Forming part of south-west France, Limousin is bordered by the regions of Centre to the north, Poitou-Charentes and Aquitaine to the west, Midi-Pyrénées to the south and Auvergne to the east. Lying between altitudes of 200 metres and 1,000 metres, the Limousin is mostly a region of hills and valleys and low mountains.
Its highest point is Mont Bessou (977m), near Ussel, in Corrèze, part of a large upland area known as the Plateau de Millevaches. Most of the department is above 350m altitude.
Limousin is the second-least populated region of France (after Corsica). The region has an imbalance between the west, which embraces most of the population, and the east, where rural characteristics are more pronounced.
In the south west, the region borders the Dordogne; the river Dordogne itself cuts through the south-west of the region, after several kilometers where it forms the border with the neighbouring region of Auvergne.
Towns in Limousin
The only town of any size in the Limousin region is the city of Limoges; with about 140,000 inhabitants, and an urban area of almost 300,000 inhabitants, greater Limoges provides about half of all the jobs in the region.
Until the turn of the millennium, the Limousin had been losing population for a century or so; that decline has now been halted, thanks largely to an influx of people from Britain and Holland, seeking a quiet location in which to settle.
The region’s second city, Brive-la-Gaillarde, has just under 50,000 inhabitants; it is the biggest town, but not the capital, of the Corrèze department, the southernmost of the region’s three departments.
Apart from Limoges and Brive, no town in the Limousin has more than 20,000 inhabitants; towns such as Tulle, Aubusson and Guéret are small market towns that have grown little in the last century.
What is Limousin famous for?
Limousin is an essentially rural region, famed for some of the best beef farming in the world. Herds of Limousin cattle which are a distinctive chestnut red are a common sight in the region.
The region is also a major timber producing area, renowned for its groves of French Oak, so prized for its distinct character and flavour in wine fermentation. It is also home to some of the most picture perfect villages in France.
Discover the beautiful villages of Limousin
There is so much more to Limousin than what Limoges has to offer, from some of the most beautiful villages to large expanses of rural, rolling landscapes, heavy with peace and quiet, and perfect for a relaxing stay.
Numerous small villages dot the landscape many of them in Correze. Follow the link to read about the beautiful villages of Correze.
Things to do in Limousin
Beautiful villages, amazing scenery, gold mining and Romans. Not to mention a slow pace of life which is perfect for those of us who enjoy a quieter vacation. Beyond Limoges, the landscapes of Limousin amply reward the visitor who takes the time and trouble to explore them, and is willing to go off the beaten track.
Great rolling plains given to agriculture and woodland, and criss-crossed by a network of sinuous back roads ignored by all but a few hardy cyclists. These roads are simple splendid, dotted as they are by countless towns, villages and hamlets of varying sizes that still embrace an air of mysticism, where legend and tradition live on.
Perhaps not instantly obvious as you drive by is the fact that many roads are lined by chestnut trees.
This is the land of chestnuts, and they are very much a local passion, used in French liqueurs and numerous forms of cooking including a local speciality boudin de châtaigne.
Many towns and villages have a chestnut festival, and you can be fairly certain as you drive along that the sudden bang on the roof of the car is a falling chestnut.
To the east of Limoges, along the Vienne, lies the small-town-large village of Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, perched on a hill above the river.
This pleasing community is named after Saint Leonard of Noblac, who was responsible for the liberation of many prisoners in 11th century France. The town is a delight to tour.
There are numerous medieval and half-timbered houses with projecting eaves adorning its winding streets, and the Romanesque church, which has fine flying buttresses, is listed by UNESCO as part of the World Heritage Sites of the Routes of Santiago de Compostella in France.
Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat is the hometown of famous chemist and physicist, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, and a little museum is devoted to his discoveries. Another famous inhabitant is Raymond Poulidor, the legendary bike racer considered to be the most popular cyclist France ever had, even though he never won the Tour de France.
The former paper mill, the 15th-century Moulin du Got, a couple of miles to the north-west has been tastefully restored and is a now a museum with original machinery still in working order.
Delightful Limousin villages
Just to the north of Saint-Léonard, the tiny village of Lajoumard, is believed to be one of the oldest communities in Limousin. Even further to the east, lying at the northern end of the plateau de Millevaches, by a splendid wooded drive between the Vienne and the Maulde, by way of Bujaleuf, lies the busy town of Eymoutiers.
