29th February 2016
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Adventures Abroad, Part Five
Stuart Urquhart's Triumph Bonneville starts to run out of rubber, and the classic motorcycle riding travellers encounter a haunting site from World War 2...
Day 8: Bergerac to Limoges. 86 miles
We planned a short ride so we could meet up with Graham (who’d missed most of the trip), somewhere near the famous village of Oradour-sur-Glane, whose population was brutally massacred by the Nazis during the occupation of France in June 1944. I was looking forward to visiting Oradour as I remembered my horror at watching the atrocity on the BBC’s excellent series ‘The World at War’.
In the early afternoon we were reunited with Graham in Oradour’s new town centre. It was a warm reunion and we were eager to learn of Graham’s breakdown before we enthusiastically discussed our own experiences of The Pyrenees. I mentioned that the mileage was scrubbing away the last remnants of any legal tread from the Bonneville’s rear tyre. To my relief, Graham said that he’d passed a Triumph dealer on his way to our meeting. I could scarcely believe my luck as I was becoming concerned that finding a tyre for the Bonneville could prove extremely hard in France – but tomorrow we could plan a visit to the dealer by using the Satnav.
Now eager to explore we peeled off our bike gear and trotted over to Oradour’s museum, the first stage of entry before visitors can access the ruined village. Here we learned that it was General de Gaulle who had ordered that Oradour-sur-Glane should be preserved as a stark reminder to future generations about the savagery of war.
The entry into Oradour-sur-Glane is down a series of colossal iron steps that are enclosed by rusting monolithic walls – quite a foreboding experience. The sensation is heightened by large ‘SILENCE’ signs on entrance walls and throughout the preserved village. As you pass through the museum’s reception you trigger an audio-visual presentation; however this doesn’t quite prepare you for the bleak reality of entering the ruined village itself. The heat was oppressive, but more so was the sight of rusted and abandoned period cars, bicycles, bed-frames, stoves, sewing-machines, kid’s scooters, prams and other life-enhancing objects that litter the streets and burned-out shells of Oradour’s houses.
I was struck by the sheer scale of destruction and I could see the horror etched on the faces of other visitors who were respectfully and silently walking from house to house, trying to comprehend the tragedy. The only sounds we could hear were the soft clicking of camera shutters, the twittering of overhead swifts and a cuckoo calling in the distance. The only ‘inhabitants’ we encountered were small lizards that scurried back and forth from the shadows of rusting cars and fallen masonry. ‘The silence was deafening’, and I found it a particularly eerie experience. Even the town’s overhead electrical cables and rusting tram rails were perfectly intact. There is a ghostly presence here, so haunting and powerful is the trauma of walking through this silent monument.
The village church is perhaps the most tragic site. Here the SS (3rd Company SS Der Führer Regiment Panzer Division) gathered women and children and machine-gunned them down beneath the church’s altar. Only a rusting pram remains as testament to the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent villagers. Men from the village suffered a similar fate at other locations; many who survived the shootings were rounded up and horrifically burned alive in a barn. According to the few survivors, villagers were gathered in the pretence of checking identity papers and none suspected the terrible fate that awaited them. So efficient were the round ups, it was fortunate that anyone escaped to expose the SS regiment’s treachery and merciless genocide. However six villagers escaped – one woman by jumping 20 feet from the church window (Madam Marguerite Rouffanche), along with five men who managed to hide in various locations throughout the village – one by hiding inside a rabbit hutch.
The preserved village of Oradour is a harrowing and emotional experience that visitors will never forget.
Day 9: Limoges to St Leonard-des-Bois. 246 miles
After the experience of Oradour, the city of Limoges really had very little to offer, but we managed a visit to the Triumph dealer who kindly shod my Bonneville with a new tyre to for a very reasonable 87 Euros. Unfortunately, we then discovered that Limoges was CLOSED for business due to a national holiday. That evening we unsuccessfully scoured the city in search of a decent restaurant, only to end up dining at Subway!
In order to reach the proximity of Normandy, this day demanded a long, 250 mile ride to St Leonard-des-Bois, located within the Normandy Natural Park. The monotony of the drive was only broken by swaps on Graham’s Harley – mega fun for me!
Our overnight stop at St Leonard-des-Bois was another blinding ‘find’, where an evening stroll along a spectacular river gorge turned out to be a walk through paradise. Metallic blue-green dragonflies buzzed the river banks in the warm evening sunshine, and as I walked down by the gently flowing river, I was startled by beams of brilliant silver as if someone was flashing a mirror below the water. It was a Harry Potter moment, and I imagined water nymphs with powerful torches were about to break the surface. Aided by Polaroid sunglasses, I crept stealthily closer to investigate the source of the underwater flashes. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the rippling waters I could see shoals of large trout, lazily turning on their sides as they bottom fed, and when they flipped over their silver flanks reflected beams of sunlight that highlighted their unmistakable form. I was amazed.
Walking back up the main street, I came across my three companions returning from a local bar appropriately named ‘The Beer Cave’. At Ray’s own admission of feeling ‘very tipsy’, I insisted it was my round. Entrenched once again within The Beer Cave we enjoyed a warm and relaxing evening sitting on the bar’s veranda, sampling ‘ga ga’ beers, as appropriately tagged by Ray. We had a fun night, but more surprising – clear heads the next morning.
Next time: the Normandy beaches and home…
For more information about Oradour-sur-Glane during WW2, see: www.oradour.info
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