France, but not as we know it

April 14, 2012

Forgotten France ... hikers view the village of Crozant on the Creuse River.

Forgotten France ... hikers view the village of Crozant on the Creuse River. Photo: AFP

Fortified by four-course snacks, Anthony Peregrine slows down in the 'big country' of Limousin and Auvergne.

Limousin and Auvergne are jointly described as "forgotten France", usually by those who have never been. Once you visit, however, you remember them all right. I do. My car almost plunged off a precipice in the Massif Central recently. ("You've still got three wheels on," said a local who stopped, helpfully.) Such episodes live long in the memory.

From other visits I also remember soul-churning space, endless uplands, meals that would satisfy a great white shark, Romanesque churches, villages of hard-won prettiness and bars where mojitos are things you ward off with insect repellent.

This isn't forgotten France so much as the French "big country" - a vast expanse of south-central France where temporary concerns dissolve in favour of the long view. Chuck your iParaphernalia in a river (there are ample to choose from), breathe deeply and slow down. If you're moving faster than the cattle, then you are speeding.

There are differences between the two regions. To the west, the Limousin is deeper, greener and more restful. From the Auvergne next door, the Massif Central loses height and bite in the Limousin. Thus, there are amenable hills, lakes, forests and pastures full of russet cows. Together, they've sustained unsung rural life - its ups, downs and undercurrents - for centuries. Round here, people still rely on remote water sources to cure rheumatism and marital ills. They favour hotpot over pizza. And there are no beaten tracks.

We start in Limoges. To my mind, the least interesting aspect of this regional capital is the source of its global fame. You could stack up all the world's porcelain - as they pretty much do at the National Porcelain Museum - and my attention would still wander. If you're a fan, however, the museum is unmissable.

More riveting is the cathedral, high above the River Vienne; and walking among the half-timbered mediaeval properties about Rue de la Boucherie. Any number of restaurants allow you to decide whether Limousin beef is the best in Europe, as claimed. You'll leave with the impression of a provincial city with nothing to prove.

To the south-west, the Perigord-Limousin Regional Natural Park is a land of ruffled hills, woods, water and varied concerns. (One time I visited, the park HQ was running sessions on "everything you ever wanted to know about crayfish but were afraid to ask".) This was frontier territory between the dukes of Aquitaine and kings of France, so castles abound. Richard the Lionheart was killed besieging Chalus in 1199. His entrails lie under what's left of the chateau.

The bucolic atmosphere grows immeasurably sombre at Oradour-sur-Glane where, on June 10, 1944, soldiers of Das Reich division machine-gunned and burnt to death 642 villagers in one of the worst wartime atrocities committed on French soil. There's a moving Memorial Centre, while the ruined village has been left just as it was to commemorate those who died.

Fortunately, there's tranquillity in the nearby Monts de Blond - all wooded slopes and unexpected hamlets - and the almost-too-pretty village of Mortemart.

Moving east, you could be in a mini-Canada with the dense forest surrounding Lake Saint-Pardoux, before climbing the tougher Monts d'Ambazac where men emerge from their barns for the spectacle of a passing car.

To the north, at Crozant, the wild Creuse River gorges attracted artists in their dozens, Monet among them, at the beginning of the last century. There's a fine river walk, roughly where Monet painted, from next-door Fresselines.

Upriver, Aubusson is the French headquarters of tapestries that, like porcelain, don't detain me longer than it takes to say, "How fascinating". I'd rather be swimming in the glorious, 840-hectare Lake Vassiviere nearby before going for a four-course snack of potee limousine (the aforementioned hotpot) and the rest. Limousin folk do count the calories but only to see how many they can fit in.

And so roll gently - indeed, undulate - south across the Plateau de Millevaches, whose uplands remind me of the Yorkshire Moors. The few inhabitants still look for "de Gaulle" on their voting slips.

Beyond, haphazard history has left Collonges-la-Rouge, with its deep red sandstone and clifftop Turenne, looking arrestingly picturesque. Were they in Provence, they'd be world famous. They aren't.

Finally to Brive, whose old stones ring with conviviality and good living, the two coalescing round the morning market and the rugby team. You have, I'd say, left the best Limousin town till last. We might never get you home.

