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Turenne in Limousin

How the Sun King’s finest general put Turenne on the map

Once the capital of an ancient viscountcy that occupied huge swathes of central France, the village of Turenne gave its name to one of the great military commanders of the 17th century: Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne. Known as Viscount Turenne, and after his fame grew far and wide simply as Turenne, he was a brilliant general. No less a military strategist than Napoléon Bonaparte later commended his captains to study his campaigns.

Turenne, the grandson of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, began his military career in the Dutch army. In 1630 Cardinal Richelieu, ever the pragmatist, tempted him to switch allegiance by making him a colonel in an infantry regiment at the remarkably young age of 19. For Turenne, much of life was about successfully changing sides: he managed it three times in the chaotic French civil war of Louis XIV’s minority and later abandoned his Huguenot faith in favour of Roman Catholicism when it seemed prudent to do so.

Louis XIV, who harboured many grudges, nonetheless found Turenne indispensable and made him “marshal-general of the camps and armies of the king”. Turenne was part of a rebellious little clique that included Madame de Sevigné and Judge Ormesson, who had dared to vote in favour of the release of Louis’s over-mighty finance minister, Fouquet. Turenne was dangerously outspoken at Court, according to some courtiers, saved only by his cleft palate and protracted stammer that the Sun King found impossible to fathom. The war minister, the tyrannical Louvois, hated Turenne and tried unsuccessfully to have him removed: Turenne simply ignored his orders and on one occasion burned them in front of his officers.

At an age when many soldiers would have retired, Turenne demonstrated that a highly trained corps of regular troops, avoiding large set battles and protracted sieges, could accomplish much more by a combination of dash and surprise. In 1673 Louis’s much-heralded capture of the Dutch fortress of Maastricht, using the siege-laying skills of Vauban, was possible only because Turenne, with a smaller force, kept the Imperial Hapsburgs fully occupied in Germany. In December of the following year he confounded every military maxim of the time by marching his army across the Vosges Mountains in impossible weather and inflicting a heavy defeat on the allies at Turkheim. When Turenne, who often put himself in the front line, was killed by almost the first shot fired at the battle of Sasbach in July 1675, it was a blow from which the French army never really recovered.

The medieval perched village of Turenne, part of the viscountcy for ten centuries, is among the most exquisite in France. It has many fine buildings, including the 12th century collegiate church and chapter of St-Pantaléon and Notre- Dame, the ornamental 17th century retable behind the altar of the Frères Tournié, and the chapel of the Capucins. The meandering road to the castle is so steep, that in the past many fully occupied coaches failed to make it, leaving their passengers to walk. Now only cars belonging to the inhabitants are allowed to climb to the top.

Although the fortress, reaching a height of 320 metres, has been partly demolished, its square Tour César survives intact. The view through almost 360 degrees from the top of the keep is quite superb, across the Tourmente Valley to the châteaux of Linoire and Lapérousse.

Also in plain sight from the César Tower is the legendary village of Collonges-la-Rouge, whose houses seem to have escaped from a fairy tale, all red brick with tiny turrets made of thatch or slate. You will search in vain however for any princess trapped in the tower. The local red sandstone was used between the 8th and 16th centuries to construct summer houses for the judiciary, who vied with one another to build increasingly exotic upper stories.

The lovely church of Saint-Pierre has an equally quaint history. It dates back to the 11th century, constructed on a base of four columns, to which a Romanesque bell tower, the nave with a magnificent arched window, and two side chapels were subsequently added. During the Hundred Years War the harmony of the original design was destroyed by the addition of two further towers to the north and south, one to enable the inhabitants to see approaching armies, the other to house the warning bells. Collonges was on the front line during the Wars of Religion, when the church was divided into two so that both Huguenots and Catholics could worship there. Fearing it would be stolen or vandalised, Catholics moved the 12th century tympanum of Christ’s Ascension, made in a Languedoc workshop out of Turenne limestone, from the cupola to the top of the church wall. It was finally restored only twenty years ago.

Collonges can be swamped by visitors during high season, when it is best to arrive early morning or late afternoon. Park above the village on top of the hill; the streets have a disconcerting habit of funnelling into narrow alleys reserved for residents’ vehicles and seemingly too narrow for even the most modest hire car, degrees, guaranteed to remove even the most solidly mounted exhaust system.

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