La Min-sú de Terrasson

retreat, reflect, refresh

The Vézère Ardoise

T
errasson is located on the Vézère river and the valley down stream is classified as a world heritage site by UNESCO. The cave-lined Vézère valley is known as the 'Valley of mankind' due to its wealth of prehistoric sites. Upstream the valley changes as the Vézère erodes into the central plateau, revealing the underlying geology with layers of slate (ardoise).

The ardoise of Travassac is particularly high prized for its quality for roof making. Whiles it elsewhere produces a terroir (soil) for the minerally Coteaux de la Vézère wines. Yet further the steepening incline of the river powered industries, and still provides hydroelectric power today. The landscape provides black angular stone that give a very different feel to the architecture, brown Limousine cows leisure in the grassland and apple orchards produce the AOP Pomme du Limousin.

Under the name Vézère Ardoise 47 communities of the old Limousine grouped themselves into a Pays d'art et d'histoire, piggy-backing on the established UNESCO recognized Vézère brand. The Vézère Ardoise area has a large number of villages and small towns, each with its own attractions and walking trails. We here like to briefly mention Pompadour, famous for its horses and castle, of special interest to those equestrian enthusiasts. The village of Allassac with its black stone 'Cesar tower' and church, Yssandon with its tower and Vigeois is the starting/ending point of the long distance walk through the Vézère gorges. Donzenac has an interesting historical walk around the village, but its main claim to fame are the Pans de Travassac.

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We here also include some of the places today in the Dordogne that historically were included in the Limousine (Payzac and Savignac-Ledrier), or remained independent on the border (Hautefort). And some interesting sites within the orbit of the Vézère Ardoise, like Tourtoirac and its cave, Aubazine and its Canal des Moines and hikes exploring old coal mining sites of Cublac (just outside Terrasson) to complete the picture.


(Pre) Industrial heritage


Nestled away on the upper reaches of the Auvézère river a little cluster of historic industrial heritage can be found. They are a good examples of rural industry combining locally mined iron ore, locally harvested wood, small hydro-power, surplus agricultural labor (the forges would only operate in winter) and surplus straw. A little further down the Auvézère the Forge d'Ans ones produced canons for the French navy, today the starting point of the Route des Canons.

Savignac-Ledrier forge and castle

A small stronghold in defence of a bridge was constructed here during the Hundred Years' War (1337 – 1453). From this a small castle, and since 1521, a small forge developed. The forge was one of a series of charcoal fired forges found in the Dordogne department, today the most complete as it functioned till 1975 and was declared a monument in 1979.


The forge produced pigs iron bars (for use elsewhere), cast iron and some refined steel that was used for the production of local farm implements and arms. The blowing system was hydro-powered, as were the ore crushers at the start and machine shop at the end of the process. The blast furnace went out of production before WWII, the shop kept producing nails from wire and served the niche market of sardine can keys! (Which still litter the site today.) The cluster contains: the wire works, blast furnace, puddling furnaces, refinery, the workshop and the charcoal shed.

The master of the forge inhabited the castle above. This renaissance style castle is privately owned, is open for the annual monuments weekend. From the ramparts you have a good view of the forge. A couple of elements on the outside of the castle were probably saved from an earlier chapel notably the widow's portrait and a garden gate with very peculiar ornamentation.


Papeterie de Vaux

Located on a small tributary to the Auvézère this remarkably well preserved site is the last example in Europe preserving the complete production chain. Recommended as one of the 1001 must-see sites of France by the Michelin guide this usine aux champ ceased production in 1968. Originally a 17th century forge, it was converted in to a rye straw paper mill in 1861 combining new technologies of the industrial revolution (with machines made in the close-by cities of Limoges and Angoulême) with time-honored rural skills and practices.

The paper produced here was long used to pack and wrap foodstuffs, but was also used by artists and architects, most famously Le Corbustier, to sketch his plans. Its location is a beautiful valley gives it a special charm, though its isolation might have added to its demise (together with the advancements in technologies and scale elsewhere). The site was acquired by the local community in 1994 and classified a historic monument in 1996.


Beautiful villages


Just over the Corrèze border these villages deserve the one of the most beautiful villages of France classification!

