The Independent Traveler's Newsletter                                         PAGE THREE

Stonemasons of the Creuse
                                                                                                                                  by Wanda Glowinska-Rizzi

                                         See the Panthéon, 
                                           See the Tuileries,
                                           The Louvre and the Odéon,
                                            The Palace of Industry.
                                             Of all these monuments 
                                              France can be very proud
                                               As she owes all these ornaments
                                                To the stonemasons of the Creuse.
                                                                                             from  Song of the Creuse Stonemasons
                                                                                                                      by Jean Petit (translated from the French)

It is said in the Creuse Department of the Limousin in central southwest France that their stonemasons built Paris.  And, as the song above indicates,  they certainly had a hand in building some of the most important structures to be found in the capital.  For most of the 19th century at the beginning of March thousands of men and young boys would leave their homes in the hands of their wives, daughters and those too old to work and walk 400 kilometers to Paris, returning at the end of November.  Working and living conditions were appalling, but it was a choice between sending money home to the family or staying and watching it die through starvation. 

Evidence of their expertise gained in Paris can be found everywhere in the Creuse. The typical granite houses are solidly built and wood was used only for windows or the odd lintel or two.  Even the outbuildings were made with the same care,  and some have sculpted doorways or a carving over the entrance. The village of Masgot is a perfect example of this gone to extremes!  At the end of the 19th century, François Michaud, a self-taught stone cutter, decorated his house, barns and gate posts with naïve sculptures:  Napoleon, a chimera, fantastic animals and people.  Fortunately,  much of it has survived and delights thousand of visitors each year.

Everyone knows of the Loire with its magnificent châteaux,  and the Creuse cannot compete for a number of reasons. The Château de Villemonteixcountryside is much hillier,  and most of the châteaux were built for defense rather than pleasure.  Also, the département was much poorer,  so buildings were practical and reflected the agricultural nature of the region. The kings of France at the time of Versailles were not interested in this backwater.  However, there is a surprising number of châteaux, manors, abbeys and estates that dot the area, some dating as far back as the 6th century.

Perhaps though, a brief history of the region might be in order so that the Creuse's architectural heritage may be situated in time.  The former name of the Creuse was 'La Marche' which has been occupied since prehistory as the many dolmens and standing stones attest.  Before the Roman conquest it was occupied by the Lemovices and owed its name to the frontier separating the Lemovices from the Romans: la Marchia Lemovicina.  It then became part of the Visigoth's territory in 419. Between 571 and 951 the area was ravaged by plagues, Saracens, Normans and Hungarians.  After this it was passed from feudal lord to feudal lord as France suffered during a period of loose leadership.  In 1177 it came to the English kings,  and Richard III gave it to Hugh de Lusignan,  but in 1316 his granddaughter ceded it to King Philippe le Bel.  This feudal atmosphere meant that castles and fortified villages were needed as seen by Crozant, one of the most important fortifications of the Middle Ages in central France (now in ruins).

In 1327 Louis de Bourbon exchanged it for Clermont and started a long line of Bourbon Marche Counts.  However, in 1477 Eleonore was executed on the order of Louis XVI,  and the region was confiscated from the family.  Again it passed from family to family as it was taken by the king and given as a reward for loyalty.  At the end of the Hundred Years War, Louis XVI encouraged the rebuilding of France,  and it was during the brief period between 1480 and 1500 that in the Creuse many of the small châteaux were built and existing châteaux were modified.  In 1545, Charles Duc d'Orleans died childless and the area passed out of national ownership. 

Two World Wars and poverty ravaged the département far more than the Revolution ever did. During the 20th century the population greatly decreased as the young were either killed as soldiers or left to find work. 

Before the Creuse stonemasons, two very important factors greatly contributed to the département's architectural heritage: Aubusson and Felletin and their internationally famous tapestries and the St Jacques de Compostelle pilgrim route that has crossed the Limousin since before the Middle Ages. The tapestry towns were wealthy until wallpaper was invented, and the area surrounding them shows this. Also, a great number of churches and abbeys were built along the St Jacques route and were decorated with the route's shell symbol. This symbol can be found on many buildings other than churches and even on furniture made in the region.

Many of these buildings and towns have survived the passage of time and are worth visiting:

  • Boussac -  magnificent 11th to 15th century château where the famous medieval tapestries 'La Dame et la Licorne' were discovered by George Sand.
  • Moutier d'Ahun -  ancient Benedictine abbey with notable 17th century woodwork and in the village a 9th century bridge.
  • La Souterraine -  medieval town built on a Gallo-Roman villa with streets and houses from the Middle Ages and a 11th and 13th century church constructed over a crypt with the remains of a Gallo-Roman place of worship.
  • Chambon-sur-Voueize -  Norman abbey one of the largest Norman constructions in Limousin and a 13th century bell tower on two levels.
  • Bourganeuf - old regional capital of the Hospitaliers of St John of Jerusalem, remains of a 12th century château, 15th century Zizim Tower,  and church St Jean (12th to 15th century) containing the former chapel of the Commanderie.
  • Villemonteix (see photo) -  15th century château with a central donjon, containing furniture and tapestries from Aubusson and Felletin. Still lived in today.
  • Bénevent l'Abbaye - 12th collegial abbey particularly representative of Limousin art on the St Jacques de Compostelle route.
  • Theret - typical defensive 15th century château with a moat modified in 16th century with fountains and canals.
  • Masgot - small village sculpted by François Michaud a 19th century stone worker.
  • Felletin - spectacular medieval frescoes in the church.
  • Prébenoît Abbey - Cistercian abbey,  12th and 18th century with chapel ruins.
  • Puy Lautard - Gallo-Roman sanctuary.
  • Banizette -  a collection of 15th and 17th century rural buildings unique in Limousin with implements and furniture showing how the owners lived.
There are,  of course,  many more and too many to list.  Around almost every corner there is something to see albeit a fortified church, a menhir or a simple stone cross rubbed smooth by centuries of wind and rain.  Exploring the département is like going on a treasure hunt.  Fortunately,  many of the building owners are willing to open their treasures to the public. The best way of finding out what there is to see is to contact any local tourist office (see below). Alternatively,  you can contact me, Wanda Glowinska-Rizzi, the English Press Agent for the Creuse Departmental Tourist Board at

