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All about Deux-Sèvres (79) & Vendée (85)

More rural than its neighbours, Deux-Sèvres has much to offer individuals seeking a quieter life. Without a doubt, the Marais Poitevin is the département's jewel in the crown but there are plenty of other gems to be found if you know where to look.

To find out more about the Deux-Sèvres, read our visitor's guide here.

The Vendée département stretches along the Atlantic coast with 140km of glorious beaches and is home to the Vendée Globe round the world yacht race. Inland, Puy du Fou, the world renowned theme park, draws the crowds. Pine forests, bocages (wooded hills) and marais (marshes) can all be found in the Vendée and were the sites of many battles in Vendées turbulant history.

 

Medieval mission - a visit to Parthenay

Medieval mission - a visit to Parthenay

The rural plains and valleys of central Deux-Sèvres are full of historical secrets, and one of the best is the ancient heart of Parthenay...

Fans of Poitou-Charentes' rich historical heritage will have already visited the astonishing medieval district of Parthenay and fallen in love with the hundred timber-framed houses, the 13th century château, the granite fortifications and the Romanesque / 17th and 18th century churches. Even if you don't class yourself as a devotee, you are guaranteed to enjoy discovering the stunning architecture during an afternoon stroll around the citadel and the Saint-Jacques area of this little town in the heart of the Gâtine countryside. Don't forget to wear comfortable shoes, however, as the streets are steep and often cobbled!

Parthenay Oct 5

History

The town dates from the 11th century, the granite spur nestling within a bend in the Thouet river and the marshes on the outside of the meander making it an ideal site for a stronghold. The fortifications we see today date from the 13th century and were built while Poitou belonged to the English, during the reign of King John – referred to as 'Jean-sans-Terre' by the French. The lords of Parthenay supported King John and in exchange he gave them funds every year for strengthening the town's defences. Indeed, with the help of skilled English builders they were able to build three different city walls: one around the castle, one around the citadel and another around the whole town.

Parthenay's layout reflects the activities that characterised it from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. On the top of the hill lies the oldest church, Saint-Laurent, which dominates the town with its neo-gothic tower and dates from the 11th century (though it has been rebuilt nearly every century since). This area was the commercial centre in the late Middle Ages, containing butchers and salt merchants as well as the Halles, dating from the 19th century, where the weekly market still takes place.

Beside this district lies the citadel, which is accessed through a gate called the Porte de la Citadelle with its clock and bell tower. The citadel has been the administrative and political centre since it was built, and also the religious centre in the past. Here, you can find the 12th century Sainte-Croix and Notre-Dame-de-la-Couldre churches. Of the latter, all that remains is the ground floor of the façade, showing sculptures in limestone of Samson and the lion, a cavalier and the typical Romanesque modillons of imaginary people and animals; it is now a school. You can visit the interior of Sainte-Croix, which has a Romanesque north façade while the west façade was rebuilt in 17th/18th century with stones from the castle.

The court, town hall, former hospital and the houses of the powerful inhabitants of the medieval era can also be found in the citadel. From here you have a pleasant view over the Faubourg Saint-Paul on the far side of the river, which used to be the tannery area and was reached by crossing the 16th century medieval-style bridge – the earlier bridges were swept away by floods. And if you take the little path beside the Porte de la Citadelle you can descend to the foot of the fortifications and admire them while you walk through the park called La Prée that circles the southern point of Parthenay. The town has been called the 'Carcassonne of the West' due to its three kilometres of fortifications, of which only a few hundred metres have been kept; two gates are left of the original four, and much restoration work has been carried out over the last 30 years.

Parthenay 5The rue de la Citadelle leads north from the citadel towards the ruins of the castle, where the Bastille de Richemont, built in the 15th century, and the recently restored Tour de la Poudrière can be visited. From the castle you have a good view over the lower part of the town, the Saint-Jacques district. This is where the medieval houses are concentrated in a delightful cobbled street called La Rue de la Vau Saint-Jacques, leading from the upper town down to the Saint-Jacques gate beside the Thouet river. On the far side of the river is the Faubourg Saint-Jacques district, which used to be the weaving centre and where plants such as woad were grown to dye the cloth.

