Poitiers – what to see & do in this historic town
Poitiers, an historic town in south-west France, is simply dripping with memories of hard fought battles and the pomp and ceremony of French royalty. French queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, annulled her marriage to Louis VII to marry King Henry II of England, and they established their court here in Poitiers. Joan of Arc tried to claim the city as did Richard the Lion Heart, and in the Hundred Years War, the Battle of Poitiers is ranked with Agincourt as one of England’s great victories against France.
Today Poitiers is rather less turbulent but with a charm and tourist attractions that makes it one of the loveliest towns in the Poitou-Charentes. Its population is just 85,000 but with around one quarter of them university students – Poitiers University dates back to 1431 and counts French philosopher René Descartes and English painter Francis Bacon amongst its former students – it is always lively.
Poitiers is a town to stroll around at leisure. From tree-lined Place Mar Leclerc that is filled with cafés in the summer (at Christmas it becomes an ice-skating ring) meander through cobbled, pedestrianised streets flanked by a mix of centuries-old architecture and half-timbered houses, many of which have been transformed into lovely little boutique shops.
At Place Charles-de-Gaulle, there are more cafes and restaurants as well as the daily covered market which is on every day, plus a bric-a-brac one on Friday and Saturday mornings. The place is also the home of the Notre-Dame-la-Grande church (pictured above), one of the town’s star attractions.
What to see and do in Poitiers
Notre-Dame-la-Grande: this 11th century church was started during the reign of Eleanor of Aquitaine and is renowned throughout France. Of particular interest is its intricately detailed Romanesque facade on the west front which was added in the mid-12th century. Flanked by pine cone shaped turrets – trademark Romanesque architecture of the region – it is in three tiers. The bottom one, known as The Drama of the Prophets, is based on a fifth-century sermon and follows the story of Christianity from the time of Adam and Eve to the birth of Christ – see baby Jesus have a bath while Joseph and sheep look on! The middle tier shows the ‘Word of God’ being spread by the Twelve Apostles while the top tier celebrates Christ in his glory (sadly, Jesus is headless now). The church gleams white thanks to a thorough restoration in 1996. Interestingly the majority of damage was caused by salt from the nearby market seeping into the ground and up the facade. Every night during the summer ( June -September ), the facade of the church is lit in a myriad of bright colours showing what it would have looked like when first built.
Palais de Justice: it may have a 19th century facade but go inside, past the modern law courts, to see the Romanesque great hall where the Dukes of Aquitaine, including Richard the Lionheart, strutted their stuff. Joan of Arc was here too – questioned by the local bishops before they gave her their blessing. Take the stairs for a superb view of the town.
Place Alphonse Lepetit Cathédrale St-Pierre: walk down the hill to the 12th century cathedral whose main claim to fame is that it has one of the oldest stained glass windows in France. Built over the ruins of a Roman basilica, construction began in 1162 under the direction of Henry II of England and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine although it was finally completed much later in a Gothic style. Make sure you see the east window which is said to have been donated by Henry and Eleanor themselves.
Place de la Cathedrale Baptistère St-Jean: dating back to the 4th century it is thought to be the oldest Christian building in France, built so that baptisms no longer had to be done in the river Clain. It was added to over the centuries and then abandoned in 1791 during the revolution. Confiscated from the church it was sold to a private citizen who used it as a warehouse. Saved from demolition by the public, it was repurchased by the church in the 19th century and excavated and restored in the middle of the 20th. Of particular interest are the octagonal tank and sixth century frescoes.
Musée Saint-Croix: if you’ve had enough of sacred buildings (let’s face it, they can get a bit overwhelming after a while) next door to the Baptistere is this fine museum. As well as archeological exhibits, it has paintings by Alfred Sisley, Eugène Boudin and Piet Mondrian as well as works by Rodin and Camille Claudel. 3 bis rue Jean Jaures.
Parc de Blossac: take a walk along tree-lined paths in this lovely park that was originally created in the 18th century by the Count of Blossac on what was a Roman settlement. Beautifully landscaped in classic French style it also includes an English style rose garden as well as a grotto, ornamental lake and pavilion, and a small zoo with monkeys, deer and birds. From the park are lovely views of the Clain valley. Rue L. Thézard. Open from April 15 – October 15: 7am – 10.30pm (English garden closes at 8pm); from October 15 – April 15: 6.45am – 9.30pm (English garden closes at dusk).
Tourist attractions near Poitiers
Futuroscope: the high-tech film and science theme park with towering cinema pavilions set in landscaped, fountain-filled gardens (the latter are the focus of a sunset laser show). Read more…
Chauvigny: a market town with a huge and bustling market – one of the region’s best – close to the river on Saturdays and above it, the old town with its five medieval castles, museum, and highly decorated church. The views are great too. Read more about the market…
Tourist office: 45 Place Charles de Gaulle; www.ot-poitiers.fr
Accommodation: search for hotels and B&Bs in Poitiers
Where to eat: search restaurant and cafés in Poitiers.
Travel: Poitiers airport is just a short drive away from the centre of town (taxis available) and the TGV from Paris takes about 90 minutes.
On the history trail
Words: Michael STREETER
Photos: Claudio Giovanni Colombo @ Shutterstock