The above article is the second in a series by Wanda Glowinska-Rizzi, the English Press Agent 
for the Creuse Departmental Tourist Board at 
Write or visit Le Comité Départementale du Tourisme de la Creuse 
43, place Bonnyaud BP 243, 23005 Guéret Cedex, France 
Telephone:   33 (0)   Fax:  33 (0) 
Email:   Web Site:

[Photos copyrighted property of the Creuse Tourist Board and Wanda Glowinska-Rizzi.]

ARGOT:  Parlez-vous French Slang?
                                                                                                                                       by Arthur Gillette

You’ve got a couple of years of high school French under your belt and generally manage without a major problem, when in France, to tell a taxi driver your destination, order a meal and buy a train ticket.

Ah, but when you’re invited to sup with a French family or business colleagues, suddenly. . . zilch! You can hardly make heads or tails of what they’re talking about!

That’s because, particularly if you’re dealing with pre-seniors, they’re lapsing into slang, known as argot ~ a very special jargon, now widespread but originally a coded lingo used by petty criminals so the cops wouldn’t understand what they were talking about.  In Dickens’s London, Cockney rhyming slang served much the same purpose.  Even within earshot of a bobby, the thief in a crowd could safely urge an accomplice to “try that gent’s hickory-dickory-docket” = pocket.

In France a century earlier, un argot was a band of gueux ~ thugs, vagabonds. That meaning has been lost,  but we're left with a descriptor referring to their parlance, regularly added to since. To ease your linguistic landing, FRANCE On Your Own offers you a few introductory tips, with etymology, on current (although often ancient-rooted) argot.

Some of its colloquial imagery derives (or has been corrupted from) very concrete situations or expressions, often no longer extant in spoken or written French.  Examples: faire un bide (make a belly = “be a flop”) refers to little-appreciated actors having to leave the stage sliding on their stomachs.  Tomber dans les pommes (fall in the apples = “pass out”) is a corruption from the 11th-century-rooted and now-rare pâmoison, faint.  And,  être paumé (be palmed = “lost” or “down and out”) simply means to have been slapped. 

Some words have evolved from the same root to give very different slang expressions.  Dating at least back to the 16th century, the radical bob (“swell” or “swollen” – from which English got “bobbin”) gave la bombance (“mega feast”) and le bobard (“tall story”).

Although by and large a uniquely French phenomenon, l’argot does seem to have at least occasionally crossed The Channel (but which way?)  ~ mettre une puce à l’oreille (“tip off”) would seem to be an almost word-for-word cousin of the English “get a flea in one's ear.”

Despite the mainly urban cast of much current argot, many of its terms have rural ancestry. Thus prendre son pied ("take one's foot = “have a great time”) descends from the pre-metric. . . “foot”, a measure of oats that sated a ravenous donkey;  sauter du coq à l’âne (jump from cock to donkey = “skip from one subject to another”) was originally coq à cane, cock to duck ~ i.e., two different kinds of fowl; and ménanger chèvre et chou (deal tactfully with goat and cabbage = “refrain from entering into an argument or conflict”) refers to the “eater” and the “eaten”.

Major categories of daily life are predictably expressed in argot. Food is one (hey, we're in France!) ~  la tambouille (“simple fare”) is a contraction of the 19th century pot en bouille – a pot of stew; bouffer, la bouffetance ( “to eat”, “food”) come from a 15th century word meaning “blow out one's cheeks”; and the root of becqueter (“chow down”) is simply bec = “beak”.

Then comes clothing: although the origins of such terms as falzar (“trousers”) and grolles (“shoes”) are unclear, une liquette (“a shirt”) seems to be a diminutive of the Medieval lime (“lemon” – perhaps a reference to the plant's leaves?).   Money? You can call it le pèze from peser (“to weigh”) or le flouze, from the Arabic el-Flouss, which means. . . money.   Indeed, given the long and not-always-conflictual relationship between France and the Arab-speaking world, it is not surprising that much argot has its roots there. Thus,  un klebs or un klébard stems from Kleb, all meaning “dog”; le toubib (“medical doctor”) comes from the Algerian tbib (“sorcerer” or “healer”); and  un bled (“village”) and le cahoa (“coffee”) are practically the same in both French slang and Arabic.

The list could go on at length, but maybe we'll stop here with this initiation argotique.  Don’t hesitate to try some of these expressions when next in France; and if you get a puzzled glance in response, simply ask “Vous ne pigez pas?” = “You don't catch it?” Fair enough since the root of piger is the Latin pedica = “trap.”

Former Editor-in-Chief of UNESCO’s Museum magazine, Arthur now guides 
strictly private strolls to enable visitors to discover Paris Through The Ages
along 16 itineraries mainly in, but some near, the French capital.
For more information, contact him on
Oh, and please don't forget to mention FRANCE On Your Own.


page two  previous page                            next pagepage four