We accidentally depart from Doué-la-Fontaine at midday, terminating any hopes of having lunch in Montluçon (ha! Writing this in bed at the end of the day, it’s hilarious, we are still about two hours from Montluçon). Heading South-East down a straight, fairly nondescript road, we feel like the adventure is ahead! As are ALL the lorries, unfortunately. Approaching Poitiers and with a baby miraculously sleeping like an angel the whole time, we decide to push slightly out of the way to Chauvigny, which the map informs me has earned one star (this is to show how interesting or pretty a place is – the maximum being three stars), and from which encouraging green-edged scenic roads depart towards Limoges. Reaching Chauvigny, it looks scenic indeed, complete with church perched on a hill and matching castle plus medieval city; but Eliza is still blissfully asleep, we’re not yet hungry, so hey ho, we push onwards and South along the scenic route.
Scenic it is not really – we barely see the promised river, and as we finally glimpse it, it is accompanied by a massive power plant on the other bank. Yay for detouring to scenic routes. Undeterred by this experience, we decide to push on to Le Dorat, which the map gives not one but TWO stars. The road to it actually is pretty this time, despite the dull weather. The houses change from the creamy Loire stone and fancy castles to more rustic, bare stone walls and farmhouses. There are lambs everywhere, and gorgeous ginger cows. We approach Le Dorat, where we drive down every single street to find not a single shop or restaurant open (it’s Monday – it’s a thing in France to have all the things closed on a Monday, for some reason); except for one village bar-cum-newsagent. It is the quintessential French “PMU bar” (PMU is the horse betting by the way, which you can do at all those bars), with an extremely dated yellowish plastic-and-old cigarette smoke decoration, two elderly patrons on separate tables doing crosswords and scratchcards, and an atrocious dubbed American film for daytime TV on in the background. We decide against paying for “jambon-beurre” sandwiches from here and have a quick glass of juice and a quick loo break instead. The baby continues to be angelic the whole time!
We leave Le Dorat while munching on some leftovers I’d insisted on taking from our epic breakfast (what a great idea, yay me!) and some fruit in the car, while trying to reach Limoges – it’s now close to 4pm and the day feels like it’s going subtly wrong whilst retaining a veneer of pleasantness to it. Passing road signs to Oradour-sur-Glane, we impulsively decide to detour through it.
On 10 June 1944, during the Nazi occupation of France, the village of Oradour-sur-Glane was minding its own business when a Nazi SS company descended on it and massacred 642 of its inhabitants, including women and children. After rounding up the entire population on the square, the SS took the men to six barns and secluded houses where they were shot and then burnt; only six survived. The women and children were taken to the church where they were shot, asphyxiated with grenades, burnt and crushed by the roof of the church. One single woman escaped. The village was entirely annihilated, all the houses were burnt, and the SS returned the next day to make sure no house was left standing and no bodies could be identified. Reportedly, this massacre was ordered in retaliation to Resistance activities in nearby towns and the kidnapping of a Nazi officer (which had nothing to do with Oradour, but it was to be an example). A new village was built nearby after the war, but French president Charles de Gaulle ordered the original maintained as a permanent memorial and museum.
We visit this today; there is a small museum with a lot of fairly convoluted information about the events leading up to the massacre, about France under the occupation, and about many other martyred villages all over Europe. It’s fairly hard-hitting already, especially the big photographs of the schoolchildren of Oradour. But nothing had prepared me for the actual ruins of the village. It’s like stepping into a modern-day Pompeii, except it wasn’t a natural disaster that killed the people here, but other people. The ruins of the houses are everywhere, and on each a little plaque that tells you what the house was: a bakery, a café, a hairdresser. It conjures up the image of a lively place, full of businesses, with a little tramway line down the main street. But it’s a burnt out shell now, and in the ruins you can see contorted metal objects, all melted and messed up in the flames: someone’s bed, a sewing machine, the baker’s tools. Everyone’s cars are burnt and rusted in their garages. One sits at the corner of the street in front of the café. More plaques tell you where the men were taken to be shot and order visitors to pay their respects. Bullet holes pockmark the stone. We walk in silence down the street. We reach the church; its roof has caved in but the main building stands, and we can enter. Inside more bullet holes, and perhaps most shockingly, the remnants of its bell, which are melted. A great big molten bell. Imagine the hell that produces a molten bell. The stained glass windows have melted too. In front of the altar there is a flattened metal object, and as I get nearer I am horrified to identify a baby’s pram. I leave. We carry on to the village’s cemetery, where family after family lists its martyrs, complete with photos and ages; seeing the faces is the worst for me. Maryse, four years old, Henriette, seven, Denise, twenty-two, Maria, fourty-seven, Jean fourty-seven. The names go on and on. At the back of the cemetery, a big concrete monument with a big concrete base that reads: “please do not step on this base under which rest the ashes of 642 people”. At the front of it are two glass domes under which are visible, insanely macabre, some human bones in complete disarray, just fragments in some gravel. A memorial a few metres away contains everyday objects found in the aftermath – toys, people’s glasses, every man’s little penknife – and another list of the names. It’s too much now. I want to go away.
Leaving this, we decide to just head for nearby Limoges and try to find somewhere to sleep. We cuddle our baby with renewed vigour, and seeing her smile and how she’s spent the past two hours industriously covering herself and Heather’s front in slobber makes us extra happy to be alive. We near Limoges as the sun is setting; it’s an ugly approach to the city, fortunately Heather finds us a hotel fairly quickly. Unfortunately, I have to drive all through the city to get to it, and Hev seems to have a total mind breakdown which renders her totally incapable of navigating or reading a map at all in fact, resulting in some fairly raised tempers and complete exhaustion. Meanwhile, Zaza has decided she has had enough of this day in the car and is whinging relentlessly. The hotel is in view but totally impossible to figure out how to actually reach the front of it; when we finally enter our hotel room I am almost delirious. We destroy a good half of the leftover rum cake from Rosine right there and then. Feeling slightly better, we venture outside for 50 metres before entering the super-overpriced and very provincial Relais Limousin for dinner (I am ashamed to say this was because I’d refused to go any further). The day ends with extraordinary vocal prowess from the baby who’s now teething in earnest, and slightly desperate attempts to settle her.