Want to see the real France this summer? Follow Mike Cowling’s lead and head to Corrèze.
The French are clever people and have been for quite some time. Way back in 732 the Limousin town of Uzerche was under siege by Saracens who nearly defeated its heavy fortifications after seven years of trying. The residents were down to their last ‘fatted calf and sack of corn’. Instead of surrendering they gave the calf and corn to the besiegers who were so impressed by the apparent surplus of food that they gave up and lifted the siege.
Uzerche is one of the many delightful cities and towns waiting for the traveller to discover in Corrèze area of Limousin. We were there in mid June, before the summer season started and found the roads empty and the tourist sites quiet.
We were based near Treignac at the foot of the Monédières mountains on the River Vézère. Leaving our holiday cottage each morning, armed with a folder full of touring suggestions, we set off in a different direction to tour the wooded hillsides and valleys as we followed the routes on offer. The area, without doubt, is verdant. The routes are planned to be circular and take in beautiful villages and small towns along the way.
The back roads of France in this area take the inquisitive motorist from towns to small village and even smaller hamlets along twisty, sinuous asphalt edged with wooded hillsides with logs stacked ready for collection by lorries that need to be squeezed past gently.
One of the largest towns in the area is Brive la Gaillard. Dumping the car in a city centre underground car park we ambled around the old town following a self-guided walking tour visiting the Collegiate Church of St. Martin, various squares and the Museum of Labenche before we lost our way. The plan then was to stop for coffee and watch Brive go by us. No need to rush. Brive’s old centre has been restored with modern and beautiful old sandstone buildings. Narrow streets and alleys lead the visitor on an architectural journey.
Another town on the route south from Brive is Beaulieu-sur-Dordgne. The town, with a colourful market, is a warren of narrow streets centred around the church of St Peter. In the square, residents meet to chat and pass the time of day. The river was full owing to recent heavy rain as it dropped over a weir and we were dodging puddles on footpaths between showers.
However, it’s the villages that hold most charm. Turenne, with its ruined chateau and complete tower high on a hill was superb. Parking at the base of the village it needed a strenuous climb to the top, not so bad if you find the easier, less lung busting way to the top. The views are breathtaking.
Coming down the path is more suited to a mountain goat but there are plenty of people who will gladly stop and talk as they pause for a breather on the steep incline.
Collonges-la-Rouges, built of red sandstone, comes after Turenne and before Curemonte on one of the routes that we were following. These villages are all worth visiting.
Set high on a ridge Curemonte boasts three churches and three chateaux, fortified manor houses a restored covered market and a very odd contraption used by blacksmiths to contain animals that they were tending. The village doesn’t appear to be as ‘modernised’ as some and this adds to its attraction. We spent sometime walking around and only encountered a few other visitors sharing the views.
Following another route on the Corrèze Tourist Board’s map we headed off to find Lac de Val and Chateau de Val, south east of Ussel. If you were looking for a ‘fairytale’ castle Chateau de Val would be a contender. Standing on a rock and surrounded by water the chateau has six differing towers and a chapel in its grounds. Once owned by the French electricity board it now belongs to the local community who renovated it for tourism. Art exhibitions are held in the upper rooms allowing the lower floors to remain in the style of 19th century luxury. If you have a head for heights make your way to the top and look out over the lake.
On the same route to the Chateau de Val is a windmill at Valiergues. It was built in 1840 and fell into disrepair until it was restored by locals just after the millennium. It is open to the public but we must have been too early and had to contend with a walk around the building looking in its windows.
The whole area seems to be waiting to be discovered. The charming villages and towns makes a great holiday destination. It almost appears that the French like to keep the Corrèze to themselves. Like I said, they are clever people.
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Travel overnight by luxury cruise-ferry in the comfort of your own cabin with en-suite facilities or be whisked across the channel in as little as three hours.
We travelled from Portsmouth to Caen and back, on this route, fares start from £79 one way for a car plus two passengers.