Tootlafrance follows the Geo-cache tourist trail in Limousin's captial Limoges
Geocaching was invented by some wily Americans who wanted to test the accuracy of the new satellite GPS system by placing a box of items of no particular importance in the middle of nowhere, posting the co-ordinates online and seeing how long it would take people to find it.
Elevan years later, the treasure hunt has become a global phenomenon and the central French region of Limousin has developed its own twist on this phenomenon, calling it Terra Aventura.
Limousin is an exceptionally beautiful region. Forget any notions that you might have of inland France being flat and uninteresting. This is rich green undulating countryside at its very best and where foreign tourists are still relatively rare.
The region’s beauty attracted a slew of impressionist painters in their day – always a good sign as the impressionists were known to have a good eye for natural beauty. Limousin has some seriously beautiful urban areas too, with no fewer than six of their villages featuring on France’s Les Plus Beaux Villages de France list. Ireland doesn’t have many contacts with Limousin, apart from the importation of the local Limousine breed of cattle that began 40 years ago. They tend to be the dominant breed in these parts too, lending the countryside a certain familiar and false “Irish” air about it.We were an Irish family of five based just outside the regional capital of Limoges. As experienced “geo-cachers” at home, we were keen to see what Terra Aventura had to offer. On the advice of our landlady, we opted for the more historically-oriented of the two treasure-hunt options available in Limoges. It was called “Émail” – nothing whatsoever to do with the modern means of posting letters for free via computers, it’s the French word for enamel and the enamel business has been at the centre of Limoges’ commercial, cultural and artistic life since the 12th century.
You can download directions for each cache directly onto your smart phone but we figured that it would be smarter still to print out the 3-page document and go around with a pen and our trusty sat-nav that had brought us to Limousin in the first place.
For each clue, the co-ordinates are given. It’s then a matter of keying them into the sat-nav and off you go. We started off at the Musée des Beaux Arts. The entrance was modern but it leads you under the courtyard to a more classical building where the majority of the works are held. For such a relatively modest-sized town, it’s an impressive building and collection by any standards.The children, however, were growing restless as three teenage boys under a warm sun are wont to do and they demanded to know where the next clue was.
We followed the co-ordinates across a wide plaza to the church of St Etienne. “How many people are stoning St Etienne?” the clue asked, referring to some statues above the main entrance door.
We scribbled down our answer and keyed in the next co-ordinates. “In 50 metres, turn left. Then arrive at destination. On left,” said the sat-nav in its usual unemotional nasal whine that always prompts one of my sons to imitate it.
It brought us to the Maison d’Émail on Boulevard de la Cité for the next clue. It’s essentially a large enamel shop that also doubles as an enamel information centre, complete with panels, exhibitions and a short film on enamel manufacturing.
Two clues later, we were in the heart of the Limoges’ mediaeval quarter, surrounded on all sides by half-timbered houses and cobbled streets.
This was one that stumped us. It required translating a set of Roman numerals from the front of the tiny church before us into modern-day numbers and then adding the digits together to get our answer.
Having three school-going children on the team wasn’t the advantage that I had hoped it would be in these circumstances. We knew that “M” was a thousand and that “L” was fifty. Or was it forty?
After stopping at a café for French colas all round, a sugar-rush to the brain seemed to do the trick and we got there. It was a big help to discover that the date in Roman numerals referred not to the fifth century but to the fifth centenary of the founding of the church.
The next clue brought us to a very posh-looking part of town where many 19th-century townhouses were built and to the square known as “Enamel-makers’ Square”. It was a straightforward question of what century enamel artist Pierre Courteys lived in and the answer was on the street sign indicating the street named after him.With the end in sight, we breezed through the following clue that led us to the impressive Gothic Church of St Michel-des-Lions on the very inviting city-centre mini square of Place St Michel. Counting the two well-worn Gallo-Roman lion statues guarding the entrance presented no mathematical challenges.
A short walk away, we were in an atmospheric courtyard sandwiched between two pedestrian streets; a charming spot that you would hardly suspect existed if circumstances hadn’t brought you there. Following the clue, we discovered the location of a QR code which would lead us to the final number in the puzzle and, thus, was the key to the full co-ordinates of the location of the answer.
Alas, none of us had a scanner to read the code, so the clue was unreadable. You can download a scanner for free onto your smart phone, but that required broadband access. You would also need broadband access for the code to open up the web page once you scanned it. With no broadband available locally, the trail ran dry.
I had noticed the boys’ enthusiasm levels mounting as the day went on. They said they didn’t mind too much that we couldn’t finish it but that they had enjoyed following the clues around town. I knew that if we had hired a tour guide, the effect on the children would have been widespread moaning and other noisy expressions of boredom. But with the Terra Aventura way, although we had technically “failed” in our quest, we had almost inadvertently been given an enamel-themed tour of the most important historical sites and buildings of Limoges without following a guide and without spending any money either.
It just goes to show that in geocaching, as in life, it’s not the destination that’s important, but what you find along the way.
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Get Yourself There
With no direct flights from Ireland to Limousin, it’s a place best discovered by car. Brittany Ferries run a weekly service from Cork to Roscoff (6.5 hour drive). Alternatively, you can fly into Paris with Aer Lingus and hire a car to make the journey down (3.5 hours).
We stayed in a B&B in the countryside just outside Limoges. B&B Clos Gigondas (www.closgigondas.com) is in a thoroughly rural and peaceful setting in mediaeval-themed rooms in an extended farmhouse surrounded by trees, horses and friendly dogs. For the more adventurous, the inventive and charming hosts Ariel and Catherine also provide accommodation in a wooden cow (sic) and a swimming pool and hot tub are at the disposal of guests. Nightly room rates with breakfast are from about €55 per person or €70 per couple.
Terra Aventura (www.terra-aventura.fr) has 60 caches categorized into 12 different themes (gastronomic, mediaeval, nature, etc.) hidden throughout Limousin (www.tourismelimousin.com). It’s the only regional board in France with an official tourist geocaching game on a regional scale. The tourism board of the eastern French town of Mâcon has a similar game (Géotrésor, www.macon-tourisme.com) based on the town and its outskirts.