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InProfile - discover Limoges

InProfile - discover Limoges

World famous for fine porcelain and ceramics, the dynamic capital of Limousin has other, less obvious, qualities well worth discovering.

Pont-Saint-Etienne-limoges-france

With its defensible plateau location, the Gallo-Roman settlement of Augustoritum overlooked a strategic way across the River Vienne on the Via Agrippa route between Saintes and Lyon. Some time after the departure of the Roman legions the town became known as Limoges, and by the 12th century had developed the necessary skills to produce exceptional fired enamel work. However, it was not until a rare form of white clay known as kaolin (first exploited at Kao-ling, in China) was discovered in 1765 at nearby Saint Yrieix-la-Perche that the local industry would finally acquire its present worldwide renown. The Limoges Porcelain Box was created in the mid-1700s, at which time Louis XVI’s Finance Minister Jacques Turgot awarded a Royal edict to the city of Limoges, establishing exclusive rights and title to produce Royal Limoges Porcelain. 

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The river provided not only copious water supplies to transform the feldspar, quartz and kaolin into the liquid slip poured into moulds, but also an ideal means of importing the large supplies of timber originally used to kiln-fire the resulting porcelain. By the early 19th century the prosperity of Limoges was assured, and today more than fifty per cent of the porcelain made in France originates in or around Limoges. Moreover, the success of porcelain, pottery and the renowned Limoges Snuff Boxes spurred a revival in other traditional crafts, from basket-making and silk-weaving to the manufacture of decorative musical instruments.

Limoges-cathedral-saint-etienne-franceLimoges has continued to develop as an important business hub, centred upon two key areas. Dominated by the cathedral, Cité is the ancient core of the city – tranquil, compact, and with relaxing botanical gardens, restaurants and even an Irish pub. Further from the river is the Ville or Chateau Quartier, the commercial heart of modern Limoges, with busy shopping streets which are easy to explore on foot, particularly since some are pedestrianised.

The administrative capital of the Limousin region is also an assured and lively university town. For visitors, a circuit of the principal sights need barely consume more than half a day, but add visits to gardens and ancient buildings, upmarket shops and boutiques, some street-side coffee breaks plus lunch at one of the restaurants in the Boucherie district, and a full day in Limoges becomes time well spent. Among the town’s many sons is the Impressionist painter Pierre-August Renoir (1841-1919). Born into a working class family, as a boy he worked in one of the porcelain factories, where his talent for drawing led him to being employed to paint designs onto china products.

See the sights

Gare des Bénédictins

Should you arrive in Limoges by train, then you’re in for an immediate treat. Completed in 1929, the city’s stunning Bénédictins Gare SNCF has a fine copper dome with Art Déco glass panels, carved statuary and dominant copper-topped clock tower.

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Cathedral Saint-Étienne

Place de la Cathédrale; 05 55 34 46 87. Open Mon-Sat 9am-6pm (5pm in winter), Sunday 10am-12 noon and 2-6pm.

Begun in 1273, and dominating the Vienne valley, this Gothic masterpiece took six centuries to complete. It is especially noted for its Renaissance rood loft, added in 1534, and for the 60m-high octagonal bell tower constructed on a square Romanesque base. Also notable are the richly decorated Portail Saint-Jean and its beautiful rose window.

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Village de la Boucherie

West of the cathedral lies the Village de la Boucherie – a compact but hugely fascinating area preserving medieval buildings which escaped the widespread 19th century destruction and rebuilding of the town centre (necessary, it is said, because of its reputation for crime and prostitution). This hidden enclave of timber-framed colombage structures, clustered around a pocket-sized chapel dedicated to Saint Aurélien, used to be inhabited exclusively by the city’s butchers and their families, and several of the houses still retain original 14/15th century facades. One of them, the Maison Traditionelle de la Boucherie, today houses a small museum about the area and its bloody trade.

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Musée National Adrien-Dubouché

Place Winston Churchill; 05 55 33 08 50; www.musee-adriendubouche.fr .

Open 10am-12.30pm and 2-5.45pm, closed Tuesday, Dec 25, Jan 1. Entry 4.50€.

Illustrating the evolution of pottery from ancient to contemporary times, this remarkable collection, which includes many examples of the finest Limoges ware, is of international importance.

Musée de la Résistance

Rue Neuve Saint-Etienne; 05 55 45 84 44; www.ville-limoges.fr  

Open 16 Sep-14 June (daily except Tuesday) 9.30am-5pm, Sunday1.30-5pm. From 15 June-15 Sep open 10am-6pm. Closed 1 May, Christmas holidays and 1 Jan. Free entry, audio guides 2€. 

