Head inland to Limousin and you’ll discover clear lakes, forests and pastures, as well as interesting towns and villages, each with their own story to tell. Gillian Harvey gives the low-down on her home department of Haute-Vienne
Our regular columnist Gillian has lived in Limousin for seven years. In addition to her column this month, she writes about her home department of Haute-Vienne on
With its sweeping rural landscape, scattered with lakes and forests, and as one of the trio of departments boasting the cleanest air in France, Haute-Vienne offers a rural idyll that could easily compete with that of the more famous department of Dordogne, only with a lower population and arguably more modestly priced property.
Nestled in Limousin, and referred to by some as the ‘Lake District of France’, Haute-Vienne is home to numerous inland lakes including Lac de Vassivière, which, at nearly 10 square kilometres, is one of the largest man-made lakes in France. Many of the lakes have artificial beaches gracing their shores, making them particularly popular with families during the summer months.
With a quarter of its land given over to agriculture, and a population of under 400,000, Haute-Vienne is also home to two of France’s 49 regional natural parks, which spill into neighbouring departments. To the south-east, the Parc Naturel Régional de Millevaches en Limousin and to the south-west, Parc Naturel Régional Périgord Limousin. Such parks are considered to be areas of outstanding natural beauty and are a plentiful source of information for both educational and ecological studies.
The climate in Haute-Vienne can be variable, with bitterly cold, but often shortlived winters, giving way to warm, wet spring weather, hot summers and clement autumns. The weather can be extremely varied, and the department has the dubious honour of being part of the Massif Central, meaning it benefits from more precipitation than surrounding areas.
Popular with artists and creatives, Haute-Vienne’s capital city, Limoges acquired worldwide fame for its delicate porcelain after kaolin deposits were discovered close by in the 18th century. The city is also famed for its enamel work, which took off during the 12th century, with workshops being sponsored by StMartial’s Abbey.
Today, as well as being home to many porcelain producers – from individual artisans to larger fabricators – and a wealth of porcelain shops, Limoges is home to several museums, including the Musée des Beaux-Arts, with a beautiful collection of porcelain through the ages, as well as diverse collections from scientific instruments and rare books to paintings by Renoir and Morisot. Porcelain lovers will also enjoy visiting the Musée National Adrien Dubouché which exhibits over 15,000 ceramic pieces, dating back to the 18th century.
Sarah Ford, 47, moved to Limoges in 2014 after her partner, Paul, found a job locally and is enjoying her life in the city. “I have lived in several towns and cities in France including Nancy, Nemours and Paris. Here, we have a quality of life we couldn’t hope for elsewhere: fresh air, spacious living space, happy children. I wish the train links to other cities were faster, but apart from that we just love Haute-Vienne.”
Limoges itself is split into two parts – the old city, with its quaint, half-timbered buildings and cobbled streets, and the newer part, formed around the Place de la République – a lovely fountained square in the city centre. Here, traditional stone streets give way to modern architecture and glass-fronted department stores and shops, intersected with cafés and
restaurants. Old and new jostle for position, with an antique carousel still bringing enjoyment to the city’s children on a regular basis, and a stone fountain providing the perfect place to sit and contemplate life, or munch a pain au chocolat.
The Place de la République also hosts various markets and exhibitions throughout the year, including a Christmas market during which the square is decked out with tiny wooden cabins, creating a magical scene to brighten the dullest of winter days. Excitingly, the square is also in the midst of an archaeological dig, and passers-by can witness the remains of the former Abbey of St-Martial being unearthed from beneath the grey paving.
Limoges has a rich religious history too, with parts of its cathedral, St-Étienne dating back to 1273. On a smaller scale, the little Chapelle St-Aurélien, built in 1471 in what is known as the ‘Butchers’ Quarter’ is a charmingly peaceful, modest building standing slightly askew on the cobblestoned streets.
Natalie Hodencq, 42, moved to the small town of Bellac, 40 kilometres north of Limoges with her husband Charles, 43, in 2005. Now working as a teacher of business English in Limoges, she is happy with her chosen location. “I love the fact we live out in open countryside – with fields stretching in all directions – but that we’re just a hop from Bellac town centre, and a short drive from all the amenities in Limoges,” she says. “It’s the best of both worlds.”
If natural history is your thing, then a visit to the town of Rochechouart is a must. Situated 40 kilometres west of Limoges, Rochechouart is the site of a meteorite impact over 214 million years ago. While time has eroded much of the crater, evidence of the impact can be seen on surrounding rocks.
The pretty, walled town of Rouchechouart is also the location of one of Haute-Vienne’s most beautiful châteaux, the Château de Rochechouart, the origins of which date back to the 13th century. The castle has been modernised over the years and now houses a museum of modern art which hosts an extensive collection including a collection by Dadaist artist Raoul Haussmann, and sculptures by British artists including Tony Cragg and Richard Deacon.
Some 20 kilometres north of Limoges lies one of the department’s most famous tourist destinations – the deserted village of Oradour-sur-Glane. Known as the ‘village of martyrs’, the town was set upon by German SS Das Reich division on 10 June 1944; the troops shot the men, then housed the women and children in the town’s church, which they then burnt to the ground. A total of 642 people lost their
lives, and the village has been left exactly as it was on that day. Rusted, burnt-out vehicles, derelict houses with metal bed frames, sewing machines on stone windowsills and unused tramlines give this village a haunted sadness, and visitors are left contemplating the horrors of war.
The Second World War is also commemorated, this time for a TV series, in the small town of Eymoutiers which lies 30 miles east of Limoges. Here the series Un village français is filmed. Described by some as France’s answer to Downton Abbey, the historical drama documents life in the fictional commune of Villeneuve in German-occupied France during the Second World War. During bouts of filming, shop fronts are replaced, old cars can be seen gracing tiny side roads and locals are treated to the sight of German troops marching down for filming, or groups of vintage-clad women sipping coffee between takes.
Limoges’ old city has quaint, half-timbered buildings and cobbled streets
Eymoutiers is also home to Espace Paul Rebeyrolle, an art gallery featuring the work of French artist Paul Rebeyrolle, as well as a regular host of visiting exhibitions that recently included sketches by Picasso.
Tim Cater, 48, moved to Eymoutiers in 2003 with his partner Richard, 44. Together they run a chambres d’hôtes, Les Cerisiers, and have recently opened an additional gîte. “We love the diversity this area of France has to offer,” explains Tim. “For us, Eymoutiers is perfectly positioned as it’s within easy reach of good lakes and well-marked walking routes. Plus, Haute-Vienne has something for all tastes – music festivals in the summer months, lovely architecture and plenty of outdoor activities. It’s a beautiful, peaceful and inspiring area of France.”
Despite having a population of fewer than 3,000, Eymoutiers is a vibrant little town, with a bi-weekly market, regular, two-carriage trains from its station to
Main: Lac de Vassivière is one of France’s largest man-made lakes Top: Parc Naturel Régional de Millevaches Below: Pont St-Etienne in Limoges
These pages, clockwise from main: Place Fontaine des Barres in Limoges; a typical half-timbered house; Limoges is home to numerous porcelain producers; Château de Rochechouart is one of the department’s most beautiful châteaux