CYCLING IN THE CORREZE
Steve Dyster and family spent some time in the Correze.
You can understand why the Maquis was so strong in the Correze. The area is like a western doorstep to the high, volcanic mountains of the Auvergne. It is very much part of the Massif Central, without being quite as massive as the mountains further east. To the south the Dordogne cuts through the hills in a deep gorge. The rivers of the Correze run down to it in equally deep gorges, while, to the west of Ussel, the Plateau des Millevaches stands remote and isolated. Amongst the heavily wooded landscape, the twisting valleys and the rugged, isolated hamlets, refuges are plentiful. It is a place that breeds independence.
We did a mixture of family trips, with some afternoon independent rides. Make no mistake, this is challenging country, but there are routes for all abilities, and the effort put in is rewarded in full. In short, it is a place to take some time and enjoy the peace, the woodland and remote hamlets. There are route guides available from both tourist offices and on the internet, but we generally did our own thing. Even the main roads were quiet and the drivers well-mannered and helpful. It may be a ruggedly independent area, but folk seem to look out for each other, too. As I stopped to take in the view on one spectacular, winding road near Moustier de Ventadour – the fact that I was puffing fit to burst was purely coincidental – two successive drivers stopped to ask if I was alright. They were the last cars I saw for an hour.
One interesting route would be to follow the signs for the Trans-Correzien Railway. Abandoned many years ago, it is hard to trace on the ground, apart from a spectacular viaduct and occasional station buildings. The whole business is not helped by the fact that some station buildings have been removed from their original site and relocated. This is so at Liginiac, where the booking hall, platform and waiting room stand right in the centre of the village, but nowhere near the original route.
Apart from gently exploring the village in a family group, we did little cycling in the first couple of days. It was actually very pleasant just pootling round the village, dropping in at the cafes and following some of the lanes that climbed gently up the wooded hillsides. We admired neatly stacked wood-stores which seemed to take pride of place in each garden. Wood here is plentiful and the smell of wood-smoke in the evenings made me think of autumn days cycling around Ballater and Braemar. In fact the whole area put me in mind of that part of the Scottish Highlands.
Then one afternoon a blazing sun burst through and it just happened that I was off to explore further afield. Though I only had a couple of hours, I managed a twenty-five miler that was full of interest and variety. I took the familiar road into Neuvic, but headed south for the Dordogne. Though amongst pastures, there was a distinctly upland feel to the ride. All was easy until the descent of the gorge began. Whilst zig-zags are east enough when gently pumping the brakes, the deteriorating road surface made the descent a snail-paced affair with surrender to gravity potentially dangerous. My wrists were very grateful when the junction for the Belvedere des Gratte Bruyeres appeared. The descent continued, but the surface allowed some speed. Arriving more speedily at river level, a bridge was crossed and the ascent began. A long ascent, but made relatively easy by a steady moderate gradient, with fine views of the Dordogne and the colours of broom and wildflowers amongst the rocks and trees. A cheery wave from a descending car and a stop to remove my jacket and puzzle over the Rocher Louis XVI, encouraged my progress to the viewpoint.
What puzzled me about the Rocher Louis XVI – he who lost his head during the French Revolution – was not so much why it was named so. There was a sort of regal profile, if one looked hard, and it is just the sort of place where a King might have stopped to ponder on what a beautiful land he ruled over; it may even have been, unlikely though it is, that there was no obvious body attached to the regal profile, which was appropriate after the Revolution. What really puzzled me was the imagination involved in standing amidst such beauty and spending one’s time thinking along the lines of, “Now that rock reminds me of someone … it’s on the tip of my tongue … not Uncle Freddie … yes, Louis XVI.”
The Belvedere is a magnificent viewpoint. I was the only cyclist, but it was clearly a spot for a Sunday afternoon outing by car. The views were expansive, especially to the west where the land folded in a succession of spurs. Huge birds of prey circled and I wished I knew more about them and was able to make more of the information boards, with any degree of certainty.
