Tranquille Vienne Gites

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ROCHECHOUART, a beautiful little walled town roughly 45km west of Limoges, has two claims to fame. Two hundred million years ago it was the site of impact of one of the largest meteorites ever to hit earth, a monster 1.5km in diameter and some 6000 million tonnes in weight. The traces of this cosmic calamity still attract the curiosity of astronomers, though the only evidence that a layman might notice is the unusual-looking breccia stone many of the region's older buildings are made of: the squashed, shattered, heat-transformed and reconstituted result of the collision. A small museum in town, the Espace Meteorite Paul Pellas, 16 rue Jean Parvy (summer Mon–Fri 10am–12.30pm & 1.30–6pm, Sat & Sun 2–6pm; rest of year daily 2–6pm; tel, //; €3) attempts to uncover the history of the meteorite with artists' impressions, an interactive model and a collection of other space debris which has reached the Earth.

One building using the stone from the impact is Rochechouart's other source of pride: the handsome Château that stands at the town's edge. It started life as a rough fortress before 1000 AD, was "modernized" in the thirteenth century (the sawn-off keep and entrance survive from this period) and civilized with Renaissance decoration and additions in the fifteenth. Until it was acquired as the mairie in 1832, it had belonged to the de Rochechouart family for 800 years. Today it houses not only the town hall, but also the very well-regarded and adventurous Musée Départemental d'Art Contemporain (daily except Tues: March–Sept 10am–12.30pm & 1.30–6pm, Oct to mid-Dec 10am–12.30pm & 2–5pm; closed mid-Dec to Feb; €4.60), with an important collection of works by the Dadaist Raoul Haussman, who died in Limoges in 1949. In another room decorated with its original sixteenth-century frescoes of the Labours of Hercules, the British artist, Richard Long, has made a special installation of white stones, while in the garden Guiseppe Penone's metal sculpture grapples with a tree.

The Rochechouart tourist office is at 6 rue Victor-Hugo (mid-June to mid-Sept daily 10am–12.30pm & 3–6.30pm; mid-Sept to mid-June Mon–Sat 10am–noon & 2.30–5.30pm; tel Should you wish to stay, the Hôtel de France, just outside the old town centre on place Octave-Marquet (tel, fax; €30–40; restaurant closed Sun eve & Mon lunch), provides comfortable lodgings and interesting food from €11. The same proprietors run another recommended restaurant, La Vallée de la Gorre (tel; closed Mon & Sun & Tues eve; from €11), in nearby ST-AUVENT.

One side trip worth making if you have come this far is to the Roman baths 5km along the Chabanais road at CHASSENON (daily guided tours: April, May & mid-Sept to mid-Nov 2–4.45pm; June to mid-Sept 10–11.15am & 2–6.15pm; €4.58). The site, known as Cassinomagus in Gallo-Roman times, stood at an important crossroads on the Via Agrippa, the Roman road that connected Lyon to Saintes via Clermont-Ferrand and Limoges. Only the baths survive: a grand temple and theatre were destroyed for their breccia stone. But the baths alone are ample testimony to the magnificence of the place. There are hot and cold pools with some of the original floor tiles in places, and waterproof plastering, boiler rooms and elaborate hypocaust piping systems; you can even see the marks of the shuttering used to make the vaults in some of the subterranean passages.

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