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