Greater Limousin was a key focal point of the French Resistance movement during the Second World War, and
this museum details the region’s struggles against German occupation, which ultimately led to the city’s self-liberation in August, 1944.

Musée des Beaux-Arts de Limoges

Housed in the former Bishops’ Palace, this magnificent museum displays over 300 superb Limoges enamels (including medieval champlevés, and Renaissance and Art Déco works) plus paintings by Renoir and other Impressionists, while the adjacent Jardin de l’Évêché, where herbs (both medicinal and toxic) have been grown since medieval times, add an air of reflection to the visit. Champlevé enamels involve pouring enamel into grooves let into a copper surface, then polishing it level with the metal. The city’s Galérie du Canal, a co-operative gallery run by master enamelists, contains a display of contemporary works.

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Aquarium du Limousin

2 boulevard Gambetta; 05 55 33 42 11; http://aquariumdulimousin.com.

Open every day 10.30am-6pm (7pm in summer). Entry 8.50€, child 5€.

Certain to appeal to young children, this aquarium houses over 300 fish species in impressive vaulted subterranean water reservoirs constructed by Napoléon III.

FURTHER AFIELD....

Chateau et Jardin de la Borie

Fondation la Borie-en-Limousin, 87110 Solignac; 05 55 31 84 84; www.jardinslaborie.com  

Open Mon-Thurs 2-11pm, Fri-Sat 10am-11pm, Sunday 10am-8pm in summer with apéro-concerts until 31 August. 1 Sep-2 Nov open Wednesdays and weekends 10am-6pm. Standard entry 5€.

Situated a short distance south of the city at Solignac, the chateau is classified as an historical monument, and dates from the mid-17th century. Characteristic of wealthier Limousin family estates of the time, it is believed to have been owned by Louis XIV’s Chief Treasurer Martial Maleden. Housed at the chateau is the Fondation La Borie-en-Limousin, dedicated to providing a meeting place for everyone working in the fields of music and sound. The Fondation regularly stages concerts in a wide range of musical genres, and surrounding the chateau are some 7ha of landscaped gardens.

WHERE TO PARK

Main car parks are indicated as you enter the city, and there is street-side parking throughout the centre. To visit the cathedral, art museum and gardens, you’ll find a small number of free parking spaces to the rear of the cathedral on Rue de la Règle.

TOURIST OFFICE

12 boulevard de Fleurus; 05 55 34 46 87; www.limoges-tourisme.com  

Call in at the Tourist Office to pick up a useful town map, which indicates all the major places of interest in and around the city. A number of brochures can be downloaded from the website ahead of your visit, covering ceramics manufacture, a magazine about the city plus practical information.

The French-language ‘Pays du Limousin’ magazine gives much useful information about the region, and occasionally produces Hors Série issues on specific topics, see  www.paysdulimousin.fr 

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SHOPPING

Much of the city’s shopping area is pedestrianised, and runs uphill along pretty cobbled streets towards the Place de la Motte and the large Les Halles covered market (open daily 6am-2pm, Sunday 7am -1pm). The boulevard Louis Blanc is nicknamed China Boulevard by the locals because it is lined with shops where contemporary and traditional ceramic creations are available, ranging from luxury items to tableware, as well as jewellery and artwork.

Limoges has a fantastic selection of chocolate shops, and there are also plenty of ‘trocs’ and brocante shops, antique dealers and galleries. The Puces de la Cité market is held every second Sunday of the month (except August) in the Quartier de la Cité, where you’ll find antiques and antiquarian bookstalls. For general shopping and high street brands, the Centre Commercial Saint-Martial on Avenue Garibaldi has over 60 shops and parking for 700 cars.

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SOMEWHERE TO EAT

A full restaurant guide can be downloaded from the tourist office website. The city offers a wide choice of places to eat, including local specialities and regional cuisine, cafés, bars and brasseries.

Les Petits Ventres

20 rue de la Boucherie; 05 55 34 22 90; www.les-petits-ventres.com 

Housed in a traditional timber-framed building in the heart of the historic Boucherie quarter, this character restaurant specialises in traditional local dishes.

Le Versailles

20 place d’Aine; 05 55 34 13 39; www.brasserie-le-versailles-limoges.com    

This delightful brasserie has been a Limoges institution since 1932, and brings the spirit and flavours of Paris to the city.

 

WORDS: Dr Terry Marsh

© Living Magazine - all rights reserved. Originally published in June 2014.