Nestled in the plains of the Deux-Sèvres lies Thouars, the northernmost town of the department, only 15km from neighbouring Maine and Loire. Its geographical position means that it is little known further south, yet this town of 10 000 inhabitants holds an abundance of interesting surprises...
Thouars may not be the obvious destination for a holiday, yet there are plenty of good reasons for spending a weekend discovering the wealth of historical, geological and cultural treasures hidden in and around the town.
Firstly, it is the town with the highest number of listed buildings per inhabitant in the region, and this, combined with the expertise of the guides in the 'Villes d’art et d’histoire' organisation, makes it a worthwhile destination for seeing and learning about the region’s heritage, both medieval and 19th-20th centuries. In addition, Thouars is internationally renowned on the geological front for the mines that allow geologists to understand the Toarcian stage. The name is also familiar to botanists because of the biodiversity of the Pressoir valley and the rarity of the Radnor Lily (Gagea bohemica) that is protected there. It has the largest collection of wartime exhibitions in the region at its ‘Centre Régional Résistance et Liberté’, and boasts the most amazing example of a water turbine mill dating from 1875 and in full working condition. Finally, it holds the region’s third biggest market, attracting 2000 people each time, and is visually pleasing thanks to the care taken in the upkeep of the town gardens and the 2-hectare Parc Imbert – which has earned Thouars the enviable 4-flower ‘Ville Fleurie’ grade.
Thouars lies on the right bank of a meander in the river Thouet, which has its source in the Gâtine countryside and flows into the river Loire. An ideal site for defence, it was occupied as far back as Gallo-Roman times and is first mentioned in the 8th century, when its castle was burnt. In the 9th century the town developed under the powerful Vicomtes de Thouars, who built the Saint-Laon abbey in the 11th century and Saint-Médard church in the 12th century. The town, which then belonged to the King of England, was fortified until the 14th century.
Two-thirds of these fortifications remain today, with the longest line running from the river to the Tour Prince de Galles and then up to the Prevôt tower. The fortified town developed rapidly and spread to the north of the promontory, being inherited by the Amboise and then the La Trémoïlle family. In the 16th century the castle chapel was built and, when the La Trémoïlle family became closer related to the king through marriage – making it one of the five richest families in France – the duchess began rebuilding the medieval castle. The work began in 1635 under Jacques Lemercier – who worked on La Sorbonne, the Louvre and Richelieu; although the outside was finished, the interior was never decorated with the usual murals, statues and paintings because the La Trémoïlle family was obliged to live in the king’s court. During the Revolution the castle became national property and was sold to the town in 1833, after which it became a barracks, then a school and a prison. Since 1933 it has been a state secondary school.
Arrival of the Railway
Thouars had to wait until the 19th century for its next bout of growth: the arrival of the railway in 1823 meant that it became a major train centre for the west of France, and the population grew from 2200 in 1820 to 9000 in 1920, attracting workers from nearby. The fascinating history of the railways in Thouars features as one of the guided tours offered by the Ville d’art et d’histoire, and a free leaflet (in French) is available on request at the mairie. Nowadays, the rubble quarries nearby at Mauzé-Thouarsais, Saint Varent and Luché-Thouarsais are the biggest local employers, with only a hundred workers left managing the trains.
As the town began its life in the south and developed towards the north, you'll find the historic buildings dotted around the southernmost point. The dispersion of the points of interest means it’s worth taking part in one of the many visits on offer with the Ville d’art et d’histoire so as not to miss the best sights. Otherwise, there are information panels on the walls of the listed buildings outlining the historical functions of each, and the tourist office can supply a map marked with the principal places to visit.
Buildings to visit
A quirky building to visit, only open during the International Heritage Days, is the public bathhouse in rue Balzac. Dating from 1928, it has been conserved since its closure in 1994 (when a surprising 18 regulars still bathed there). The shower and bath cubicles, with the regulations glazed into the wall tiles, are intact – only the central wall separating men and women has been knocked down. Notices give the 1928 prices, and an hourglass forms part of the exterior of the door so that the manager could check that bathers hadn’t overrun their allocated 20 minutes! Did you know that a cold shower was referred to as a 'Scottish shower'?
Better known are the abbey church of Saint-Laon, complete with fossils in the paving stones and a whole Baroque altarpiece wall, unusual in Poitou-Charentes; and secondly the church of Saint-Médard. Although Saint-Laon abbey church was built in the 11th century and has a Romanesque design and width, many additions were made up to the 17th century. It is the resting place of Margaret of Scotland, James Stuart 1st's daughter, who was married to the future Louis 11th.
