Poitiers: When expectations are low, cities are often great!

Lovely architecture at Place Charles de Gaulle in the middle of Poitiers Lovely architecture at Place Charles de Gaulle in the middle of Poitiers

I honestly wasn’t expecting much when we decided to visit Poitiers. My mum was in her final few days of visiting us from Australia, so we decided to get out of the house and visit somewhere close by. Given we’d never been to Poitiers before, that was where we went. Sarah and I had been on the outskirts of the city before, where there are large warehouse style department stores lining an ugly highway. That’s no disrespect to Poitiers, every city has these sorts of areas, including my home town of Melbourne. But because this was my only taste of Poitiers before, my expectations were quite low. However, to my surprise I thought Poitiers was very attractive and lots of fun.

We arrived mid-morning (freezing as usual) and made our way to the Tourist Office in the middle of town, as we usually do when visiting somewhere new. One thing we’ve noticed about French cities and towns is the difficulty driving through the middle where buildings can be quite tight and pedestrians are everywhere. I missed the underground carpark outside the Tourist Office by a fraction of a second, and it took me 20 minutes to get back due to the one way streets and maze-like traffic system. If you thought driving around Sydney, Melbourne or other Australian cities was difficult with all of their one way streets, think again. We’ve since found out that a lot of French towns have deliberately made their inner-city streets difficult to navigate to deter people from driving there. La Rochelle is the worst we’ve come across so far, but Poitiers have done a good job creating a traffic flow that would frustrate the most laid-back Buddhist monk. Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski would go bat shit crazy driving on these roads!

We finally made our way to the Tourist Office and grabbed a map of the city. The map has three walking tours marked out in different coloured lines, with each route taking in a different section of the city (or two):

  • Episcopal District – Takes in a number of the cities major buildings, such as Saint-Pierre Cathedral and Saint-Jean Baptistry, with half-timbered houses with narrow freestone façades and fine town mansions lining Grand Rue.
  • Montierneuf District – Discover squares, churches (such as the church of Saint-Jean-de-Montierneuf) and stately town houses in this picturesque district.
  • Saint-Hilaire District – Combines historical architecture from as far back as 10 centuries ago, with the cities very modern buildings. You’ll take in the famous church of Saint-Hilaire on this route.
  • Ville Moderne (Modern City) – Discover buildings designed and erected since the 19th century, which for Europeans is quite recent, but for Australians like me, is still very old!!!

What was even better was the coloured lines marked on the map were replicated on the city streets themselves, making it easy to follow the designated route without the constant need to have your face buried in the map. I think this is a great idea, and while I’m sure most places would rather not have painted lines all over the footpaths of their city, I am a big fan. It also made life easier with Jack, because now that he’s so old (he’s two) and has to walk by himself, we just told him to follow the line and he was happy.

Jack walking on the self-guided walking tour lines on the roads - Poitiers

Jack walking on the self-guided walking tour lines on the roads – Poitiers

Here’s a few places we saw on our journey around Poitiers:

Baptistère Saint-Jean

In my humble opinion the Baptisère Saint-Jean isn’t the most attractive site in Poitiers, but it’s certainly one of the oldest dating back to the fourth century. The Baptistry of St John is one of the oldest Christian monuments in Europe, has an octagonal baptismal pool and beautiful murals from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.

Baptistère Saint-Jean (left) - Poitiers

Baptistère Saint-Jean (left) – Poitiers

Cathédral Saint-Pierre

Poitiers Cathedral actually began on the orders of Henry II of England in 1162, on the ruins of an old Roman Basilica, and is where the Archbishop of Poitiers presides. It’s a nice big old Catholic Church, but if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all (yes this is a gross generalisation, but I’m sticking to it).

Cathedrale Sainte Pierre - Poitiers

Cathedrale Sainte Pierre – Poitiers

Église Notre-Dame-La-Grande

Another ancient Church first mentioned in history books in the 10th century. The front entrance on the western side of the building is considered a masterpiece of Roman religious art, and is adorned with all manner of statues. Legend has it in 1202 the Mayor’s Clerk was going to commit treason by giving the keys to the city to the English who were ready to attack outside. When the Clerk went to steal the keys from the Mayor in the middle of the night they were already gone, and the Mayor was shocked that an act of treason had been committed (not realising the Clerk had come to do just that). So he went to Notre-Dame-La-Grande in the middle of the night to request a miracle, only to discover the statue of the Virgin Mary holding the keys. During the night, the Virgin Mary, Saint Hilary and Saint Radegunda all appeared where the English were camped, so of course they all starting killing each other from fear and madness before fleeing. Sounds perfectly reasonable, the only problem being of course it doesn’t stand up against actual historical evidence or proof. But when has that ever stopped the Church from telling stories like this through the ages, making stained glass windows and statues in its honour, and holding a solemn procession every year after until 1887!

Notre Dame le Grande Church - Poitiers

Notre Dame le Grande Church – Poitiers

The Palais de Justice

The former Palace of the Counts of Poitiers (where they reigned in the 10th century) and where the Dukes of Aquitaine ruled from in the 12th century, it became a judicial institution in the early 1400’s.  It’s a great example of architecture from the Middle Ages.

Palace of the Counts of Poitiers

Palace of the Counts of Poitiers

Hôtel de Ville

A lovely building in a really nice part of town. The Hôtel de Ville was just one part of a vast urban renovation program that took place in the 1860’s and 1870’s. Located at the wide open Place du Marechal Leclerc, its construction coincided with that of the nearby Prefecture and Rue Victor Hugo.

Hötel de Ville - Poitiers

Hötel de Ville – Poitiers

Èglise Saint-Hilaire-Le-Grande

Dating back to the 11th century, the church is named after the first known Bishop of Poitiers, Saint Hilare, who was buried on the site in 367 or 368. It’s a sanctuary for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela.

The Prefecture

At the other end of Rue Victor Hugo from the Hôtel de Ville, the Prefecture was built in true Parisian style from 1864-1868.

There are loads of other sites, monuments, museums, theatres and other cultural attractions to see when you visit Poitiers. The pedestrianised area in the middle of town is great to just walk around It also is home to France’s second largest theme park, Futuroscope (behind Disneyland Paris), dedicated to multimedia, cinema (including 3D and 4D cinematic experiences), audio-visual experiences and robotics.

I don’t know if you’ll like Poitiers as much as I did, but like I mentioned at the beginning, perhaps it was initial low expectations that was the key to a great experience.

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