This is a former tanning and leather industry centre, and historically developed around its much-altered collegiate church.
Like Saint-Léonard, the town is small-scale, but has an endearing charm, and serves as a useful base for exploration, away from the city lights of Limoges.
A fine drive leads south for Eymoutiers, through a landscape of undulating woodland and farmland populated by fallow deer and Limousin cattle that regard you with affected disinterest as you drive by.
Priorite a Droite: Right of way priority when driving in France
The way to Chamberet is especially agreeable, and perfectly designed for leisurely driving, although this circuit dips briefly into Corrèze before returning to Haute Vienne and heading for Mt Gargan and St Germain-les-Belles to Coussac-Bonneval.
The once-moated chateau at Coussac, while pricey to enter, is a splendid edifice set in neatly tended grounds, and has been in Bonneval family possession for over a thousand years, although the multi-towered castle dates mainly from the 14th century.
The rooms are sumptuous and extravagantly decorated, among which are some fine and renowned Aubusson tapestries.
Gold mining and Romans
Close by, and not content with its contribution to the wealth of Limousin generally, Saint Yrieix la Perche (pronounced Saint Irieh) also has a history of gold mining that goes back to Roman times.
A long period of obscurity ended in 1866 when it was discovered that the foundations of the town were in fact disused gold mines. Mining was resumed, and continued until 2001, by which time the mine at nearby Le Bourneix was the last working gold mine in Europe.
North from Coussac-Bonneval a splendid winding road leads through the forest of Fayat to the dilapidated castle at Chateau Chervix, and on across undulating farmland through St Priest-Ligoure and St Jean-Ligoure back towards Limoges.
The pretty village of Solignac on the river Briance, a few miles before you reach Limoges, is medieval, and its huge granite church an indication that this was a pilgrims’ stopover on the way to Compostella.
The sometime abbey-church was built during the 12th century in the so-called Limousin-Romanesque style, and its choir stalls have fascinating misericords. Otherwise, Solignac is an unaffected but busy little village with a positive-minded community.
Richard the Lionheart
Further west, much of the countryside is associated with the campaigns of Richard the Lionheart, son of Eleanor of Aquitaine and as such equally French and English.
You can follow a circuitous Route du Richard Coeur de Lion, and this will lead you by a charming roundabout route to the small town of Chalus. Outside the now ruined chateau, the king, while endeavouring to suppress a rebellion against English rule, was mortally wounded by an archer.
Once the castle had been captured, the king, breathing his last, ordered all the rebels hanged, save for the archer, whom he pardoned. It was a short-lived reprieve, for no sooner had the king died than the captain of the English army had the archer flayed alive.
Dark tourism in Limousin
To the north-west of Limoges, the town of Oradour-sur-Glane is spread across a broad hillside; it looks down on the remnants of its old town, destroyed by Germans on 10 June 1944, when 642 inhabitants were massacred. Only six escaped.
Whether this sort of pseudo-macabre ‘preservation for posterity’ is bona fide tourism only each of us can say individually as we face the conflict and sadness of what the scene represents. It is, admittedly, very moving. But the answer to the question ‘Why do we find it moving?’ is a subjective issue.
As with the battlefields of the Somme, only by coming face to face with the past and making a study of it do we begin to have a chance to understand. In that regard, Oradour-sur-Glane is a valid tourist destination, but you may need a stiff drink in the new town square afterwards.
More beautiful villages
Of the ‘Best Villages Villages to visit in France’ in Limousin, six are in Corrèze, and only one in Haute Vienne.
The charming little village of Mortemart on the edge of the Monts de Blond was once the home of the Mortemart family, whose moated chateau now lies in ruins. This tiny hamlet is exquisite, appreciated all the more by enjoying a leisurely drink close by the 17th-century market hall.
There are two monasteries here, one Carmelite the other Augustine, but it is the leaning onion-shaped bell tower of its church that catches the eye. How long it has been leaning, and how long it will continue to lean, is pure speculation.
Of course, it helps in your appreciation of this modest-sized community if your arrival is preceded by a measure of freelance wandering, preferably lost, through the delightful wooded lanes and many fishing lakes of the Monts de Blond.
Menhirs and so-called sacrificial stones dot the landscape and tell of a much earlier occupation, that by prehistoric man.
And seeking these out, to enjoy the generally short walks to their locations, is an agreeable preparation for lunch.