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The Cathédrale St-Étienne, a landmark for miles around, was begun in 1273 and planned on the model of the cathedral of Amiens, though only the choir, completed in the early thirteenth century, is pure Gothic. The rest of the building was added piecemeal over the centuries, the western part of the nave not until 1876. The most striking external feature is the sixteenth-century facade of the north transept, built in full Flamboyant style with elongated arches, clusters of pinnacles and delicate tracery in window and gallery. At the west end of the nave, the tower, erected on a Romanesque base that had to be massively reinforced to bear the weight, has octagonal upper storeys, in common with most churches in the region. It once stood as a separate campanile and probably looked the better for it. Inside, the effects are much more pleasing, and the rose stone looks warmer than on the weathered exterior. The sense of soaring height is accentuated by all the upward-reaching lines of the pillars, the net of vaulting ribs, the curling, flame-like lines repeated in the arcading of the side chapels and the rose window, and, above all, as you look down the nave, by the narrower and more pointed arches of the choir.

The best of the city's museums – with its showpiece collections of enamelware dating back as far as the twelfth century – is the Musée Municipal de l'Évêché (June daily except Tues 10–11.45am & 2–6pm; July–Sept daily 10–11.45am & 2–6pm; Oct–May daily except Tues 10–11.45am & 2–5pm; free) in the old bishop's palace next to the cathedral. There's an interesting progression to be observed in the museum, from the simple, sober, Byzantine-influenced champlevé (copper filled with enamel), to the later, especially seventeenth- and eighteenth-century work that used a far greater range of colours and indulged in elaborate virtuoso portraiture. By the nineteenth century, however, the spirit and vigour had dissipated, and although there are contemporary artisans in the city using the medium, their work, too – judging from this display – is not much more successful. There's also an exhibition of the wartime Resistance (same hours; free) housed in an outbuilding opposite the museum's main entrance.

Outside, the well-laid-out and interesting botanical garden (daily sunrise to sunset; free) is an inviting prospect, descending gracefully towards the River Vienne. In the garden's northern corner an old refectory now houses the excellent Cité des Métiers et des Arts (Easter–May & Oct Wed, Sat & Sun 2–6pm; June–Sept daily 10.30am–1pm & 2.30–7pm; closed Nov to Easter; €4) displaying pieces – mostly carpentry – by France's top crafts' guild members.

Over to the west of the cathedral is the partly renovated old quarter of the town. Make your way through to rue de la Boucherie, for a thousand years the domain of the butchers' guild, and today featuring several good restaurants. The dark, cluttered chapel of St-Aurélien, with a delicate fourteenth-century cross outside, belongs to them, while one of their former shophouses makes an interesting little museum, the Maison de la Boucherie, at no. 36 (July to mid-Sept daily 10am–1pm & 3–7pm; free). At the top of the street is the market in place de la Motte and, to the right, partly hidden by adjoining houses, the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century church of St-Michel-des-Lions, named after the two badly weathered Celtic lions guarding the south door and topped by one of the best towers and spires in the region. The inside is dark and atmospheric, with two beautiful, densely coloured fifteenth-century windows either side of the choir.

From place de la Motte, rue du Clocher leads to rue Jean-Jaurès, with the post office a couple of blocks up to the left. Straight across, rue St-Martial leads past place de la République – where the fourth-century crypt of the long-vanished Abbey of St-Martial (July–Sept daily 9.30am–noon & 2.30–7pm; free), containing the saint's massive sarcophagus, was discovered during building operations in the 1960s – to the church of St-Pierre-du-Queyroix under another typically Limousin belfry. The interior, partly twelfth-century (the exterior was remodelled in the sixteenth century), gains a sombre strength from the massive round pillars which still support the roof. Like the cathedral, it has a slightly pink granite glow. There's more fine stained glass here, including a fine window at the end of the south aisle depicting the Dormition of the Virgin, signed by the great enamel artist Jean Pénicault in 1510.

Limoges is renowned the world over for its porcelain, a craft well represented in the Musée Adrien-Dubouché (daily except Tues: July & Aug 10am–5.45pm; Sept–June 10am–12.30pm & 2–5.45pm; €4), west of the old quarter on place Winston-Churchill. The collection includes samples of the local product and china displays from around the world, as well as various celebrity services ordered for the likes of Napoléon Bonaparte, Charles and Di, and sundry French royals. The exhibits are well laid out, with explanatory panels describing the processes for making the different wares, and form a much more interesting display than you might expect.


Pages in section ‘The City’: Information, Restaurants, Festivals, Around Limoges.

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