Between the Loire Valley and the Marais Poitevin lies the Vienne department, home to Futuroscope and some of France’s most outstanding Romanesque architectural heritage…
At the final navigable stretch of the Vienne river between Poitiers and Tours lies Châtellerault, which exploited its strategic location to develop cutlery, sword-making, rope-making and tanning industries. These ancient professions have long-since disappeared locally (along with small arms manufacture) but with over 1000 years of history, beautiful gardens and a renowned motor museum, Châtellerault is a popular stop for visitors. Visit the home of French philosopher René Descartes and the 12th century Eglise St-Jacques.
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Further down river is one of the Michelin travel guides’ Top 100 Small Towns in France to Visit, the medieval town of Chauvigny. Rising above the town are Château Baronnial, Château d’Harcourt, Château de Montléon, Donjon de Gouzon and the Tour de Flins, creating a spectacular effect. In the upper town are charming narrow streets and interesting architecture, including two lovingly restored Romanesque churches.
Northeast of Chauvigny is Angles sur l’Anglin, winner of the coveted Les Plus Beaux Villages de France award and a must for visitors. Its name comes from the Saxon ‘Angles’ tribe who invaded England in the 5th century, and from the river flowing through the heart of the village. It’s famed regionally for "Jours d’Angles" – delicately-embroidered fabrics – and internationally for the 15,000 year-old Magdalenian sculptures found in the Sorcerer’s Rock (Roc-aux-Sorciers), an exact replica of which is open to the public.
A few kilometres further south, Saint Savin’s ancient abbey is a World Heritage Site, its glorious Romanesque wall paintings having prompted the title of ‘the Romanesque Sistine Chapel’. Planned for 2013 is a special programme of events cele-brating the 30th Anniversary of the UNESCO listing (see www.abbaye-saint-savin.fr).
Continuing south, adrenalin junkies will love L’Isle Jourdain, which throughout the summer months offers bungee-jumping from a 40-metre high former railway viaduct, water skiing on the Lac de Chardes and high-octane thrills on the nearby Val de Vienne motor racing circuit.
Continue further southwest and you’ll reach Charroux, home of a medieval market hall and a startling 11th century lantern tower – a survivor from the Abbaye Saint Sauveur founded in the 9th century. Listed as an historic monument, the abbey ruins and its important collection of Gothic statues are open to visitors. This surprising little town was a halt for pilgrims bound for Santiago de Compostela, and was also the seat of the French government for six years during the Hundred Year’s War.
From Charroux, the Charente river flows onwards through Vienne towards Civray, a market town popular with visitors. The 12th century Eglise Saint-Nicolas (whose interior decoration is remark-able) overlooks a broad market square, and there are several picnic spots along the riverbanks.
2 Avenue Treuille
+33 (0)5 49 21 05 47; http://tourisme.chatellerault.fr
Visit the Mairie in Chauvigny
+33 (0)5 49 45 99 10; www.chauvigny.fr
Angles sur L’Anglin
2 r du four Banal
+33 (0)5 49 48 86 87; www.anglessuranglin.com
+33 (0)5 49 48 80 36; www.tourisme-islejourdain86.com
2 route de Châtain
+33 (0)5 49 87 60 12; www.charroux-en-poitou.com
Place du Maréchal Leclerc
+33 (0)5 49 87 47 73; www.tourisme-civray.com