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InProfile: Poitiers

InProfile: Poitiers

Explore the Romanesque capital of the region...

With no fewer than seventy-eight listed Patrimoine Historique buildings, the city’s architectural heritage is by any standards impressive and reflects a long and influential history which began as a Gallic settlement of the Picton or Pictave people. Poitiers sits on a high limestone promontory between one of the largest meanders of the River Clain and its tributary the Boivre (a name derived from ‘river of beavers’). This isthmus-like location was an obvious spot for settlement, effectively invulnerable from attack except from the southwest, which the occupants defended by building substantial walls and ditches. They could not, however, resist the might of the Roman legions who, after the conquest of Gaul in 51 AD, began centuries of occupation, during which Limonum Pictonum became the capital of the province of Aquitania, before the power base shifted south to Bordeaux. At its heart they constructed a vast amphitheatre seating perhaps 30,000 spectators – so vast, in fact, that despite later pillaging for stone, the ruins survived until the mid-19th century when they were demolished during reconstruction works.


In the wake of the Romans came the Visigoths who encircled the entire site with defensive ramparts during the 5th century after the city was sacked during a Barbarian invasion. These were troubled times. On 25 June 507 the area witnessed the massed Frankish army commanded by Clovis rout the Visigoths in the nearby Battle of Vouillé. Two centuries later, after conquering Spain the Saracens poured across the Pyrénées and advanced rapidly throughout south-western France before being finally and decisively vanquished between Tours and Poitiers on 17 October 732 by Charles Martel’s army. The desperate and bloody conflict preserved Catholicism in France and has become known as the Battle of Tours.

During the centuries which followed Poitiers found itself located uncomfortably between growing Parisian ambition and the English-held territories of Aquitaine, so fortifications were strengthened, and by the late 12th century Poitiers was protected by 6.5km of stone walls and watch-towers, sections of which still survive.


Things came to a head during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), one of whose key events was the Battle of Poitiers, which took place on 13-19 September, 1356, five km or so south of the city near Nouaillé. In 1418 the Royal parliament was obliged to relocate to Poitiers, where it remained until 1436, after the Plantagenets finally relinquished Paris. In 1429 Joan of Arc visited Poitiers, was questioned about her mission by a church commission and dictated her historic notice to the English king and nobles to quit France.

The University of Poitiers was founded in 1431, establishing an enduring reputation as a seat of learning of international standing. Today Poitiers is one of the foremost university towns in France, with over 25,000 students, 15% of them drawn from upwards of 136 countries. Over the years industrial-scale manufacturing (with the notable exception of the Michelin Group, 1972-2006) looked elsewhere, but beside the region’s flagship tourist attraction lies the Technopole du Futuroscope, with 224 high-tech companies employing around 6,000 staff. Add the family park itself plus the surrounding hotels and services, and you get some idea of the significance of their contribution to what is now a dynamic local economy.

See The Sights...

Around Place Maréchal-Leclerc

What began as a Roman forum hosted markets for centuries, before the military took over in the 17th century. It witnessed countless parades and by 1830 had been renamed Place d’Armes – a name still frequently used locally – before becoming Place Maréchal-Leclerc in 1948. Now, with bars, café terraces and lots of recently-revitalised open space (all under the watchful gaze of the Hôtel de Ville completed in exuberant Napoléon III style in 1875) it’s an agreeable meeting place. The feel-good factor looks set to continue, with the former Printemps department store currently being transformed, and adjoining areas like Rue Carnot, Rue Saint Nicolas and Square de la République sporting bar and restaurant terraces in summer.


Eglise Notre-Dame-la Grande

The 12th century façade of this otherwise 11th century Romanesque structure is a riot of sculptural decoration, with three western portals and two stages of niche figures above them. The carvings would originally have been painted, the colourful effect being recreated in summer by projections of ‘Les Polychromies’ onto the pale stone (see factfile for details). On either corner are towers topped like the square clocher with conical, tile-like stonework, a Poitevin device employed by architect Paul Abadie when he restyled the cathedrals of Angoulême and Périgueux.


Surprisingly, the interior has a similarly jewelbox quality, the dimensions of the masonry disguised by mid-19th century evocations of medieval decoration, while the real thing survives on the vaults overhead.

Palais de Justice

This astonishing building was constructed around 1100 as the Palace of Ducs d’Aquitaine and Comtes du Poitou. The Grande Salle (47m long by 15m wide) was completed under the Plantagenets at the end of the 12th century, although a Gothic gable end was added around 1380. As seat of Charles VII’s Parliament (1418-1436) the hall witnessed Joan of Arc’s interrogation in 1429 and Charles subsequently being proclaimed King. During the Revolution the building became the Palais de Justice, and in 1821 acquired a new classically inspired Doric entrance portal reached by a staircase of monumental proportions. In the gardens behind the hall masonry from the town’s Roman defences survives beside the Tour Maubergeon, reconstructed 1388–1416.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre

This remarkable Angevin Gothic creation was begun in 1161 by Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet. The broad western facade was erected between 1242 and 1271 with funding by Alphonse de Poitiers, brother of no less a personage than Saint Louis. The lightweight stone vaults of the great three-aisled interior billow like the sails of a boat, while above the altar is perhaps the most important medieval stained-glass window in Europe, completed c1268 and depicting the Crucifixion. The exquisitely-carved stalls date from the cathedral’s completion, making them among the oldest surviving examples in France. Their imagery includes a fanciful bestiary and a superb Green Man.

Les Arènes Romaines

A solitary entry portal in Rue Bourcani (plus the street plan within the tell-tale curve of Rue des Arènes Romaines) survives from the city’s lost Roman arena – one of the largest in all Gaul. Had it survived the mid-19th century mania for redevelopment it would have stretched almost to Place Leclerc.

Baptistère Saint-Jean

Dedicated during the 4th century, the oldest surviving Christian structure in Europe, looks in many ways even earlier. From outside there are few clues as to the impressive scale of the interior, which preserves an octagonal pool used for baptism by full immersion, a remarkable collection of Merovingian-era sarcophagi plus 11-13th century frescoes, one of which depicts the Emperor Constantine. There’s also a museum display of worked stone items found on site and nearby.

Parc Blossac

These 9ha landscaped gardens bounded by medieval ramparts were created in 1770 by the Comte de Blossac, replacing vineyards whose roots explored the remains of an ancient necropolis. Magnificent wrought-iron gates hint at the grandeur of French and English style landscaping, complete with tall avenues of pleached limes, a rock garden and a small zoological area. Particularly welcome on hot summer days is a large fountain added around 1840, while a rampart walk offers panoramic views of the River Clain and far beyond.



The town’s oldest street (originally the Roman decumanus maximus) retains a tangible medieval ambiance and is home to boutiques and family businesses. Generations of the François family have been making and repairing umbrellas here since 1882 behind a facade dating from 1910. Nearby are several imposing 17th century townhouses plus one of the last candlemakers in France, established during the 18th century.



WORDS & PHOTOS: Roger Moss

Published 2015

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