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In profile: Tours

In profile: Tours

Appearances, as we know, can be deceptive. From the outside the official home of definitive spoken French might come across as just one more big, high-energy French city. But get to know the ancient heart which beats more calmly within and you’ll find that there’s a great deal more to this place than you would ever imagine...

RM Tours-11260

Tours can trace its origins back to a pre-Roman settlement established by the Turone tribe. Under Roman occupation Caesarodunum - ‘the Hill of Caesar’ - became a prosperous, densely-populated town with substantial walled defences. Rome also added a huge arena, evidence of which is visible to the east of the cathedral, where the curve of Rue Général Meunier follows precisely the arena’s original outline. Nearby, in Rue des Ursulines, tucked away behind the Centre des Archives Historiques de Touraine, is a more visible survivor – a section of massive stones and pink bricks from the 3rd century Gallo-Roman walls.

The Western Empire eventually fell, yet the town’s destiny would be shaped by a kindly gesture from a young Roman officer. While garrisoned in distant Amiens, Martin encountered a beggar shivering in bitter winter winds and cut his cloak in two with his sword, giving half to the beggar. That night the figure of Christ appeared to him in a dream, wearing half the cloak, which moved the legionnaire to become baptised and devote his life to preaching the gospels. In 361 he founded Gaul’s first monastery at Ligugé in Poitou, on a site given by Bishop (later Saint) Hilaire of Poitiers. His reputation spread far and wide, and in 372 the people of Tours asked him to become their Bishop. He accepted and built countless churches and chapels throughout Touraine. He died at Candes-sur-Loire in November 397, and his body was transported on the river back to Tours, when a miracle occurred: as he passed by dormant trees suddenly burst into leaf, plants flowered and birds sang, as if summer had returned. The basilica, built to receive the body of Saint Martin de Tours, immediately became a centre of pilgrimage, the town and its estates gaining great wealth and influence.

Tours has witnessed countless key events in the history of France, and twice served as the seat of Parliament. It has also long been an important cultural and commercial centre, whose fortunes were boosted by the arrival of the railway in 1846. The events of WWII caused extensive destruction, but Vieux Tours has been painstakingly restored and is today a dazzling architectural showpiece with a vibrant and infectious café culture, and last month Tours officially inaugurated its brand new, long-awaited tramway.

RM tours pont wilson 4988

SEE THE SIGHTS...

Basilique Saint-Martin

This neo-Byzantine creation, built between 1886 and 1924, replaced the 11th/13th-century structure constructed on the site of a more modest 5th century church destroyed by Normans in 996. Further destruction by Huguenots in 1562 started a decline which eventually saw the nave being demolished in 1802 to create Rue des Halles. The Tour Charlemagne survived, complete with a prominent bas-relief of the Saint, whose remains lie across the street in the present Basilica, which, while not universally admired, is nonetheless impressive. The interior features tall, cylindrical columns in polished granite topped with pale stone Corinthian capitals. Four huge piers beyond the nave support a lantern-tower crowned with a cupola. The Saint’s tomb lies in a Crypt beneath the Sanctuary – accessible from either side of the altar. A Reliquary containing the mortal remains is visible, through heavy wrought-iron grilles, deep within the base of the shrine. At the far end of a side-aisle in the nave is a life-sized glazed bas-relief of the Saint, plus panels recounting his life, the history of the Basilica and that of its lost Gothic predecessor.

 

Gare de Tours

A terminus offers an opportunity to create a big, impressive facade, and this fantastic structure was created in full-on Belle-Epoque style by local architect Victor Laloux in 1896-98. Two huge glass-filled arches sit between monumental pale stone piers decorated with sculpted friezes proudly emblazoned with the names of major destinations served. Seated above it all are four stone figures – two by Jean-Antoine Injalbert symbolising Bordeaux and Toulouse, and two by Jean-Baptiste Hugues representing Limoges and Nantes. Naturally, there’s an appropriately prominent station clock, too. Inside, beneath glass and iron roofing supported on tall ironwork piers, lies more period charm. The stonework is less ornate, but on it you’ll find a series of glazed earthenware panels decorated in period railway poster style with enticing glimpses of far-flung places of interest which the railway suddenly made accessible.

 

Place Plumereau & Vieux Tours

For a cool drink and lively conversation while watching the world go by, you’ll struggle to come up with a more atmospheric setting than Place Plumereau (‘Place Plum’ to locals). During the 15th century you’d have been among wives and mistresses of privileged courtiers, here to purchase flowers to adorn their hats, but these days the square is home to sought after tables shaded by parasols. The tall, half-timbered facades, though, are still here, lovingly restored and with the occasional 19th century pale Touraine stone addition to remind you where you are. On the corner of Rue du Change and Rue de la Monnaie is a striking four storey, slate hung medieval house whose lower timbers are adorned with Biblical carvings, while in the opposite corner is a mulberry tree – a lone survivor from the countless mûriers which once fed the town’s productive silkworms.

The narrow streets tucked away around Place Plumereau are worth exploring. Just off the square is an archway to the Place Saint-Pierre-le-Peullier, where you’ll find Gallo-Roman excavations and more interesting townhouses (in Rue Briçonnet, for example, is a fine medieval exterior staircase). For dining out Rue de la Rôtisserie and Rue du Grand Marché offer a wealth of possibilities.

