ROAD TRIP

Fol­low a pil­grims’ trail to Li­mo­ges and drop into the home of a fa­mous writer.

France - - Bienvenue - Adam Ruck

DAY ONE LA CHARITÉ-SUR-LOIRE TO NOHANT 154 KILO­ME­TRES

In a more spir­i­tual age of tourism, towns and abbeys touted mirac­u­lous holy relics as a means of at­tract­ing vis­i­tors. Lit­tle now re­mains of the great pil­grim­age churches at Li­mo­ges and Déols (near Château­roux), but there are plenty of oth­ers, in­clud­ing the im­pos­ing for­mer abbey church that dom­i­nates the small town of La Charité-sur-loire from the Bur­gun­dian right bank. The cross­ing by bridge, ei­ther side of an is­land in mid-stream, brought pil­grims this way with no mir­a­cles re­quired.

In its day (12th cen­tury) this was the sec­ond-largest church in Chris­ten­dom, af­ter Cluny. Only the choir, the cross­ing and about a quar­ter of the nave have sur­vived from that time, but even in its trun­cated form the scale is breath­tak­ing.

Fifty kilo­me­tres west along the N151, Bourges is the cap­i­tal of the his­tor­i­cal Berry re­gion, and was more im­por­tant still in the 15th cen­tury, when the monar­chy was squeezed be­tween Bur­gundy and the English, and young Charles VII had to flee Paris to be­come the de­rided ‘ roi de Bourges’.

De­cline set in af­ter a fire in 1487 threat­ened but did not con­sume the Gothic cathe­dral and its pre­cious col­lec­tion of stained glass and fa­cade sculp­tures. The town cen­tre was re­built in an at­trac­tive tim­bered vein and makes for en­joy­able ex­plo­ration, with Jac­ques Coeur’s palace at the heart of it, to bor­row a pun favoured by the man him­self. A mer­chant banker who fi­nanced the French re­cov­ery in the Hun­dred Years War, Coeur was re­warded with jeal­ousy, dis­pos­ses­sion and im­pris­on­ment be­fore he could en­joy the lav­ish home he built in his na­tive town. It is now used for tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tions.

Me­an­der pret­tily up the River Cher to the geo­graphic cen­tre of France, a ti­tle that sev­eral vil­lages claim, and the Cen­tre de la France ser­vice sta­tion, which lies off the A71 au­toroute at Farges-al­lichamps, and is also ac­ces­si­ble from the D142. The Ab­baye de Noir­lac, beau­ti­fully lo­cated near the river, is one of the purest and most com­plete ex­am­ples of the aus­tere Cis­ter­cian style, with the added at­trac­tion of a good lunch in the Au­berge de l’ab­baye (tel: (Fr) 2 48 96 22 58).

Con­trast­ingly rich in its ar­chi­tec­ture and fur­nish­ings, the Château de Meil­lant

(guided tour 1hr, chateaude­meil­lant.fr) is a match for any pile in the Loire Val­ley, with­out the crowds and with more to en­joy in­side, hav­ing come through the Rev­o­lu­tion un­scathed and re­main­ing in pri­vate hands down the cen­turies.

From here it is an hour’s drive to the ham­let of Nohant (six kilo­me­tres north of La Châtre), ei­ther via Lig­nières or on back roads to in­clude the for­mer pri­ory at Or­san, which is now a lux­ury ho­tel with re-cre­ated medieval gar­dens.

Nohant is a ham­let of typ­i­cal berri­chon charm, clus­tered around the church and a small château where the nov­el­ist and fem­i­nist icon Ge­orge Sand (1804-76) lived, wrote and en­ter­tained her friends, who in­cluded many prime movers of French Ro­man­ti­cism. Chopin spent seven pro­duc­tive sum­mers in res­i­dence and is the fo­cus of the Nohant fes­ti­val in June/july (fes­ti­val­no­hant.com).

