The Deux-Sèvres countryside meets the high-powered world of finance in France’s mutual insurance capital – and the country’s fourth financial centre behind Paris, Lyon and Lille.
Around the town
Founded beside an important river crossing, by the Middle Ages Noviortum had become Niort, a prosperous port connected to the Atlantic Ocean. The port shipped skins for the town’s tanning and chamois leather businesses which supplied the French army until business declined after Napoleon’s defeat.
Freshly revitalised by a major urban renovation programme, the city centre is now a pleasure to explore on foot. A good starting point is Niort’s most important building, the Donjon d’Aliénor d’Aquitaine. Towering above the river, this fortress was started by Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine when England controlled most of the west of France, and was completed by their son, Richard the Lionheart. Today the Donjon contains exhibits recalling the leather trade, along with archaeological finds and collections of costumes and jewellery. Don’t miss the view from the top of the towers, where an orientation panel helps you identify the surrounding features.
Similarly impressive is the 75-metre-high spire of l’Eglise Notre-Dame, whose 15th century stained glass is just one of its visual delights. Constructed in the 11th century, destroyed by Protestants in 1588 and rebuilt 100 years later, the present 19th century restoration retains a remarkable carved pulpit and fine wall paintings.
At the foot of the old quarter is Le Pilori – the pre-Revolution town hall now used for art exhibitions. The present Hôtel de Ville, built in 1900, a scaled-down version of its counterpart in Paris, and boasting an impressive staircase, is in rue Thiers. Nearby, Les Halles de Niort is a fine cast-iron and glass structure, in and around which over 150 producers offer their wares daily except Monday. A glance from here to the river reveals the 12th century Fort Foucault standing guard on an island.
Out & about
There’s something for every-one in Niort: fine art and natural history collections in Le Musée Bernard D’Agesi; the Moulin du Roc cultural activity centre; La Porte Bleue, exhibiting and selling regional craftwork; the pedestrian area around Rue Victor Hugo, with half-timbered medieval houses; the renovated Place de la Brèche with picnic spots and children’s play area; 200-metre long bronze dragons marking the entrances to the shopping areas and the cool haven of the Jardin des Plantes.
Tel: 08 20 20 00 79; www.niortmaraispoitevin.com
Three guides are available from the Tourist Office: a one-hour town circuit, a longer Green Corridor circuit and an Arts and Crafts circuit.