In Auvergne, the regional capital of Clermont-Ferrand is an oddity: a heavy-industrial city (Michelin has its headquarters here) in a wildly elemental region. It is, consequently, quick to visit. Gawp at the black volcanic-stone Gothic cathedral, the Romanesque Basilica of Notre Dame du Port, the central Place de Jaude and you're done. The real appeal of the Auvergne region is beyond, in untamed highlands tumbling into spa towns where the air is pure, horizons huge and two cars constitute a traffic jam.

South-west to the Massif Central, volcanoes look pleasingly as they should: conical, soft-sided and misleadingly feminine. The major item, the Puy de Dome, looms as if it's just burst through the Earth's surface (in geological time, it has). Go to the 1464-metre summit by the new rack railway - it opens on May 26 - for startling views over other once explosive summits.

Now, head further into the mountains and down to Orcival crammed around its Romanesque church. Stop for truffade (potatoes, cheese, bacon) with which mountain men maintain their equilibrium. Then continue to the Tuiliere and Sanadoire rocks. They're like sentinels. "Giant gates to an unlimited landscape," as someone once said, correctly.

You're arriving at the heart of the Massif Central, which, having been fairly rounded, suddenly goes alpine with menacing magnificence. The town of Le Mont-Dore combines spa gentility with a doughty temperament. Nearby, the mountains rise ruggedly to the 1886-metre Puy de Sancy, the highest, windiest peak in Auvergne. There's a cable car most of the way; otherwise, the walking is tough, occasionally terrifying and sublime.

To the south, the older Cantal mountains have a majesty of their own, so it might be a relief to get into hill-topping Saint-Flour, where men are men, the church is black and the cabbage stuffed with pork is terrific. Eastward, across the Margeride uplands, lies Le Puy-en-Velay with its fine cathedral and magnificent statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the town. Just south of these parts in the 1760s, a deluxe-size wolf, the Beast of Gevaudan, attacked and ate about 100 folk. Given the epic scale of the country and the tenuous stamp of man, its descendants could still be roaming.

Here the land sweeps up to bluffs and forest, down to ravines and then the Allier Gorges. These are so dramatic and vertiginous that it's astonishing to see something normal - say, a post van doing its rounds. Driving in them is akin to rock-climbing wearing a car.

Later, you might find Lavaudieu, though few have since about the 18th century, which is why it remains so pretty. Then up again, into the Livradois-Forez hills to the weather-blasted plateau where the abbey church of La Chaise-Dieu has world-beating tapestries (forget what I said about Aubusson: these are crackers) and an exquisite danse macabre fresco.

Onward north, to Ambert, along the sinuous Dore valley and out the other end to Vichy. You'll have heard of this place: a spa town polluted by the wartime presence of Petain's regime. It's a lovely spot to visit, mind, with elements of lingering grandeur.

At this point you deserve a session in the Vichy Spa Hotel and Resort les Celestins. Usually I loathe spas and all the self-regarding nonsense that goes with them. But I found the keynote Douche de Vichy four-handed massage cheered me no end.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Singapore Airlines has a fare to Paris from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2300 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Paris (about 14hr); see singaporeair.com. The regions of Limousin and Auvergne are about 400 kilometres south of Paris. Trains run daily from Paris to the regions; see raileurope.com.au.

Touring there

The National Porcelain Museum in Limoges has guided tours, regular lectures and workshops in painting on porcelain. Entry is €4.50 ($5.70), free for under 18s. 8 Place Winston Churchill; see www.museeadriendubouche.fr.

Perigord-Limousin Regional Natural Park spans 1800 square kilometres of woods, grasslands, rivers and agricultural land.

See parc-naturel-perigord-limousin.fr.

The Oradour-sur-Glane Memorial Centre preserves history, including the Second World War massacre of 642 inhabitants. Entry is €7.80.

Staying there

The Vichy Spa Hotel and Resort les Celestins in the Napoleon III Park, Vichy, has six-night stays from €1194 a person, twin share, including accommodation, spa treatments and services including sports coaching, jet showers and hydromassage baths. See vichy-spa-hotel.com.

The Mercure Limoges Royal Limousin is close to the Jardin du Champ de Juillet and Musee National Adrien Dubouche and has standard rooms from €107 a night. Place de la Republique, Limoges, 5534 6530. See mercure.com/gb/hotel-5955-mercure-limoges-royal-limousin/room.shtml.

Many smaller towns in the region have gorgeous holidays lettings in pretty, rural settings. For example, a three-bedroom stone house on three hectares in Crozant, Limousin, sleeps eight people and is leased from €96 a night or €575 a week.

See homeaway.com.au.

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