This bustling corner of Limoges is the heart of the old city, and is the modern-day shopping centre. It gets its name from the fortified walls that once enclosed the ducal castle and medieval St-Martial abbey, both long gone.
To the east of the Château quarter, on the bank of the Vienne, la Cité radiates out from the massive cathedral.
For more than 300 years, the name of Limoges has been synonymous with les arts du feu (literally ‘the fire arts’), especially the production of émail (enamel) and porcelaine (porcelain).
Limoges had been producing enamel since at least the 12th century, but its fortunes were transformed by the discovery of an extremely pure form of kaolin near St-Yrieix-La-Perche in 1768. This fine white clay, a vital ingredient in porcelain manufacture (along with quartz and feldspar), had previously been imported at huge expense from Asia (the recipe was originally from China, hence porcelain’s alternate name). Its discovery on home soil, plus the ease of getting wood on barges on the Vienne to fire kilns, led to an explosion of porcelain production in Limoges in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Three factors distinguish porcelain from other clay-baked ceramics: it’s white, extremely hard and translucent.
Buildings around Limoges are often decorated with porcelain and enamel tiles. Check out the Halles Centrales and the Pavillon du Verdurier, a beautiful octagonal building dating from 1919 that occasionally hosts art exhibitions.
Many of the city's porcelain makers have factory shops, and outstanding city museums focus on the industry. The tourist office has complete lists.
Richard the Lionheart in the Limousin
The swashbuckling spectre of Richard Cœur de Lion (Richard the Lionheart) looms over the Haute-Vienne département. The crusading king waged several bloody campaigns here in the 12th century before meeting his end at the now-ruined keep of Château de Chalûs-Chabrol, 40km west of Limoges, where he was mortally wounded by a crossbowman in 1199.
Many other sites share a Lionheart connection: they’re signposted along the Route de Richard Cœur de Lion (Richard the Lionheart Route; www.routerichardcoeurdelion.com). Pick up the English-language map from tourist offices.
Worth a Trip: Oradour-sur-Glane
On the afternoon of 10 June 1944, the little town of Oradour-sur-Glane, 21km northwest of Limoges, witnessed one of the worst Nazi war crimes committed on French soil. German lorries belonging to the SS ‘Das Reich’ Division surrounded the town and ordered the population onto the market square. The men were divided into groups and forced into barns, where they were machine-gunned before the structures were set alight. Several hundred women and children were herded into the church, which was set on fire, along with the rest of the town. Only one woman and five men who were in the town that day survived the massacre; 642 people, including 193 children, were killed. The same SS Division committed a similarly brutal act in Tulle two days earlier, in which 99 Resistance sympathisers were strung up from the town’s balconies as a warning to others.
Since these events, the entire village has been left untouched, complete with pre-war tram tracks and electricity lines, the blackened shells of buildings and the rusting hulks of 1930s automobiles – an evocative memorial to a village caught up in the brutal tide of war. At the centre of the village is an underground memorial inscribed with the victims’ names and displaying their recovered belongings, including watches, wallets, hymnals from the burnt church and children’s bikes. Victims were buried in the nearby cemetery.
Entry is via the modern Centre de la Mémoire, which does an excellent job contextualising the massacre using historical exhibitions, videos and survivors’ testimonies. Various theories have been put forward to try to explain the event – perhaps a reaction to the Allied landings four days earlier, or reprisal for sabotage raids committed by the Resistance, or the Resistance’s hostage-taking of an SS officer. Those who were ultimately accused of the crime were tried at a 1953 military tribunal in Bordeaux, with outcomes ranging from a death sentence to amnesty (much to the chagrin of Oradour survivors and relatives).
After the war, a new Oradour was rebuilt a few hundred metres west of the ruins. RDTHV (www.rdthv.com) bus 12 serves the Limoges bus station (45 minutes, once or twice Monday to Saturday).