Ségur-le-Château

A walk through the village reveals a surprisingly dense conglomeration of wood frame houses in an undisturbed natural setting. Though the ruins of the castle, (1) are not open to the public, the outer walls dominate the central Auvézère meander of the village. With its place and rue des Claux’s beautiful group of 15th century half-timbered houses (2), exquisite mullioned windows (stone window bays crosscut by crosspieces), a small alley taking you up to a group of 15th century sculptures adorning the Saint Anne well (3).



Located in a loop of the Auvézère, Ségur-le-Château is, as its name suggests, a secure place, that was chosen by the 9th century feudal Viscounts of Limoges to build a castle. Due to the vagaries of history, the city of Ségur remained the seat of the Viscounts of Limoges for six hundred years. Though Ségur never was the actual capital of the Viscount, the lords resided here regularly attracting families of knights-vassals and a number of officers to do so as well.

During the Hundred Years War, the fortress of Ségur, after an occupation by the English between 1361 and 1374, was confiscated by the king of France and became a royal stronghold. At the junction of the county of Périgord and the viscounty of Limoges, the headquarters for the Court of Appeals was installed, rendering justice over hundreds of lordships of the Périgord and Limousin.

This Court of Appeals functioned as a first appeal between the ordinary seigniorial justices and the Royal Parliament of Bordeaux. This explains the large number of quality noble houses and hotels dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries in this out of the way corner that today seems to be located in the middle of no where. In 1750 the Court of appeals was suppressed by an edict of the king and the bourgeois families left Ségur little by little. In 1795, the castle was bought by Hautefort.

A bridge connects to the Place du champ de foire (4) from where you can explore the Place Jean de l’Aigle (5). With its 15th century former presbytery with a cork screw staircase in the tower, on the left in the impasse you find another ancient manor with tower. You can chose to walk to the church or on your way back pass the 15th century Maison des Appeaux (6). A small pedestrian bridge will help you cross the river to the main road for splendid views on your way back.

Cross the Place des Claux and find another bridge next to the watermill leading to the circular flamboyant Gothic styled Saint-Laurent tower (15th/16th centuries)(7). With its mullioned windows, on the other side of the road a hotel adorned with a square tower from the same era (8). A little walk takes you to the Domaine du Chédal (9) dating from the 17/18th centuries with a large landscaped park labeled jardin remarquable(visits only in group and by appointment during summer).


Saint Robert


Strategically located at the top of a limestone plateau, the fortress, the ramparts and fortified towers of Saint Robert still impress today. The pilgrimage church of Saint Robert (1) is at the center, a listed historic monument since 1862, and worth a visit. The Church was damaged and destroyed several times over the course of history, then rebuild with new additions. At some time the nave was broken down, leaving an interesting cluster: the chancel, the ambulatory, transept and apsidal chapels (all 12th century), square towers and an octagonal lookout tower. An ambulatory (circulation gallery around the chancel), allowed pilgrims to kneel in front of relics kept in the apsidioles.


Make sure not to miss the garden in the left of the church down the stairs with a panoramic view of the landscape from the rampart (2). The village is build out of local limestone and a short walk passes a 16th century chapel (3), three fortified gateways (4), a pigeon's loft (5) back to the central place with its wrought iron cross full of symbolism (6), the Beauroire manor (7), ancient mansion (8) and the 12th century monastery (9).


Hautefort and Tourtoirac


Just outside the Vézère Ardoise some 15 minutes drive from Saint Robert is the famous Château de Hautefort which dominates the watershed between the Vézère and Auvézère rivers. On the Auvézère, down stream from Ségur-le-Château, the Forge of Savignac-Ledrier and the Papeterie de Vaux the village of Tourtoirac is situated.

Château de Hautefort

Hautefort is one of the most prestigious châteaux in Dordogne and indeed South-West France and is a listed historical monument. Build on a promontory it today overlooks the village of Hautefort. The site likely supported the roman camp of Altus et Fortis' and might have been a celtic oppodium before that. The current castle was build and rebuild from the 9th century onward, though little remains of the medieval strong hold, as is was extensively remodeled from the 16th century onward to become the grand renaissance castle you find today. Another reason making it famous is because a couple of Hollywood and French movies are shot here!