 

Cathédrale Saint-Gatien

The fourth religious structure to occupy this sacred site is almost pure Gothic. Late in the day the pale grey but fetchingly ornate western facade is transformed by the sinking sun to fiery gold. Although similar in appearance, the towers, whose 16th century Italianate summits sit upon carefully disguised Romanesque bases, were designed by different architects. The interior, begun in 1236, took 300 years to construct, but you’d never know it – the stained glass panels, supported on a miraculously slender stone skeleton, still look as vibrant as when they were created c1270. The subjects include various Saints (including Saint Martin de Tours), several early Bishops of Tours and Canons of Loches. There’s more medieval glass in the chapels set around the apse, and in the 14th century Rayonnant Gothic rose windows of the transepts. Poised twenty-nine metres above the floor of the nave are the decorative central bosses of the slender stone rib-vaults.Near the south transept is the beautifully sculpted Carrara marble tomb of Charles VII and Anne de Bretagne’s sons, one who passed away aged three years and the other at just twenty-five days. Finally, don’t miss seeing the Cloître la Psalette, a beautifully preserved 15th century Gothic/Renaissance cloister complete with the library and writing room of the Canons of the cathedral. You can reach it from the north aisle.

 

Finds On Foot...

The Musée des Beaux-Arts, housed in the former Bishops’ Palace, is hugely impressive, but hidden away outside is Fritz, an Indian elephant who arrived in 1904 with Barnum & Bailey’s circus. Becoming dangerous, he was shot and his body presented to the town, who stuffed and mounted him on a substantial plinth. You’re free to visit him, standing behind glass in a small building in the museum gardens. In Rue Corneille, opposite the Grand Théatre lies Le Molière, another survivor from a bygone age. The interior of this time-warp cafè-tabac recently provided a location for the filming of ‘Nos Héros Sont Morts Ce Soir’ (David Perrault 2013), something you can ponder while enjoying a coffee, inside or out. Just around the corner in Rue de la Scellerie you can browse for antiques and other decorative retro-themed items in appealingly traditional boutiques. Alternatively, stroll along the banks of the Loire near the 15-arched Pont Wilson, built between 1765-1778 and renamed in 1918 after US President Woodrow Wilson. Today it’s known locally simply as ‘le pont de pierre’ and provides an essential river crossing for the city’s new tramway line. Best of all, enjoy one of over twenty morning markets (every day except Mon) or the big all-day affairs, which include antiques & flea-markets, marchés gourmand and flower markets when the streets fill to bursting, the buzz is incredible.

 


TOURIST OFFICE

78-82 rue Bernard Palissy
www.tours-tourisme.fr

RM Tours-21467

SHOPPING

You’ll find the main shopping streets between Place Jean Jaurés (on Blvd Béranger) and the banks of the Loire. Rue Nationale, running south from Pont Wilson, is home to the big stores, while Rue de la Scellerie is the place for antiques and objets d’art, salons de thé and a wonderful chocolaterie.
Other shopping areas include rue de Bordeaux, rue des Halles, rue du Commerce and rue Colbert. Delicious local produce, and Loire Valley regional specialities, are available in the daily market in Place des Halles (Mon-Sat 7am – 7.30pm, Sun 8am – 1pm). For a colourful spectacle, France’s second largest flower market (Wed & Sat) runs the length of Boulevard Béranger, selling cut flowers, arrangements, herbs and vegetable plants, plus a wide range of shrubs and perennials.

On 1st and 3rd Fri each month there’s an evening (4pm-10pm) Marché Gourmand in Place de la Résistance, with lots of atmosphere and plenty to arouse your taste buds.

The Centre Commercial Les Atlantes (www.les-atlantes.fr) has IKEA, hypermarket and covered shopping arcades and is accessible from the autoroute (junction 21) or by bus (Atlantes) from the Gare Vinci stop opposite the Tourist Office.

 

BIG CHANGES

Spurred by the arrival of the tramway, Rue Nationale and its surroundings are earmarked for an audacious redevelop-ment programme destined to open things up considerably and add two new hotels plus a centre for contemporary creation. www.agglo-tours.fr

RIVER CRUISES

50-min cruises on the Loire depart from Rochecorbon, 5min E of Tours – from A10 take Sortie 20, signed to Vouvray. From city centre take buses 60 or 61 (Fil Bleu) to ‘OBSERVALOIRE’. www.naviloire.com

GETTING THERE (AND PARKING)

For Tours city centre, take junction 21 from the A10 autoroute.
Most convenient parking places are underground, just in front of the railway station on Place du Général Leclerc (you can reserve a parking place in advance www.vincipark.com) or on Place Anatole on the riverside next to Pont Wilson.
For a more carefree option, the new tramway has Park & Ride facilities near Joué-les-Tours (signed from the A10), for a smooth run into the city centre - services every 5 minutes at peak times.

 

BY TRAIN

Trains from Angoulême (2hrs) and Poitiers (1hr) stop at Saint Pierre-des-Corps, transfer to local TER service or shuttle bus for city centre. For days out from Tours there are TER servicesto Chenonceaux, Amboise, etc.
http://ter-sncf.com/centre

 

MUSEE DES BEAUX-ARTS

18 Place François Sicard. www.mba.tours.fr. Wed-Mon 9am-12.45pm, 2pm-6pm, closed Tues, 1 Jan, 1 May, 14 Jul, 1 & 11 Nov, 25 Dec. Adult €4/ concs €2 / under-13s free.
NB: Free entry 1st Sun each month.

First published in Living Magazine October 2013 © All rights reserved