St Jacques

The theme of St Jacques is embedded in Parthenay's history, and refers to Saint Jacques de Compostelle – known in English as Saint James, one of Jesus' apostles, also called James the Greater. St Jacques' remains are supposedly buried in Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and pilgrims from the 12th century onwards have followed the paths known as 'St. James' Way' to pay homage to this saint. One of the four main routes crossing France passes through Parthenay, and pilgrims would arrive from the north and stop in Châtillon-sur-Thouet at the 12th century Saint-Jacques church to pray, and the Maison Dieu chapel to be cared for if they were ill. Then they would cross the Saint-Jacques drawbridge and pass under Saint-Jacques gate to access the fortified town, where they would climb the steep Rue de la Vau Saint-Jacques street and stop at the Sainte-Croix church to admire a relic – part of Jesus' cross – before heading south to Saint-Jean-d'Angély and Saintes.

This northern end of town, on the outside of the fortifications, is a good place to begin a visit. As you follow in the pilgrims' footsteps and pass under the Porte Saint-Jacques and into the cobbled street, turn left into the courtyard of Parthenay's Georges Turpin museum. From here you can climb up into the gate tower and admire the view over the Faubourg Saint-Jacques before entering the free museum, the highlight of which is a model of Parthenay in the 18th century with a recording of the story of the town (in English too). The museum displays old money, maps, sculptures and pottery – Parthenay was renowned for its pottery in the 19th century – as well as receiving temporary exhibitions on the ground floor and holding lots of workshops for children. From 24th September to 19th December you'll find five artists from the Paris Salon d'Automne 2009 exhibiting their contemporary paintings, including Monique Baroni, whose work was much admired in Parthenay in 2008. The building is also home to the Maison des Cultures des Pays and the UPCP-Métive association, who are responsible for a host of traditional music and dance events that draw crowds from Poitou-Charentes and Vendée.

Finding your way around

The tourist office is almost opposite the museum entrance; here, you can pick up a guide leaflet in English to help you find your way around the highlights of the town, and sign up for a guided visit in French by the Pays d'art et d'histoire guides working for the Atemporelle association – each summer, Atemporelle organises a selection of visits in English too, not to mention a whole series of cultural events. And for more information about the town, visit the Maison du Patrimoine that is housed in the castle mill, beside the river just north of the castle.

As you walk up the charismatic rue de la Vau Saint-Jacques, you will no doubt notice scallop artwork by the medieval doorways: scallops were the souvenirs picked up on the beach at Compostela and brought home by the pilgrims, and are a sign that the dwelling can offer accommodation to pilgrims. These houses date from the 15th century onwards, and were where the weavers would work: the ground floor served as a shop, which explains the big windows – the shutters open horizontally so that the weavers could set up their wares on the bottom one and use the upper shutter as a protection from above. The weavers would live on the first floor and used the second floor as storage for the cloth.

Parthenay 6

The charming houses are built from local granite, with timbers filled with brickwork and roofed with tiles, also made locally. Sculptures of weaving tools and hooks decorate some houses, while you can find lead windows, tiny square openings that show where the sinks used to be, and carved granite doorways on others. Certain of the houses now contain craft galleries, such as Jean-Claude Bessette's beautiful enamelwork at number 52, and the art gallery at number 77, and others have become restaurants or B&B. This is the case for number 55, where photographer and accordion player Trevor Pearson and his wife Dorit offer a wonderfully friendly welcome and can tell you all about the history of the district in English.

Many little streets, some full of steps and only wide enough for one person, lead off the Vau Saint-Jacques street up both sides of the hill; from the rue Moque-Souris you can climb up to the east and visit the Eglise des Cordeliers. This 13th century convent used to house Franciscan monks who, as they wore ropes – or 'cordes' – around their waists, were known as Les Cordeliers. Nowadays the church is empty and regular artistic exhibitions are held there. Another church – Saint-Pierre – can be found on the southwest outskirts of the town in Parthenay-le-Vieux: this was built in the 11th and 12th centuries and was part of a priory. You can visit the inside if you collect the key from the house next door.