The grand château, build on a symmetrical plan with a main building and two wings embracing a terraced courtyard that overlooks the landscape to the south. The first wing encompasses the drawbridge (rebuild in 1588 preserving some of the defensive aspects like the moat: Where Drew Barrymore ran out in a famous Hollywood movie “Ever After: A Cinderella Story”!) connects to the 15th century round Tower of Brittany supporting the dome-shaped roof with its oak and chestnut wooden structures added in 1678. To enter the top floor to visit the interior is a must do, because a phenomenal experience is guaranteed! The second wing was added after 1644 to perfect the symmetry a round tower (similar to the medieval one) was added (and also crowned with a dome-shaped roof) which still houses the chapel.

The style of the chateau is little known in the Dordogne and more like those built by the nobles in the Loire Valley. A stroll around the building will bring you to the village oven and woodshed under the chapel, an underground tunnel serving the former kitchens and staff quarters under the large chimney room. More recently, during the second world war, the underground space was used to hide French national treasures including the windows of the Cathedrals of Strasbourg, Nancy, Mulhouse and Colmar, together with precious manuscripts from their municipal libraries and artifacts from their museums.

The whole château is surrounded by impressive French style formal gardens. The gardens of the Château de Hautefort have been awarded France's Jardin Remarquable status. They comprise a beautiful French Formal garden with lots of clipped hedges producing geometric shapes and patterns which are filled with varying planting displays. Looking down from the courtyard you will find the hedges pruned into sheep-shearing scissors that are part of the coat of arms of the Hautefort family (you will find them everywhere in the windows and floors of the castle and chapel as well). The English style landscaped park and gardens were designed in the 19th century by the Compte de Choulot, a famous landscape architect of the time. (entrance fee)

Hotel Dieu
This museum for the history of medicine is locate in the old hospice of Hautefort. Initially a place for the old and weak it developed into a hospital. Designed in the shape of a cross with a round chapel at its heart. The wards are separated from the chapel by a wooden frame that could be opened so the patients could attend mass whiles remaining in their beds. One ward was recreated, the other wards now function as exhibition space for an interesting collection of historic medical equipment.

Tourtoirac
This small village on the Auvézère river has some pleasantly shaded picnic spaces on an island in the river, reachable by a small pedestrian bridge. At the back of the church you will find a small museum dedicated to the kings of Araucania.


Le Musée des Rois d’Araucania et de Patagonie
For those of us growing-up with reading Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, the king of Araucania might ring a bell. Araucania is located in present day Chile between the Biobio river in the north, and the the city of Valdivia to the south. Indigenous peoples resisted the Inca expansion, and drove the Spanish out in 1598, their status settled in the 1641 Quillin pact, remaining independent till 1875.

So what does all this have to do with this spot in rural France? In 1825 a boy was born in a small hamlet close to Tourtoirac. He initially became a lawyer in Perigueux but then looked for adventure. Scouring over maps he discovers Araucaria and in 1859 sets out to claim it for France. After some time in the Freemasons lodge of Valparaiso, he crosses into Araucania by 1860.

He somehow convinces the locals to unite against Chile and Argentina, and declared himself king. After writing a constitution, a national anthem, designing a national flag and stationary, he informed the world. The indigenous population on the Argentine side of the Andes seemed to like the idea, and asked to join, leaving him the King of Araucaria and Patagonia!

The Chilean government was less amused, ambushed him, put him in jail, and a few months later, on trial. Though the former lawyer was able to defend himself, it took the French consul to get him out, and onto a ship back to France. He took up residence in Paris where he spent his time writing petitions and looking for funds to realize his dream. One profitable business being the sale of royal titles and rewards.

He managed to return in 1868, was arrested in Argentina in 1874, and tried again in 1876 but fell ill, returned to his birth place broke (but not broken). Spent his last years lighting streetlights, and died in September 1878… He did manage to find a successor, after his family refused the hereditary title, presently the Prince of Araucaria resides in Paris.

There is this small museum at the back of the abbey, and you are able to visit his grave (and that of his successor) in the graveyard just outside the village. This small museum is dedicated to a footnote in history, but a curious addition to the Tourtoirac cave.

