CORRÈZE BY CLASSIC CAR
Travel back in time with Solange Berchemin on a drive through the beautiful villages of Limousin
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.
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.
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