The Vau Saint-Jacques street leads into Place Vauvert, another historical area, as this is where the cattle market used to be held in the 13th century. Parthenay still holds one of the biggest cattle markets in France, though this now takes place outside the town centre, and the town boasts its own race of cow – the Parthenais, created in the 19th century – that is bred in the Gâtine. The cattle market takes place every Wednesday from 7:30am, and it is possible to have a guided visit of the market or the breeding centres by a member of 'Les Amis du Marché' association.

Days Out

While a visit to the old part of town is the highlight of a trip to Parthenay, there are a number of other possibilities to fill a day, including the GâtinéO indoor fun swimming pool and a large 'Base de Loisirs' containing a great selection of modern playground games for all ages and a lake for fishing and water sports. Just beside it is the municipal campsite – a luxury 4-star one – that hires out bikes. If you prefer to lodge out of town, and camping is not an option, then the superb Château Tennessus is only 7km from town; here, Philippa Freeland offers B&B or self-catering in a gorgeous 14th century castle in the countryside, complete with moat and working drawbridge.

The countryside in the area is full of little hills and valleys, with plenty of Romanesque surprises making walks or bike rides a delightful alternative. The tourist office sells a series of walking circuits, and the Syndicat Mixte de la Vallée du Thouet has created a guided bike trail of 120km (available in English too) in a series of stages, called 'De Rives en Rêves'.

Further afield you can delight in the tiny medieval towns of Airvault and Saint-Loup-Lamairé and the villages of Gourgé and Saint Généroux, all within 30km, as well as the storytelling gardens at 'Le Nombril du Monde' in Pougne-Hérisson, 14km away. Children will enjoy learning about sheep during a trip to Mouton Village in Vasles, 20km away, while keen anglers probably know that the Pescalis fishing centre is in the area, only 32km from Parthenay.

Whether you're an addict of medieval architecture, castle fortifications and churches, or if you're simply searching for a place to spend a pleasant day in Deux-Sèvres, you're guaranteed to enjoy a visit to Parthenay.

 

Originally pubished in Living Poitou-Charentes magazine October 2010 © All rights reserved

WORDS: Teresa Hardy

PHOTOS: Trevor Pearson


Photographer profile

Trevor Pearson and his wife Dorit have operated a Bed and Breakfast in the heart of the medieval quarter of Parthenay for five years, since moving to France. Prior to that, they ran a photography studio for 10 years in England, specialising in makeover portraits and weddings. Trevor also branched out with product and advertising commissions and special events such as motor and aircraft photography.

A taste for adventure led them to tour France over several months, covering 18,000km. They stumbled across Parthenay’s medieval quarter, fell in love with the 600-year-old house and decided to move to France. Trevor continues his work, mostly in lifestyle photography; his other great passion is music, and he has an impressive collection of antique accordions and vinyl records. He has played at festivals and special functions and cut a CD entitled 'Ze Ménétriers' with a local band.

Tel: +33 (0)5 49 94 05 69, www.maisonsaintjacques.com

 

 

Planning your visit

Tourist Office: 8 rue de la Vau Saint-Jacques, 79200 Parthenay. +33 (0)5 49 64 24 24, www.cc-parthenay.fr

Guided visits: Association Atemporelle. 3 rue du Château, 79200 Parthenay. +33 (0)5 49 63 13 86, www.atemporelle.org

Association Les Amis du Marché de Parthenay. Claude Guionnet: +33 (0)6 84 55 64 35

Syndicat Mixte de la Vallé du Thouet (SMVT): 1 place du Docteur Bouchet, 79600 St.Loup-Lemairé. +33 (0)5 49 64 85 98, www.valleeduthouet.fr