Following the road through seemingly endless woodland, broken by occasional pastures and small groups of houses – breaks that allowed distant views of the snow-capped Puy Mary in the Auvergne - I soon found myself in Serandon. This village has something in common with Paris. It is on the Meridian Verte, a gallic vee-sign to the Greenwich Meridian. It has a beautifully situated church with a perfect Romanesque porch and door. It is also home to the Hotel and Restaurant de la Poste, run by the eponymous Lisa, as Chez Lisa. It offers fabulous home-made pizzas and magnificent salads (based on the idea that you design your own by filling in a form as one would a pools coupon – only winning is guaranteed) (Please note that Chez Lisa is closed at the time of writing, due to fire damage.) Lisa is just one member of an East Riding enclave carving out a slice of Yorkshire in deepest France. We met several, and had travelled out with Simon and Ann Hawksley, of Yorkshire Bikeliner – not to forget their cute Cairn Terrier, Nelson.
Not far away from Neuvic is Borts les Orgues. The basalt columns are similar to those at the Giant’s Causeway, though not, in my opinion, as impressive. Riding involved following the twists and turns of roads that descended to the Dordogne Gorge, rolled through more upland pasture and descended to the massive dam that dwarfs the town. The dam soars over the houses much as a fortress in a fantasy film trilogy beetles over the host of attackers. There have been rumours of “instability”, but life below seems to go on. We stopped for lunch at the Bar de Barrage, which is actually perched on one end of the dam. It was whilst tucking into the excellent lunch provided by Bruno and his staff, that I pondered on the reasons why my French “kilometrage” rarely matches my British mileage. After consideration, I concluded that the real issue was not the long ascents. It was lunch.
The trip back was a just as hilly, especially through Champagnac les Mines.
Next day took us to Meymac. This beautiful town with towered houses, shops stacked with local produce, a grand old abbey church now an art gallery, was as quiet as the grave. A single motor-scooter buzzed through the square.
The rides I’ll remember most were the last two. The first was a long afternoon. I set off on the familiar road to Neuvic, but headed out of town on the D991 towards Egletons. A mixture of woodland, scrub and pasture on either side of the road gave frequent changes of scenery. As with most roads hereabouts, the D991 follows the contours of the land as far as possible, twisting sharply when necessary to avoid overly steep gradients. The odd area of desolate stump-studded forestry work didn’t spoil the scenery, though common-sense was needed when the trunk-laden lorries came raound the hairpin bends.
As you’d expect MTBing, or VTTing as it is in France, is popular and there are centres which offer camping, hotel accommodation and a variety of traffic free routes in the woods nearby. The road itself was almost traffic free, with remarkably few vehicles except in little groups, generally with a lorry in the vanguard. One such convoy passed me as I reached Lamaziere Basse – Saint Bartelemy. The café was closed and the village seemed asleep. The shuttered houses, the silent street, the grand, but lifeless, Mairie; eerie, deep in the forest.
The thing about maps is that they enable you to know what is coming. I knew there was a major descent and ascent coming soon, but the length of the former was surprising. A roughly-surfaced road ran down through the forest, a series of hairpins as well as fast straights cutting across the hillside. Occasionally there were spectacular views across the gorge, but there was no sign of the River Luzege that was the cause of all this descending. It was bridged near a couple of houses, amidst the first piece of flat meadow I had seen in miles. It didn’t last long and the ascent began to wind up the opposite wall of the gorge. Looking ahead at every turn, I hoped to see my objective. As is often the case, it was round the next hairpin. Then turning a bend with a rock wall on one-side, a stone barrier on the other and signs warning of the dangers of not taking care all-around, there it was.
Standing on a cliff-top perch, one peculiar masonry finger pointing to the sky, stood the Chateau de Ventadour, as romantic a medieval ruin as can be found. Awe-inspiring?
