The Correze and Dordogne regions of France celebrate their life and history, from prehistoric cave paintings to modern markets via walnut liqueurs, troglodyte towns and fairyland chateaux
All you dream about for months beforehand is relaxing by a pool: wine chilled, sun hot, book fascinating. But doing nothing quickly loses its glamour, especially when those dreaded words, “I’m bored,” emerge from young mouths. So you learn to pick a place with lots to do within easy reach. The Corrèze fits that bill nicely.
Deep in Golden Delicious territory – the net-draped trees go on for miles - our gîte was one of four grouped around a pool, the others all occupied by French visitors who holidayed there every year. Had they been Brits, some polite nodding may have happened by the end of the week. In France they do it differently: an aperitif on day one; a combined meal; a barbecue; and, thanks to one of the families coming from Epernay, champagne at the drop of a beret. Shy 11-year-old learned more French in a week playing with la petite Marie than in a year of school.
“You must try the Sunday market in Objat; it is fabulous,” we were told on arrival. And they were right: food stalls filled the old town – local cheese, sausages, bread, fruit, olives, the works. So Sunday’s meal was rotisserie chicken, potatoes sautéed in chicken fat, salad, cheese and patisseries, fit for a king and less than €25 for the lot, eaten on our terrace with a bottle of cheerful red.
But man does not live by baguette alone, so Monday saw us making the trip to Lascaux, or rather Montignac, where you must buy your tickets in advance for Lascaux II, the copy of the original caves opened in 1983 after it had become obvious the originals were suffering from overuse. The French avoided Disneyfication of the site (one imagines animatronic cavemen with stupid names had the Americans done it), instead making a perfect copy that manages to move as well as educate, in the 40 minute tour easily bridging the 17,000 years between us and the Cro-Magnons, who painted the vivid animals. But take warm clothes - it is freezing down there!
Just motoring around the back roads nearby took us to Chateau de Losse, perched over the Vézère River, and later the classical Chateau de Hautefort, which seems to have been beamed over from the Loire: very formal French gardens, fairytale towers, the cool kitchens a refuge from the searing Dordogne sun.
Another recommend from our French neighbours proved equally worthwhile: La Roque St Christophe, a fortress and town carved into limestone cliffs that was occupied 55,000 years ago, making Lascaux seem rather parvenu. Unlike Lascaux, it continued in use until the Middle Ages and beyond, and now is a living museum stretching for hundreds of metres, stone passages and stairways winding ever on but always with the drop to the river valley close at hand.
Walnut trees replace the apple on some of the rolling hills of Correze, their fruit put to good use in Brive-la-Gaillarde. Brive is a hearty place, its market filled with stalls selling Limousin beef, stuffed goose-necks, galette corézienne (walnut and chestnut cake) and foie gras. It is famed for that market, its rugby club, and the walnut liqueur distilled by the Denoix family for more than 150 years.
The distillery in the town centre is open to the public, and merits a visit for the Art Deco interior; but it would have been rude not to try the various liqueurs they make, still using 19th-century stills. “We are perhaps the last in France to work according to the traditions of the master liqueur makers. Our work is to extract the perfume, the flavour, from natural products. It is artisan production and it is going to remain artisan production. But magnificent quality,” says Madame Sylvie Denoix-Vieillefosse with pride as she shows us around.
The French manage to retain and respect some of the best things from their history, be they prehistoric paintings or elegant copper stills making delicious liqueurs. The same philosophy permeates their view of food; the best of the country refined and handed down as part of their patrimoine, their heritage. And they love sharing these things with visitors – if those visitors are prepared to make a bit of effort with the language!