Stay the night at the Au­berge de la Petite Fadette (dou­bles from €70, aubergepetite­fadette.com), an inn of suit­ably old-fash­ioned charm, named af­ter one of Ge­orge Sand’s many lo­cally set pas­toral nov­els.

DAY TWO NOHANT TO SAINT-LÉONARD-DE-NOBLAT 135 KILO­ME­TRES

Ge­orge Sand’s house is rich in de­tail and beau­ti­fully pre­sented, with place names on the din­ing ta­ble and the stage in the theatre set for ac­tion. Al­low two hours for the guided tour, a walk in the gar­den and an in­spec­tion of the won­der­ful 12th-cen­tury fres­coes in the church in nearby Nohant-vic.

Of the many lit­er­ary lo­ca­tions in le pays de Ge­orge Sand, the most re­ward­ing is Gargi­lesse-dampierre to the west of Nohant, an old vil­lage of film-set per­fec­tion on the pret­ti­est stretch of the River Creuse. The nov­el­ist dis­cov­ered the place in 1857, and bought a cot­tage (now a small mu­seum), and a lo­cal school of land­scape artists soon fol­lowed. Have lunch on the ter­race at the Au­berge Hô­tel des Artistes (menus from €15, ho­tel-de­sartistes-gargi­lesse.com).

Fol­low the Creuse south­wards, pass­ing dams and castle ru­ins (at Crozant) en route to Dun-le-pales­tel and the hills of the his­tor­i­cal Li­mousin re­gion, where mul­ti­tudes of shy, nut-brown cows en­joy pride of place. Cross the River Tau­rion at Chatelus-le-marcheix, and con­tinue via many ups and downs to the Vi­enne Val­ley at Saint-léonard-de-noblat, home of the 19th-cen­tury sci­en­tist Gay-lus­sac and the revered cy­clist Ray­mond Pouli­dor, son of the soil and se­rial Tour de France brides­maid.

Now in his 80s, Poupou is of­ten to be en­coun­tered at the Café des Sports, near the Ro­manesque pil­grim­age church. Saint Léonard’s spe­cial­ity mir­a­cle is lib­er­a­tion, which ex­plains all the bro­ken-chain of­fer­ings in­side the church.

Stay at the Re­lais Saint-jac­ques (dou­bles from €65, lere­lais­sain­t­jacques.com), one of many ho­tels on the pil­grim­age road to use the cock­leshell mo­tif. Lo­cal beef is rec­om­mended in pref­er­ence to seafood.

DAY THREE SAINT-LÉONARD-DE-NOBLAT TO LI­MO­GES 50 KILO­ME­TRES

Li­mo­ges is an im­por­tant pro­vin­cial city that gave its name to this pil­grim­age route and to the French word for a sack­ing ( limo­geage), af­ter World War I gen­eral Joseph Jof­fre sent in­com­pe­tent of­fi­cers to the most re­mote post­ing from the West­ern Front that he could find.

The city’s main at­trac­tion is its porce­lain in­dus­try, which de­vel­oped af­ter the key in­gre­di­ent, kaolin clay, was dis­cov­ered at Saint-yrieix-la-perche in 1768. Find out more by vis­it­ing the Adrien Dubouché porce­lain mu­seum, and by tak­ing a guided fac­tory tour at Bernar­daud (bernar­daud.com/fr), which has beau­ti­ful art porce­lain dis­plays, and a shop.

The fac­tory is in Av­enue Al­bert Thomas, on the route to the air­port. The same road leads to Oradour-surGlane, 20 kilo­me­tres away, a som­bre re­minder of one of the most shock­ing events of the Oc­cu­pa­tion – the de­struc­tion of the vil­lage and mur­der of all but a hand­ful of its in­hab­i­tants on 10 June 1944. The ru­ined vil­lage stands as the Nazis left it, and has an ex­plana­tory mu­seum.

The cathe­dral in Bourges

ABOVE: The theatre in the writer Ge­orge Sand’s coun­try home in Nohant

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