Saint-Médard church has a Romanesque façade and an interior dating from the late 15th century – if you look carefully from the inside, you can how the internal changes are out of line with the external features. The North door, with its lobed arch, is one of only two examples in Poitou-Charentes of a Moorish influence, the other being at Celles-sur-Belle. Saint-Médard is the heart of the medieval district, and a walk along the rue du Château allows you to see examples of 15th and 16th century architecture, such as the Hôtel des Trois Rois. Little streets with steps – known as ‘poternes’– lead down to the lower town, forming short cuts for the people who used to live beside the river. This area of town has 3km of underground galleries and passages between the town houses on three levels; these had many uses including hiding places during the wars, but now serve as cellars in private houses.
One end of the road leads to the Château des Ducs de la Trémoïlle, from which you have a good view of the medieval bridge over the Thouet river, which dates from the13th century and was fortified in the 15th century – it shares characteristics with bridges built at the same period in the south of England. The castle was the second biggest castle in terms of its floor space in the west of France, after Richelieu: the façade measures 110m and its floor surface is 6000 square metres. Beside the castle lies its chapel, now privately owned and much visited because it is the only one in France to have a loggia with a flat ceiling in stone, a concept that dates from the beginning of the Renaissance.
To the east of Saint-Médard church lies the Tour du Prince de Galles, which was used as a prison for salt smugglers in the 17th century and can now be visited free of charge; it houses works of contemporary art. In the street below it, you have a fine view of the fortified wall leading to the Prevôt tower further north. The Chapelle Jeanne d’Arc, a Neo-Gothic chapel with a noteworthy rose window, also holds exhibitions of contemporary art – as does the Maison des Artistes – and the exhibiting artist also has a few works displayed in the Henri Barré museum.
The home of the Henri Barré museum is a Neo-Gothic house built in 1862 by a doctor called Henri Barré, who was inspired by 15th century architecture and designed his house in this style. He gave both his house and collection to the town, and the museum was set up there in 1920. It is an intimate space boasting a beautiful wooden spiral staircase, and feels very much like a private home. Here, you can find local pottery, furniture, art and curiosities from the 19th century – and a whole series of workshops are held here throughout the year, as well as concerts in the garden.
While Henri Barré is the only museum in Thouars, there are several other educational places that are as interesting as the historical buildings. Firstly, the superb example of a water turbine mill with its accompanying ‘ecomusée’ beside the river and campsite – accessed by descending the wickedly steep hill known as the ‘Grande Côte de Crevant’ – is an absolute must. This mill has been restored and now houses a series of flour milling machines dating from 1875, spread over four levels, and in perfect working order. Children and adults alike will be amazed at the series of 150 belts and 300 pulleys that make up the Moulin de Crevant – and the combination of whirring wheels, vibrating floors and the authentic wooden surroundings make the guided visit a pleasure.
The same organisation as that which manages the mill – the Centre d’Interprétation Géologique du Thouarsais – has a series of other interesting sites too. Based on the top floor of the castle stables (Les Ecuries du Château), opposite the castle chapel, this body has created a modern, colourful educational centre of 280 square metres, with lots of hands-on activities aimed at 13+ year-olds. The aim is to demonstrate how the geology and heritage in the Thouars area has influenced Man; through the visit you can learn (in French) about the types of local stone, the troglodyte caves in Tourtenay, fossils, how stone is quarried, the geography of the valley and soil types. In addition to this exhibition, the organisation also manages the Toarcien nature reserve with its two geologically important quarries, providing guided visits upon request; and the freely-accessible Pressoir stream valley, near Sainte-Radegonde, with its pretty waterfall and a footpath that takes you on a 5km circuit around the nature reserve. They even manage a group accommodation centre on the outskirts of the town.
On first floor of the chateau stables, the regional centre for resistance and freedom has a large exhibition of documents and audiovisual material concerning both the role of the Resistance in the Second World War, and the more general aspects of freedom, resistance and human rights throughout the world and the ages. Opened in 2001, this modern display includes an account from a Resistant, audio documents in English, workshops on subjects such as propaganda and additional temporary exhibitions twice a year.
There is plenty to see and do in Thouars to occupy you for at least a day, but if you want to travel further afield there are many other sites of interest. The 16th century Château d’Oiron – the southernmost Loire Valley Château – is located only 15km away and holds collections of contemporary art indoors, while the exterior architecture and gardens can also be visited. The fascinating troglodyte community in Tourtenay isn’t far, and will allow you to marvel at the dovecot (make sure you call before you visit or take part in a guided tour, as it’s privately owned). There are several dolmens in the surrounding countryside, the most popular being the group of 9 dolmens and a tumulus called Mégalithes Montpalais, which lie on the path of a pedestrian circuit. The tourist office sell a series of 19 footpath circuits in the area, and if you’re interested in sport, Thouars boasts a canoe club for trips along the Thouet; the 'De Rives en Rêves' cycling circuit along the Thouet valley; golf; tennis; and horse-riding. As for the kids, the Ville d’art et d’histoire’s club ‘Archipat’ in Thouars offers a series of weekly workshops and holiday clubs, while they’ll love the theme and water park at Massais, 15km away, and the Ostrich farm and labyrinth at Courlay, 30km away.
