I am grumpy and groggy after catching the unfeasibly early red-eye to Limoges as I emerge, bleary-eyed, from its small, neat airport and skulk my way into an already sticky morning in late summer. Whilst I have some exciting visits up my short sleeves in the coming days – including no end of fine dining, some much-needed market browsing, a high museum count and a relaxing sojourn at a château north of the city – the omens for a riveting start are not promising. For first up, I am bound for a porcelain museum. In truth, old plate collections are not usually mon truc, especially at 9am after about three hours’ sleep. But Limoges and porcelain are synonymous so it would be churlish not to…
I needn’t have fretted. The Musée National Adrien Dubouché (brandy maker, then mayor, philanthropist, porcelain collection donor) turns out to be a compelling, shiny shrine to the plate- and pot-maker’s art, a wonderful testament to the town’s crucial role in the porcelain timeline. The discovery of china clay (kaolin) and petuntse deposits at Saint-Yrieix nearby had kick started the manufacture of fine porcelain ware in 1771, and it went on to become a major industry during the 19th century. Spend a couple of hours, as I did, chronologically examining the trade’s evolution and skills required and you will see why it’s seen as the richest collection in the world. The mosaic floor tiling, giant table pieces and magnificent display cabinets are historic artefacts in their own right, while the building itself is an eye-pleaser with its enamel signs and grand façade.
I’m a porcelain convert by now but it’s nearly lunchtime and as the old adage goes, man cannot live on the fruits of decorative artistry alone. I’d heard that they really know how to eat well in Limoges – and with my map flagging up places like Butcher’s Street and a restaurant thereon called Les Petits Ventres (Small Belly), I was guessing that a committed carnivore like me would soon make friends.
After making my way into the city centre, I head to the rather lovely vieille ville to soak up the olde-worlde splendour of Place St Aurélien, and to enjoy some much-needed sustenance at l’Amphitryon. Chef Yannick Delpech’s place has a Michelin star, and his terrasse is the ideal place to find your bearings. As I clean up my third course – a scrummy summer berry artwork – my hugely knowledgable guide, Marie-Noëlle from the tourist office, launches into illuminating tales of the aforementioned Aurélien, the patron saint of butchers whose tiny church sits before us.
After coffee, we head up the road of half-timbered houses to no.36, the old butcher’s house museum. Tiptoeing precariously up the steep steps to poke around the spookily preserved rooms with their hooks, primitive cold storage areas and mannequins, I hear that up until the First World War, just six families controlled the entire wholesale meat supply in Limoges. As the city expanded, so these families opened new shops and this historic butchers’ quarter slowly became redundant. Today it’s a heritage quarter and provides a compelling insight into the city’s past.
Further up the street, past the gift boutiques and old bookshops, we reach Place de la Motte with its huge trompe l’oeil mural and the town’s social shopping hub, the massive, porcelain-adorned Les Halles – sadly closed after Saturday market. I note that I must come back to enjoy all its buzzy vibrancy. A couple of snaps of the ironwork in the bag and my tour continues, ducking in and out of sidestreets that run parallel to the three main shopping drags. Marie-Noëlle points out stunning shaded courtyards where restaurant terraces are calming down for the afternoon and some lovely churches including the beguiling St Michel des Lions, noted for its spire surmounted by a big bronze ball. On entering, a wedding choir rehearsal is in full, rousing flow, the beautiful sounds of a soloist bringing goosebumps to my neck as I gaze upward at the beautiful 16th century Gothic creation.
I head for a quiet beer up on place Denis Dussoubs, a delightful circular ‘square’ where Limoges’ café society hangs out (and goes to the cinema). At the cute craft brewery Bières Michard, the amiable owner regales me with tales of motorcycle tours of England and explains the nuances of his homemade beers and whiskeys.
Sitting in the sun, now I’m getting a feel for Limoges – it’s a very friendly, peaceful and happy-in-its own-skin kind of town with the focus on local pride and produce – be that in its gastronomic offerings or architectural heritage. For some, it has a reputation for being a little sleepy. Et alors? For a weekend getaway when all you want to do is explore at your own pace, eat and drink well and soak up some provincial French atmosphere, that’s fine by me.
After a couple of restorative ales – the blonde was more fun, the brune a little bitter – off I head to the city’s dominant building, St-Etienne cathedral. This granite Gothic behemoth took six centuries to complete and is one of the few large cathedrals of its style south of the River Loire. Emerging from a narrow path, I am taken aback to be confronted by its monumental facade. I loved taking a few quiet minutes to explore inside, including the highly ornate, Renaissance style rood screen. Then I head out back to relax in the manicured Jardin Botanique de l’Evêché, with its sweeping views onto the Vienne below. Just lovely.
Further wandering in this southern part of town, across the main artery Avenue George Dumas, took me down to the huge town hall – as striking a government building as you will see anywhere in France, especially with the lovely pastoral boules scene being played in front. If ever there was a scene to inspire you to move to France it would be this one. Unfashionable it may be, but Limoges certainly epitomises all that’s best in a French city break.
Where to stay
For a stylish stay in Limoges, try the Villa 13 studio apartments, handily placed not too far from the picture postcard railway station and no more than 10 minutes walk into the city centre. All suites have a balcony and WIFI, XXL showers, fridge and cooker. Prices from €120 per night.
Visit the Limoges Tourist Office.