www.poitiers-tourisme.com. The ancient capital of Poitou, which takes its name from the Gaulish Pictones, Poitiers is now essentially a market town – and a pleasant stopover.
North of the spacious, tree-lined place du Maréchal-Leclerc, the busy, semi-pedestrianized shopping district gathers around the Palais de Justice, where Jean de Berry and the dukes of Aquitaine once held court in the imposing Great Hall. In the middle of the marketplace on place de Charles-de-Gaulle, the Eglise de Notre-Dame-la-Grande is a brilliant example of Poitevin Romanesque. The sturdy building compensates for its somewhat squat proportions with staggered roof levels, a striped belfry, conical towers and a magnificent west porch. The porch is decorated with 12thC carvings illustrating biblical stories and scenes from Adam and Eve to the baby Jesus in his bath, while all manner of saints and creatures look on wreathed in an extravagant jungle of foliage.
The 13thC Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre lies down the hill towards the River Clain, but except for its richly carved choir stalls, it is the least interesting of Poitier’s churches. Behind it, the Baptistière de Saint-Jean is believed to be the oldest Christian building in France, and resembles a burnt brioche parked in a gravel square on rue Jean-Jaurès. Baptism required total immersion in those days, so the generous font is sunk in the ground, surrounded by a collection of Merovingian carvings and watched over by gentle 12th-14thC frescoes.
A short walk away, the modern and well-laid out Musèe Sainte-Croix, 61 rue Saint-Simplicien (see www.poitiers.fr), combines an entertaining agricultural section with cleverly lit Roman artefacts and the town’s art collections. A delightful Boudin, a small Sisley, and works by Vuillard and Bonnard are worth seeking out.
The last church on the circuit is the unusual 11thC pilgrim church of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, rue du Doyenne. Its wooden roof was replaced by a series of stone domes which narrowed the nave between half-a-dozen aisles. For a well-deserved break, the Parc Blos-Sac is a perfect place to collapse. There are aviaries, miniature goats, a couple of aquariums and a children’s play area amongst the carefully manicured lime trees and flowerbeds.