hep­burn and Grace Kelly mo­ment rolled into one.

There was some con­fu­sion when a few cars took a wrong turn, head­ing for the Plus Beau Vil­lage of Turenne, with its ru­ined château and com­plete tower, high on a hill. Turenne is traf­fic-free and I will never know how those clas­sic cars got up and down a path more suited to moun­tain goats.

But the real spec­ta­cle was yet to hap­pen. As we ap­proached Col­longes-laRouge for lunch, the con­voy was di­rected to­wards a large field-cum-car park. It cre­ated an un­for­get­table vi­sion, as more than 50 clas­sic cars were neatly ar­ranged. Some had been shipped all the way from Aus­tralia; some of the Lan­cias are so rare that they are the last ex­am­ples of their kind.

It is dif­fi­cult to re­sist the splen­dour of this me­dieval vil­lage, where the flam­boy­ant red sand­stone of the houses and ‘ cas­tels’ (small cas­tles) con­trasts with the back­ground of lush, green coun­try­side. It formed part of the Vi­comté de Turenne, which was in­de­pen­dent of the French crown un­til 1738, and many no­ble­men and wealthy mer­chants had a res­i­dence here. Col­longes was vir­tu­ally aban­doned in the 19th cen­tury be­fore un­der­go­ing a re­vival in the 20th cen­tury and it be­came the first of France’s Plus Beau Vil­lages af­ter the mayor helped to found the as­so­ci­a­tion in 1982.

This is a part of France which cares for its past and the past re­pays it well. There is a con­cen­tra­tion of lux­u­ri­ous old ar­chi­tec­ture open to the pub­lic. Vil­lagers fol­low the an­ces­tral hos­pi­tal­ity rules; they will hap­pily tell sto­ries and re­count his­tory, if you care to stop and lis­ten. Re­cently, Col­longes’ com­mu­nal wood oven was re­stored and the vil­lagers had fired it for the first time on the morn­ing of our visit.

One of them said: “Did you know that in the old days, lo­cal peas­ants would get to­gether once a month to bake their bread? It was the oc­ca­sion for a party;

women would bake cakes, too, in the com­mu­nal oven. The last batch of the year would take place on All Saints’ Day.” It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that when the first Lan­cias took to the road in 1906, peo­ple were eat­ing stale bread for four months of the year.

But there was no such short­age for us: Limousin beef, Cul Noir pork and Ova­lie cheese were on the menu at the lo­cal inn. The sturdy, red­dish cows are om­nipresent in the sur­round­ing land­scape and have be­come an em­blem of Limousin all over the world, al­though the re­gion has now been ab­sorbed into the newly cre­ated Nou­velle-aquitaine. The qual­ity of Limousin’s ten­der, lean and juicy meat is un­de­ni­able. Cul Noir pork, named af­ter the black colour of the pigs’ hindquar­ters, is also an ex­cep­tion­ally tasty va­ri­ety of meat. It is bred out­doors, in the Sain­tYrieix-la-perche area and is ex­clu­sively fed acorns, roots and chest­nuts. Ova­lie is a ewe’s cheese, soft and smooth, a de­light.

Soon af­ter lunch, as the D road wi­dened and the wind and rain abated, I climbed on to the back seat of a Lan­cia Lambda 1928. Well wrapped in thick blan­kets, I felt like I was in an alien en­vi­ron­ment. The car had only one wiper, on the driver’s side, and the en­gine noise was al­most deaf­en­ing, so con­ver­sa­tion was kept to a min­i­mum. The co-pi­lot was of­ten re­duced to ges­tures or shout­ing the di­rec­tions.

I can un­der­stand the at­trac­tion of restor­ing such a ve­hi­cle, but for novices think­ing of tak­ing a clas­sic car tour, I would ad­vise choos­ing a later model. Even the whole leather in­te­rior, with its stylish look, was the source of more cold. Thank good­ness, the com­pany’s founder, Vin­cenzo Lan­cia, had equipped this model with hy­draulic shock ab­sorbers, which had just be­come stan­dard equip­ment at the time, be­cause we were about to reach the cob­bled streets of the vil­lage of Cure­monte.

Nat­u­ral grandeur

Set high on a ridge, Cure­monte has only 200 in­hab­i­tants, but boasts no fewer than three cas­tles, umpteen for­ti­fied manor houses and a cov­ered mar­ket. The vil­lage, though mostly re­stored, doesn’t ap­pear to have been mod­ernised, which adds a slightly un­real look to it; a film set for a pe­riod drama with its nat­u­ral grandeur and fine gar­dens. Cure­monte looks even bet­ter from afar and made the per­fect back­drop for a clas­sic cars photo-shoot.

Af­ter that, we en­joyed an aper­i­tif be­side the river in Beaulieu-sur-dor­dogne. The town is known for its straw­berry pro­duc­tion which is hon­oured on the sec­ond Sun­day of May at the Fête de la Fraise. The an­nual event at­tracts more than 20,000 vis­i­tors and in­cludes bak­ing an eight-me­tre-wide pie con­tain­ing 400 kilo­grams of straw­ber­ries. So if you don’t fancy the goat fes­ti­val in Aubazine, this could be an al­ter­na­tive, with eas­ier sou­venirs to bring back home.

Our fi­nal stop was in the town of Ar­gen­tat. The next day, the Lan­cias would take more D roads on their way to the Travas­sac slate quar­ries, which have been worked for three cen­turies. But it was time for me to say my good­byes, and give back the blan­kets and the star­let scarf. I can see why clas­sic car trav­el­ling is grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity in the re­gion. Traf­fic on the back roads is sparse and it feels right to dis­cover the beau­ti­ful scenery un­fold­ing at a slow pace and in such style.

Clas­sic Lan­cia cars lined up in Ar­gen­tat dur­ing a rally in Cor­rèze

ABOVE: The Lan­cia clas­sic cars at Col­longes-laRouge dur­ing the rally; RIGHT: Out­side the mairie in Aubazine; BE­LOW RIGHT: The distinc­tive red-sand­stone build­ings in Col­longes

TOP: A pic­turesque scene along the D roads of Cor­rèze; ABOVE: A Lan­cia rally team looks over to the Plus Beau Vil­lage of Cure­monte, with its three châteaux

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