Restaurants

La Citadelle: for its wide range of dishes and its position at the foot of the Porte de la Citadelle. 9 place Picard, 79200 Parthenay. +33 (0)5 49 64 12 25

Le Fin Gourmet: gastronomic menus with home made bread and different menus every week. 28 rue Ganne, 79200 Parthenay. +33 (0)5 49 64 04 53, www.lefingourmet.com

La Truffade: traditional cuisine with specialities from Auvergne and generous helpings. 14 place du 11 Novembre, 79200 Parthenay. +33 (0)5 49 64 02 26

Le Vauvert, 4 place du Vauvert, 79200 Parthenay. Take a seat on the terrace and enjoy overlooking the medieval houses as you choose from the pizzas, pasta and specialities – and you can finish with an Irish coffee. +33 (0)5 49 71 12 12


Accommodation

B&B: Trevor & Dorit Pearson: for a friendly British welcome in the heart of Parthenay's medieval district. Although there's no garden, the rooms are spacious and the breakfasts are huge and delicious! 55 rue de la Vau Saint-Jacques, 79200 Parthenay. +33 (0)5 49 94 05 69, www.maisonsaintjacques.com

Camping 'Bois Vert': this 4-star campsite is beside the river and the outdoor leisure park, and has a swimming pool and bar/restaurant as well as bike hire, playground, badminton and ping-pong. 14 rue Boisseau, Le Tallud, 79200 Parthenay. +33 (0)5 49 64 78 43, www.camping-boivert.com

Château de Tennessus: for a true castle experience in the peace of the countryside, a short drive from Parthenay. 79350 Amailloux. +33 (0)5 49 95 50 60, www.tennessus.com

Hôtel-Restaurant Les Jardins St Laurent: for lovely hotel accommodation in town, with a swimming pool. 15 rue Carnot, 79200 Parthenay. +33 (0)5 49 71 28 30, www.jardins-saint-laurent.com


Places to Visit

Parthenay 2In Parthenay

Musée Municipal de Parthenay: Musée Georges Turpin, 1 rue de la Vau Saint-Jacques, 79200 Parthenay. +33 (0)5 49 64 53 73, www.cc-parthenay.fr

UPCP Métive – Centre de Musiques et Danses Traditionelles de Poitou-Charentes et Vendée: Maison des Cultures de Pays, 1 rue de la Vau Saint-Jacques, 79200 Parthenay. +33 (0)5 49 94 90 70, www.metive.org

Maison du Patrimoine: 28 rue du Château, 79200 Parthenay. +33 (0)5 49 94 92 31, www.cc-parthenay.fr

Galerie d'art contemporain: 77 rue de la Vau Saint-Jacques, 79200 Parthenay. +33 (0)5 49 63 52 12

Enamel artist Jean-Claude Bessette: Atelier Compostela, 52 rue de la Vau Saint-Jacques, 79200 Parthenay. +33 (0)5 49 64 56 09, www.jardinsdufeu.net

GâtinéO swimming / fun pool: Centre aquatique GâtinéO, boulevard Georges Clemenceau, 79200 Parthenay. +33 (0)5 49 71 08 90, www.cc-parthenay.fr


Around Parthenay

Le Nombril du Monde: 79130 Pougne-Hérisson. +33 (0)5 49 64 19 19, www.nombril.com

Mouton Village: 79340 Vasles. +33 (0)5 49 69 12 12, www.moutonvillage.fr

Pescalis fishing and nature centre: 79320 Moncoutant. +33 (0)5 49 72 00 01, www.pescalis.com


Key events

October: Lâcher de Fanfare. Brass bands in the streets

May: Festival AH! 20 companies are present and 50 performances take place during this theatre festival

May: Fêtes de Pentecôte. During the Pentecost weekend a huge street fair is held in the town, with local producers and crafts, music and processions

July: Festival des Jeux. More than 3000 games and toys are available for free during this festival held throughout the town

July: Festival de Bouche à Oreille. Festival of new traditional music from all over the world

August: Arts et Saveurs. An arts and crafts festival in the Rue de la Vau Saint-Jacques