La grotte de Tourtoirac
Situated off the road to Hautefort this cave opened to visitors in the summer of 2010. The Grotte de Tourtoirac is a real geological gem. Discovered in 1995, the cave offers a 300m circuit illuminated by neutral-coloured LED lighting. The stalactites (which hang from the roof), stalagmites (which rise from the floor), draperies, candles and pillars can also be admired by visitors with reduced mobility, thanks to a lift and small footbridges which crosses the underground Clautre river. (entrance fee)


Pans de Travassac


A visit to the Pans de Travassac will reveal the imprint left by the slaters since the 17th century. Over time a unique landscape took shape as vegetation reconquered the walls and pans. There are demonstrations by a slater show its time-honoured skills and techniques. A small subterranean photo gallery in an old work-room recalls slaters stories. Archives, old photographs and tools give an insight into the steps necessary to transform rock into roofing-material.

The use of slate dates back to the Middle Ages, and slate of the Corrèze developed a reputation due to its exceptional longevity and resistance. The tools and skills used in the production process have hardly changed for centuries as the nature of the slate makes mechanization difficult, if not impossible.


In 19th century the arrival of the railway and electricity (for pumps evacuating ground water) gives a boast to production. The number of workers employed in the production of slate surpasses 600 on the eve of the First World War. After the Second World War, competition from other roofing materials, easier to standardize in size and appearance, and the continued labour intensiveness due to the lack of mechanization led to the mines decline.

But by the end of 20th century the asbestos based roofing alternatives go out of fashion. People’s interest in French slate and particularly its best quality grades leads to the restart of production in Travassac (1989) and Allassac (2006). In 1997, the Pans de Travassac located outside the town of Donzenac are made accessible and open to the public.

In the 17th century, production started with the discovery of a hill with 7 parallel slate veins facing north / south over a distance of 2 km. Under normal geological circumstances these veins should be found as a series of horizontal layers as they were deposited. But here a movement in the earths surface made the slate veins available as vertical layers. Allowing for the extraction of the valuable veins, leaving the layers of quartzite that were too hard to mine standing as walls thus creating these interesting pans. The early slate-miners began to exploit the veins on the surface, digging deeper and deeper to extract the slate. Reaching a depth of 60m over a length of 300m.


Le Saillant

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Allassac was once famous for its vineyards until the phylloxéra epidemic arrived in 1876 . Though vineyards and livelihood disappeared, the centuries of cultivation had left their mark on the landscape. In the architecture of the wine merchant houses, with their presses and cellars. And in the terraces and wine cabanes still dotting the hillsides despite the new land-uses.

Chapel of Saillant

The village has a small chapel build between 1620 - 1624, during the restoration of 1978 the stained glass windows were replaced with a series created by the famous artist, Marc Chagall. In 1982 the stained glass windows of the nave were installed, making them the last works by Chagall realized during his life. The second series originally had a yellow colour scheme which has not resisted time, but the dark blue, green, red and the rose window remain vivid. The chapel of Saillant is one of only four chapels with Chagall windows and was declared a national monument in 2008.

Coteaux de la Vézère wines

The vineyard Coteaux du Saillant - Vézère has been replanting 21 hectares of the schistose slate soil of Allassac, Donzenac and Voutezac with Chemin, Sauvignon-gris, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet-franc. It is not a nostalgic museum, it has its eyes on the future, and was the first to plant the fragile and delicate Chemin variety in the South-West wine area (more usually found in the Loire valley).


The modern approach is either biological or raisonnée cultivation. Raisonnée translates to integrated or sustainable agriculture. Compared to biological it’s a less emotional/dogmatic (more reasoned) break from the intensive agriculture. Keeping the soil covered to preserve the soil, limited artificial inputs, pruning, thinning , suckering and harvesting by hand. Though new parcels do now go straight into biological cultivation. 

The chai uses modern metal tanks to produce wine from different grape varieties parcel by parcel. This allows the master wine maker to select particular qualities of the year, and create appropriate mixtures or varieties or wines of a single grape variety. Not using wooden barrels allows for the preservation of the ‘minerality’, in which the schistose slate soils contribute to the terroir. 

The owner allows the public to hike over a trail and visit the vineyard unguided, best done walking down hill from the village of La Chartrouille towards Le Saillant. The views are spectacular and going this way has the added advantage of arriving at the chai for a little wine tasting afterward!


Vézère gorges


Le Saillant is the starting point for hiking trails exploring the Vézère gorges and the series of small hydro-electric dams. The Vézère gorges combine ecologically important area (Natura 2000) with an industrial heritage site. The first dam was constructed between 1899 and 1902, 3m high and 37m wide, today submerged by the Saillant dam. The generator building today serves as an office building. The new dam (28m high and 96m wide) and its generators came into service in 1930.