Finally, you cannot leave Thouars without trying some of its specialities: for example, the brownie-style chocolate cake called Saint-Michel that can only be bought in Mauzé-Thouarsais, or the local aperitif (vin cuite) called Duhomard. And then there’s the wine: the main wine produced in the area is Anjou, though you can also find the 'VDQS du Thouarsais' around Oiron and the 'Saumurois du Thouarsais' near Tourtenay. The tourist office have a leaflet ‘Carte Saveurs’ showing where the local producers can be found, so why not jump in your car...
Previously published in Living Poitou-Charentes
WORDS: Teresa Hardy
PHOTOS: Service de l’Architecture et des Patrimoines, Mairie de Thouars
Planning your visit
Tourist Office du Pays Thouarsais: 3 bis bvd Pierre Curie, 79100 Thouars. +33 (0)5 49 66 17 65, www.tourisme-pays-thouarsais.fr
Ville d’art et d’histoire: Place Saint-Laon, 79100 Thouars. +33 (0)5 49 68 16 25 Leaflets about the churches and museum are available. They also do a series of workshops and holiday schools for children (a club called Archipat) as well as numerous guided visits.
Parking is free throughout the town and the market is held on Fridays
Places to visit
Musée Henri Barré: 7 rue Marie de la Tour d'Auvergne, 79100 Thouars. +33 (0)5 49 66 36 97
Ecomusée du Moulin de Crevant: 1 Promenade de Pommiers, 79100 Thouars. +33 (0)5 49 68 38 59
Centre d'Interprétation Géologique du Thouarsais (CIGT): Anciennes Ecuries du Château, Rond-point du 19 mars 1962, 79100 Thouars. +33 (0)5 49 66 42 18
Those who are interested in geology and quarries may like to know that a network called L’Homme et La Pierre exists and has published a leaflet showing relevant sites in Poitou-Charentes. +33 (0)5 49 77 87 79, www.lhommeetlapierre.com
Centre Régional ‘Resistance et Liberté’: Les Ecuries du Château, Rond-Point du 19 mars 1962, 79100 Thouars. +33 (0)5 49 66 42 99, www.crrl.fr
Toarcien geological nature reserve: Route de Vrines, Pompois, 79100 Sainte-Verge. +33 (0)5 49 66 42 18
Château d'Oiron: 10 rue du Château, 79100 Oiron. +33 (0)5 49 96 51 25 www.orion.fr
Dolmens 'Mégalithes de Montpalais': 79100 Taizé (contact the Tourist Office for a map of the circuit)
'De Rives en Rêves' cycle route: Syndicat Mixte du Vallée du Thouet (SMVT) www.valleeduthouet.fr (you can pick up the route guide at the Tourist Offices in the area)
Parc de la Vallée, 79150 Massais. +33 (0)5 49 96 85 82, www.parcdelavallee.com
Ostrich animal park and labyrinth: Sèvre Autruche et Labyrintruche, Les Bichotières, 79440 Courlay. +33 (0)6 62 81 23 63, www.sevre-autruche.fr
Le Trait d’Union: for simple cuisine with fresh products in a modern ambience. 8 place St Médard, 79100 Thouars. +33 (0)5 49 66 08 13, www.letraitdunion-restaurant.com
Le Café des Arts: Worth visiting for the 1920s decor, the concerts and the Belgian beer. 53 rue St Médard, 79100 Thouars. +33 (0)5 49 66 09 13, www.cafedesarts.fr
L’Hôtellerie St Jean: for semi-gastronomic cuisine and accommodation. 25 route de Parthenay, 79100 St Jean de Thouars. +33 (0)5 49 96 12 60, www.hotellerie-st-jean.com/
Campsite Le Clos Imbert **: a quiet, calm spot beside the river, only suitable for light vehicles as access is difficult. 45 pitches and open from mid-June to mid-September. Rue de la Grande Côte de Crevant, 79100 Thouars. +33 (0)5 49 66 17 99
CIGT Accommodation centre with a capacity of 101 beds and seminar rooms, set in a park of 30 hectares with an equestrian centre: 'Centre d'hébergement le Châtelier': route de Doret, 79100 Missé. +33 (0)5 49 96 07 05
Hôtel de la Gare **: simple family accommodation with a kitchen for guests and room for bicycles. 1 place de la Gare, 79100 Thouars. +33 (0)5 49 66 20 75, www.hotel-de-la-gare79.com