In the central Corrèze department, Brive-La-Gaillarde is a lovable medieval town flourishing as a regional commercial centre. The old town’s houses are built from an arresting pink sandstone under blue slate roofs.
There’s much to hold your attention in Brive, but also a lot of magic to experience outside in western foothills of the Massif Central. You’ll have lakes, forest and challenging hills close at hand, and dozens of idyllic medieval villages to choose from. Several of these are in the official list of the most beautiful in France, and despite their charm are never overrun by tourists.
Lets explore the best things to do in Brive-la-Gaillarde:
1. Hôtel de Labenche
Brive’s art and history museum is in this glorious Renaissance mansion.
But before you enter give yourself a while to appreciate this building, which is agreed to be one of the finest Renaissance properties in the region.
It was commissioned around 1540 by Jean de Calvimont who was Lower Limousin’s Minister of Justice and Clerk to King Francis I, and later was a stopover for royalty visiting Brive, including Louis XIII. It is built from that beautiful pink sandstone and there are lots of details to feast your eyes on ,like a regal arcade, mullioned windows, a variety of sculptures and an eccentric chimneystack fashioned to look like a Greek temple.
2. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire
A serious cache of 5,000 objects helps recount Brive’s 100,000 years of history.
It’s an attraction that deals with a host of different disciplines like natural history, archaeology, ethnography and numismatics.
But there are also quite a few curiosities that aren’t from Brive but are compelling all the same.
Take the piano that belonged to the turn-of-the-century composer Claude Debussy, or the sensational collection of tapestries.
Several are from the Aubusson Manufactory, but there are also ten made by the English Royal Manufactory at Mortlake.
This is the largest set of 17th-century English tapestry on show in France.
3. Denoix Distillery
You can get a real shot of local savoir-faire at this 19th-century family distillery.
The Denoix brand makes a range of liqueurs from orange, grape, walnut, strawberry, chocolate and various herbs, and is open from Tuesday to Saturday to take you behind the scenes.
One of the many cool things about this place is that the gleaming copper stills are the same since the 1800s, which makes for lots of evocative photo opportunities.
Also interesting is that the operation is seasonal, so there will be a different fruit or plant macerating depending on the time of year.
And a visit wouldn’t be complete without sampling a liqueur or aperitif.
4. Old Brive
While the centre of Brive isn’t bursting with blockbuster sights it’s the sort of town you can investigate on a shopping trip.
This tangle of streets has quite a few stone houses from the 15th and 16th centuries, and you may find yourself getting sidetracked into an arcaded courtyard or staring up at an old turret or wrought-iron balcony.
The town hall hides a fabulous little flower garden, and there’s a small itinerary of historic mansions available at the tourist office.
The cream of these are the 18th-century Hôtel Desbruslys and Hôtel Quinhart with a corbelled turret.
5. CA Brive
Although Brive is a provincial town it has a reputation that goes way beyond French borders.
And one of the reasons for this is the rugby club, which is a mainstay of the Top 14, the highest division in French rugby.
The current Brive side is littered with past and present France internationals like Julien Le Devedec and Lucas Pointud, as well as imports from South Africa and Australia.
The Stade Amédée-Domenech has a capacity of almost 14,000 and despite its modest size is actually the largest sporting arena in the entire Limousin region! Come for a match on a weekend between August and May, while at any time you can also buy a CA Brive souvenir at the team’s store in the centre of town.
6. Musée Edmond-Michelet
Limousin is one of the best places to dip into the history of the French Resistance because of the amazing degree of disruption caused by guerrillas in the region.
And the leader of region’s Resistance movement was Edmond Michelet, who survived the war and went on to have a long political career.
So while many towns around France have Resistance museums, you can be sure that this one is unmissable.
Michelet’s family donated a variety of his personal items, including the mimeograph he used to print leaflets denouncing France’s capitulation in 1940. There are also some 400 original propaganda posters printed by the German occupying forces and the Vichy Government.
7. Château d’Eau
Brive’s 19th-century water tower may well be the most distinctive landmark in the town.
It was erected in 1834 to pump the waters from the Doux to the town’s fountains, but became both functional and symbolic because the uppermost level was designed to look like a lighthouse.
Ten years ago the town made the building more attractive to visitors, installing the tourist office on the ground floor and creating a belvedere at the top of the tower.
