Take a leisurely tour around the department of Corrèze...you won't be disappointed.
Collonges-la-Rouge is the base of the Association des Plus
Beaux Villages de France, a distinction that bestows justified acclaim on some
of France’s most agreeable villages. Exactly so with Collonges. This is an
engaging village, liberally adorned with pepper-pot towers, turrets and beefy
walls built of burnished red sandstone that flank a warren of narrow streets
shaded by aged chestnut trees. It is an altogether delightful and skillful use
of traditional materials that blend harmoniously.
During the 16th century,
Collonges was the place chosen by the nobility for their holidays, and it was
they who built the mansions and manor houses that give the town its
individuality. One unique and remarkable peculiarity is the 12th-century
Romanesque-Gothic church on the main square, which during the often bitter Wars
of Religion (1562-98) saw Protestant and Catholic agree to share the church, shedding
their differences, and conducting services simultaneously. The countryside
around the village is gently undulating, intermittently wooded and dotted with
juniper bushes, walnut plantations and vineyards.
Just south of Brive-la-Gaillarde – the largest town but not
the prefecture – the honey-coloured stone houses of Turenne have none of
Collonges’ vivid hues, gathering companionably in the shelter of a sharp cliff
on the summit of which sprout the towers of the chateau once occupied by a viscounty
that benefited from numerous royal prerogatives and enjoyed almost total
independence from the Crown. Just four families succeeded one another across
ten centuries as the Viscounts of Turenne, a dynasty that gave Rome two popes –
Clement VI and Gregory XI.
pompe; Ventadour vente; Turenne règne, is a local saying attributing nobility
to Turenne while suggesting that the other villages are just full of hot air.
Whatever, the village is a neat and worthwhile stopping off point, if only to
wander the steep and narrow streets to the chateau, followed by a lazy allongée back at ground level.
In an attractive setting, in a wooded valley on the banks of the upper Dordogne, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne has great allure. Originally developed around a Benedictine abbey, of which part can still be seen in the somewhat gloomy 12th-13th century church of Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu, this beautiful (twice-weekly) market town with numerous shops and restaurants still has a medieval feel about it, and should be included in any tour of this southern part of Corrèze.
Equally so, the stunning collection of towers and turrets
sitting along a narrow ridge, giving the village of Curemonte a commanding view
over the Viscounty of Turenne, controlling two valleys and so preventing
invaders from attacking from the Dordogne. To wander this charming village’s
streets, is certainly to go back in time, in a most agreeable way. Few
guidebooks include Curemonte, and that is a strange omission for in spite of limited
services for the tourist, not even a car park as such, it is a truly endearing
village. Perched above the Sourdoire valley, Curemonte has not only three
chateaux – St Hilaire, La Plas and La Johannie – but also three churches, and
an open market hall where a weekly farmer’s market is held in the summer
months. With a post office, bar/tabac and three restaurants, it remains however
very much a working village, and perhaps that is its appeal. It comes as
something of a surprise.
Quite how revealing a tour of Corrèze can be derived from a
haphazard loop beginning in the medieval village of Donzenac, quite
unpretentious in itself, but built almost like a bastide, a place of high walls
that embrace narrow and tortuous streets. The central bell tower is
neo-13th-century Gothic, while the pukka 13th-century house on Rue du Puy Broch
is claimed to be the oldest extant building in Limousin.
From here it is a short drive to Varetz through lush and
undulating countryside that is so agreeably typical; there is no need for
speed, in any case, many of the serpentine roads won’t permit haste.
Of itself, Varetz is no more than another rural village,
pleasurable but not outstanding. But just to the south of the village, the
Jardins de Colette are an inspirational move to commemorate the French
authoress, who for a time lived at the nearby Chateau de Castel-Novel. The
garden has as its theme the life and work of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, and in
them you discover not only the regions of France that she visited, but also the
plants that she preferred, and which she came to know and understand under her
mother’s guidance. Although twice married, Colette caused a sensation when with
the Marquise de Belbeuf, known as Missy, with whom she became romantically involved,
the two performed together in a pantomime entitled Rêve d’Égypte at the
Moulin Rouge. Their on-stage kiss nearly caused a riot, which the police were
called in to suppress. Colette’s 1923 novel Le
Blé en Herbe also raised hackles when it portrayed the seduction of a young
boy by a much older woman. Her most popular work, Gigi, was made into a
Broadway play and a highly successful Hollywood film starring Maurice
Chevalier, Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron.
North of Varetz and beyond Allassac, the village of Le
Saillant is announced by a fine medieval bridge spanning the Vézère. Again,
first impressions are of no more than an agreeable village of some antiquity.
Yet in its modest chapel are some of the last works in stained glass by the renowned
artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Arguably, his most famous work – the twelve
Chagall Windows – are in the synagogue of the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in
Jerusalem. Yet it is typical of the artist that his passion is displayed in
more modest settings, too.
On a grey day it may be tempting to pass by when you reach
Uzerche, but such would be a mistake, for this charming Limousin town at a bend
in the River Vézère is a splendid detour. A surprising number of the
slate-roofed houses sport bell-towers, pepper-pot turrets and ornate
architectural detail, including some fine examples of timber-framed houses (collombages). You enter through the
Porte Bécharie, the only survivor of the nine gates that once encircled the two
parishes of St Nicholas and St Mary de Bécharie.
The Place des Vignerons originally staged the wine fair and
meat market, overlooked by the Tour du Prince Noir, but whether the Black
Prince was the son of the English king Edward III, or a bandit, Geoffry of the
Black Head, both of whom figured largely in the Hundred Years War (1337-1453),
is not clear. The timbered Maison à pans de bois is architecturally unusual in
an area where stone is the dominant building material. The main square, the
Place de la Libération, is hugely dominated by the barrel-vaulted Romanesque
abbey-church of St Pierre, and from a nearby viewpoint there is a lovely cameo
of the river bend far below.
By way of complete contrast to the historical detail of
Corrèzienne villages, a route that continues east from Urzeche through the Pays
Vézère to Eyburie, le Lonzac and Madranges and onto the granite massif de
Monédières will show the département’s
pastoral side, and nowhere more so than from the orientation table on
Suc-au-May, at 911 metres, one of the highest points of Corrèze, and offering a
panorama that enfolds seven départements.
From this vantage point you get a fine aerial impression of this gentle
landscape across which natural wooded hills, moulded by lush valleys that
conceal reed-fringed lakes and animal pastures, ripple into the distant haze.
At Seillac, for example, the Etang de Bournazel, a sizeable boating lake with
surrounding woodland and walks, is hugely popular with families.
Unlikely of itself to arouse much attention, the sleepy village
of Sarran boasts the Musée du president Jacques Chirac, a quirky but
fascinating display of gifts to the Corrèze-elected politician during
presidential state visits (1995-2007). That the museum seems to be in the
middle of nowhere may surprise some, but when the middle of nowhere is as
tranquil and beautiful as the massif de Monédières, who can question it?