Well, you’d certainly have known who was boss around here a few hundred years ago. That is until the English arrived during the Hundred Years War and captured it, holding it for thirteen years. In spite of all this, the castle is most famous for poetry. The panorama from the castle may have been as inspirational as the twelfth century fashion for romantic poetry. This generally involved unrequited, chivalric love, with lords and ladies aspiring to the ideal of courtly love. The greatest troubadour of the time was Bernard de Born, but another Bernard - de Ventadour - found favour with Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of Henry II of England and object of desire amongst numerous others: the unrequited nature of the poetic love was often confined to verse. Bernard de Ventadour had been born a servant at the castle, but latched onto the latest fashion and proved to be much more proficient at his art than his betters. Naturally the Viscountess became enamoured of his poetry and the Viscount became suspicious of them. The Viscount soon gave Bernard de Ventadour the opportunity to pursue a career as a wandering minstrel. Wander round the castle and be inspired to verse.
Riding further on, I took a look at my watch and decided to find a way back to camp. There was time to follow a glorious minor road through a number of isolated hamlets. The buildings were squat and tough, solid against the wild winters, sturdy against intruders; yet each had a flower garden in the first throes of spring, vegetable patches in cultivation, and even a few fruit trees. Around the hamlets lay pastures and beyond these the trees that stretched hazily to the horizon. Far away were misty mountains and all was quiet. There are roads that have no features listed in the tourist guides and are all the better for it. This was one. All around was beauty, revealed by every twist and turn.
Of course, there was the re-crossing of the Luzege gorge. This time the ascent seemed much longer. It probably was. The river was less attractive here, with a small industrial plant near the bridge. The D62 climbed steeply through the woods on the far bank, eventually emerging from the tress and climbing more gently past some delightful houses, to Lamaziere Basse again. I passed quietly, not wishing to disturb its slumbers.
From there I retraced my outward journey to Neuvic and the campsite by the lake.
That ride would have been too strenuous for the family, but when the sun was shining the next morning it was time for a family ride round the Lac de Triouzoune. This isn’t one of those little lakeside perambulations, it had some serious hills to try out legs of all sizes. Minor roads can be followed all the way, with the exception of a short stretch where a causeway and bridge cut a corner. On the west side of the lake the ups and downs were gentle. The lake is something of a tourist attraction with beaches and swimming, as well as other water-sports. Consequently there are some tourist developments, though the claim made in one guide book that “Neuvic has been somewhat ruined “by this seems a bit over the top. At the time we were there water was low and the businesses that depend on tourism were arguing with EDF about closing the sluices that turn the turbines so the lake would fill. My lack of fluent French prevented me from getting the low-down, but it was getting pretty Gallic by all accounts.
We stopped at a creperie by the bridge, ate Galettes and enjoyed the gourmet side of cycling. The Galette du Paysanne was fabulous, not unlike one of our North Staffordshire oatcakes, but twice the size and with toppings unlikely to be found in Stoke-on-Trent. Following this with a desert described as “Le Colonel” brought out the humour in Monsieur le Patron, “Paysanne to Colonel in twenty minutes!”
After this feast we soon hit the hills. This was our six-year-old’s first time on hairpins and, though none of the hills were huge, he soon learned that, if you keep turning and use your gears, you get there, even if slowly. He also picked up that there is no shame in stopping and having a breather. The highlight came when he crested the top of the longest slope and saw snow-capped peaks straight ahead. It was exactly how I felt the first time I saw similar, only he has started much earlier. The sweeping downhill was a wonderful reward, matched only by the joy of cycling over the dam – it just isn’t the same in a car.
Please note: the Correze is hilly, but seek advice locally and you'll be surprised how many less hilly routes there are; there are always E-Bikes, too. Then there are people like Steve who love hills, mind you, he has reached a stage in life where his love is slow and gentle, rather than a passionate rush.
PUBLISHED MAY 2020