Hiking trails starting from Le Saillant
> Boucle du Vieux Saillant: 2km – 1h.
> Boucle des Coteaux de la Bontat: 2.5km – 1h15.
> Boucle des Pans Ardoisiers: 4km – 3h.

For the real hikers there is a long distance trail (GRP:Grande Randoneé Pays) from Vigeois to Saillant through the Vézère gorges. You can hike the right way round or the left, heading to Estivaux (10km) and on to Vigeois (14km). Or pass by Orgnac (12km) and on arriving over the old english bridge of Vigeois (12km).


Aubazine


The village of Aubazine was constructed in the hard local pinkish gneiss, framed with the easier to work sandstone, topped with slate roofs. Construction of the two monasteries started in 1140, followed by the famed Canal des Moines in 1147. Today the abbey church (1) and major parts of the men's monastery (2) still stand at the centre of the village. Inside the church the shrine on the grave of Saint Etienne dates back to the 13th century, its rich decorations, its light colour and design contrast with the austere Cisterian church. The more remarkable is so few richly decorated tombs have survived the trails and tribulations of history.

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A stroll through the village reveals many re-used elements from the former monasteries. The former orphanage(3) sheltered Jewish children during the WWII, it was the place where fashion master, Gabrielle Coco Chanel spend her teens learning sewing. The ruins of the women's monastery can still be found 500 metres outside the village. A stroll through the village reveals many interesting buildings. Follow the classic enamel Plaque Michelin/TCF signpost for Tulle (30,000 of these signs accompanied the original Michelin guide and were made available for free in between 1911 and 1914 to listed communities in collaboration with the Touring Club de France).

On you right side, the starting point of the monks canal walk that passes the Espace Muséographique et culturel (6) with its garden. The road passes the lavoir (4) alimented by the Canal des Moines, and turns at the Byzantine chapel (5), which is a recent addition to the village. The frescos date from 1989 and are in accordance with the Byzantine and Greek tradition.

Le Canal des Moines

The canal was constructed to bring water to the male monastery and is still flowing today. Flowing naturally along a 1.5 kilometres diversion of the Coyroux stream. Following the contours of the mountain, at times hew through rocks at the Brèche Saint Etienne (7), at others flowing through a channel 'pasted' to the rock supported by stacked walls and an arch spanning a ravine (8). Declared a historic monument in 1966 it is a showpiece of medieval art and engineering! It provides an enjoyable walk through an otherwise rough landscape (at points 40 metres cliffs overhang the canal) and forests. At the end of the canal a small basin with a sluice and overflow (9) distributes water between the canal and the stream.


Cublac


About one kilometre walk from the Terrasson train station you will find yourself at the centre of the small community of Cublac. For all practical purposes it is attached and integrated into Terrasson, was it not for the border between the Dordogne and Corrèze departments that keeps them formally separated. Cublac was once a coal mining village with a number of mines. Today heritage trails lead you past some of the historical relics on the forested hillsides. In the hills just outside Cublac the ENORAND'O provides the opportunity to explore the countryside on horse back. Based from the Centre Equestre La Valade they offer 1, 2 or 3 hour tracks (including beginners level).

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Coal was discovered here in 1766 and exploitation took place by a succession of companies between 1781 and 1914, with an output in between 1,000 and 3,500 tons per year. Most of the coal produced was sold to the glass factories of Terrasson and Le Lardin. In 1848 the glass factory of Le Lardin acquires the concessions for its exclusive use.

Though one of the mines reached a depth of 265m, the main exploitable coal seam was found between 91 and 136m and was on average no more than 50cm thick. By 1887 the concession is no longer able to supply the needs and is sold and resold in 1900 again. Between 1905 and 1913 production falls to 88 tons per year. By 1914, the mobilization for the first world war drains the countryside of potential labour and production ceases.

A information display on the square next to the church and three trails, all indicated in yellow, help you explore the old workers houses, and the mining shafts.

Hiking trails starting from Cublac
> Sentier historique des mines: 4.5km - 1h15.
> Sentier des mines (long): 7.8km - 2h15.
> Sentier des crêtes: 11km – 3h.


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