My chosen route between Perigueux and Limoges is full of interesting towns and villages, each very beautiful and often very mysterious.
First stop is in the stunning town of Brantome, surrounded by the river Dronne which is traversed by several bridges, including one which is angled so as to cross the two branches of the river at the same time. The western side is dominated by the facade of the Abbey Saint Pierre and Saint Sicaire. What started out as a humble cave chapel has blossomed into a huge religious complex of varied architectural styles.
10 km further north, I park above a World War I memorial in the town of Nontron. It’s a well-known centre for knife making but I’m reliably informed that the church of Notre Dame de Ronces is well worth a visit. It’s some way from the town centre but the reason for this becomes clear when I discover the story behind its name.
In the 17th century some children were playing at a spring outside the town when they lost their ball in the brambles. As they searched for it they found a black stone statue of the Virgin. Having alerted the local priest of their find, the Virgin was taken to the main church for safekeeping, but the next day she had disappeared and was found once again at the spring. After this happened a second time, the people of Nontron decided that the Virgin wished to remain at the spring and so they constructed a chapel there for her. The present day church, completed in 1876, stands on the same spot and the spring still exists down below at the end of a flooded tunnel. The Virgin has her own chapel above the spring where she stands, crowned and wrapped in a blue and gold robe to hide her scars and the lack of a child that she once held in her arms.
Back in the centre of town I visit the Coutellerie Nontonnaise, where they have been making knives by hand since the 16th century. Allegedly, a Nontron knife was used to assassinate King Henry IV. Today, it’s more likely to be found in a kitchen, used for slicing cheese or local apples. A traditional knife has a boxwood handle which is hand carved and branded with a unique symbol whose origins are a mystery. However, in order to satisfy a more modern market, I can see knives being produced with colourful plastic handles and the boutique offers butter knives, corkscrews and cake slices as well as the traditional folding knives.
Further north again, I arrive at the imposing chateau of Rochechouart. It’s late, but I take a stroll into town and locate the church of St Sauveur which has an unusual twisted spire and some modern, cartoon-like, 20th century frescoes decorating the interior by Nicolai Greschny. The church and the chateau attracted attention due to the stones that were used in their construction. Whilst first noted in 1808 and thought to be volcanic in origin, it was not until the 1960s that scientists finally recognised the rock as being the result of a meteorite event.
I visit the Espace Meteorite to find out more. It’s now known that 214 million years ago a meteorite of 1.5 kms in diameter struck 4kms west of present day Rochechouart. The impact created a crater of 25kms in diameter and changed the surrounding geology forever. Apparently, there are 174 such impact craters on earth, though they are not as easily recognisable as those on the moon due to millions of years of erosion. Such craters are technically known as astroblemes and can be up to 200kms in diameter. More recently, in 1908, a meteorite exploded above the Tougouska Forest in Siberia destroying an area of 2,000km2. Luckily Siberia is not heavily populated, but on 15th February 2013 in Russia, a meteor was caught on camera as it streaked across the sky. Approximately 1500 people suffered injuries due to blast effects of the meteor but luckily it exploded before hitting the ground and no one was killed.
I take a walk around the area below the chateau following a small stream through farmland and forest, part of a longer walk called the Sentier de Meteorite. It’s not hard to imagine how the area was formed all those years ago. Later, I have lunch in the appropriately named Meteorite Restaurant. The Menu de Jour is full of local fare including salad of duck gizzards, roast pork in mushroom sauce and fromage frais.
The main mystery for me is why more people don’t visit this little known region of France, though judging by the number of English speakers I encountered during the day and the English owned estate agents scattered amongst the towns, the expat community has already discovered it.