For €0.50 you can go up to look over the market and town from a height of 22 metres.
8. Brive Market
Something else that contributes to Brive’s fame is a song from 1952 by the French national treasure Georges Brassens.
Hécatombe tells the story of a fight between the gendarmerie and Brive’s housewives (who win the battle) at the marketplace.
So that’s how Brive’s covered marketplace came to be known as Halle Georges Brassens.
The market trades on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings and should be your first stop for fresh produce and local delicacies.
On Saturdays between November and February there’s added allure thanks to the special markets for foie gras and black truffles.
9. Collégiale Saint-Martin
Brive radiates from this 12th-century church on a shallow slope at the very core of the town.
And although this landmark was completed in the 1100s, it stands on top of a far older church established at the end of the 5th century.
These layers of history have been peeled back in the archaeological crypt, where the vestiges of the Merovingian church are illuminated, and you can inspect ancient sarcophagi.
The current church above it has been remodelled down the years, but keeps its Romanesque character, most visible in the 13th-century capitals atop the columns in the choir.
10. Canal des Moines
One of the best local walks is 10 kilometres to the east on the rugged banks of the Coiroux River.
The Canal des Moines an awesome showcase of the resourcefulness and industry of medieval monks.
In the 12th century when the Cistercian monks at Obazine Abbey needed to irrigate their gardens and fields they decided to cut a 1.5-kilomete aqueduct from the cliff-face.
Almost 900 years later the conduits continue to irrigate plots in the valley, and you can trace the route along high ledges with far-reaching views, past large mossy boulders and into fresh deciduous forest.
11. Lac de Causse
A breeze in the car from Brive, this man-made lake is just the ticket when things heat up in summer.
First off, the landscape will win you over, with a 100-hectare sheet of water in a crucible of steep hillsides.
There are two sandy beaches supervised in July and August, but the lake also has sporting pedigree.
There are first-rate facilities for competitive rowing, and some big-time regattas have been staged here like the Junior World Championships in 2009. A few competitions are staged each year, but for the rest of the time the same facilities are put to use for canoeing and you can hire a craft from the “Base Loisirs Nautiques” in summer.
In 15 minutes you can be at one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France.
Turenne is tiny, but as you’ll tell from the castle it was the seat of an influential Viscounty that controlled Limousin, Quercy and Périgord.
Big slabs of the Viscounts’ fortress still soar above the village, and if you’re up for the walk you can make the steep ascent to the 12th-century Tour César and the 13th-century Tour de l’Horloge for stupendous vistas.
The princely stone mansions further down the hill show that Turenne was a haunt of nobility, and these are from the 15th and 16th centuries.
It will be love at first sight when you pull into Collonges-la-Rouge.
The name gives you clue about what is to come, as the entire village is built with an intense red sandstone.
This material makes everything that little more alluring, and when the low sun catches the village’s rustic walls and château towers they begin to glow.
Collonges isn’t just one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France; the entire association was set up in this superlative place.
In the middle ages Collonges was granted privileges by Viscount of Turenne, and its nobility, magistrates and lawyers built sophisticated ancestral houses.
You may need a whole day to get a handle on the mansions, châteaux and sublime 11th-century church at the most visited tourism site in Limousin.
14. Les Jardins de l’Imaginaire
This garden outside the town of Terrasson-Lavilledieu can best be described as a clash between horticulture and high art.
It’s a contemporary version of a classic terraced garden, where monumental art installations mingle with natural elements like grass, trees, stone, flowers and water.
The garden is the work of the landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson and the architect Ian Ritchie and was laid out in 1996, soon becoming a French Jardin Remarquable.
They used these 13 terraces to inquire about the role, folklore and origins of gardens in a very oblique, post-modern way!
15. Limousin Specialities
The Denoix distillery also makes another Brive delicacy, moutard violette, which is a condiment made from a by-product of grape fermentation.
This gives it a dark violet tone, and it goes great with local back pudding.
Local figs are part of the diet for foie gras geese and ducks, and in a strange role reversal you can buy figs at the market, which themselves have been stuffed with foie gras.
Late-summer meanwhile is mushroom season, and the local chanterelles are out of this world.
They go best with one of Corrèze’s most emblematic dishes, milk-fed veal.