PUBLISHED: 16:01 01 July 2013 | UPDATED: 16:01 01 July 2013
© Trevor pearson / Alamy
Deux-Sèvres blends colourful history with a lively contemporary scene. Gillian Thornton explores Poitou-Charentes' most rural department
From the lofty terrace of Niort’s imposing medieval keep, Deux-Sèvres’ county town spreads out between twin hills topped by Gothic church spires. Immediately below, the Sèvre-Niortaise meanders past the castle walls on one side, while on the other, shoppers browse open-air stalls beside the covered market.
Even from up here, it’s a view that seems typically French, so it’s interesting to remember that Niort was once an important part of England. When Eleanor of Aquitaine divorced the pious Louis VII in 1152 to marry our own hearty hero Henry II, a sizeable chunk of south-west France became English. And among Eleanor’s many minor titles was Countess of Poitou, a province which roughly corresponded to the modern departments of Deux-Sèvres and Vienne.
But by the time the Hundred Years War came to an end in 1453, England had lost everything but Calais, and Poitou was firmly back in French hands. Today, the former Plantagenet territory of Deux-Sèvres is one of four departments that make up the Poitou-Charentes region. Tucked between the Loire Valley and the Atlantic Coast, it may not offer the high-profile tourist attractions of La Rochelle, Ile-de-Ré or Cognac Country, but Deux-Sèvres does offer a bucketload of authentic French charm.
Its largely rural landscape includes delightful small towns and villages, glorious Romanesque churches, and a unique expanse of beautiful wetland habitat. What’s more, it’s easy to get to. Drive south from the western channel ports, or do as I did and take the train from Paris- Montparnasse to Niort, and pick up a hire car.
Arriving early evening, I enjoyed an innovative mix of flavours over dinner at L’Adress, a popular restaurant close to my elegant B&B, Maison la Porte Rouge. Next morning, I set out for the 10-minute stroll to the medieval keep, Niort’s major tourist attraction. The permanent exhibition – opened last year – makes a good starting point for exploring the area, and visitors with smartphones can access additional information in English by scanning the QR code.
Centuries may have passed since the Plantagenets presided over Poitou but their story still resounds around the ancient stones. The riverside castle was begun by Henry II and completed by his son, Richard the Lionheart. After their deaths, Niort and the regional capital of Poitiers – 70km to the south – were granted independence in 1199 by Eleanor and her son King John as a shrewd political reward for their loyalty.
Niort grew rich from a leather industry based on hides transported by river from the coastal town of La Rochelle. Today, the old tanneries along the river have been replaced by an impressive array of cultural centres, among them the Centre National des Arts de la Rue, where international performers try out their new acts on lucky local audiences.
Home to some 70,000 inhabitants, 21st-century Niort is best known as home to the headquarters of France’s major insurance companies, a buzzing county town that this year proudly unveiled the urban redesign of Place de la Brèche. Linked to the river by a network of pedestrian streets, this vast square is now a green space with car parking below instead of above ground, themed gardens, play areas and cafés.
Niort is also proud of its Coulée Verte, a green corridor of shady towpaths for walkers and cyclists that stretches from the city centre westwards to Magné on the edge of the Marais Poitevin. Within minutes, you can be out of town and in ‘village’ suburbs such as St-Liguaire with its picturesque weir and riverside restaurants.
France’s second largest area of marshland is split into three distinct habitats, but it’s the ‘Green Venice’ landscape of tree-lined pastures bisected by canals that forms the iconic picture of the Marais Poitevin. Straddling Deux-Sèvres, Vendée and Charente-Maritime, and classified as the seventh Grand Site de France in 2010, this unique landscape has been drained and tamed by man since medieval times, and several of its prettiest villages lie in Deux-Sèvres.
Don’t miss Coulon, ‘capital’ of Green Venice, and nearby Arçais with its charming eco-hotel Maison Flore. Quiet now, they bustled with water traffic in centuries past. The best way to appreciate the unique natural habitat is to take a guided excursion in a traditional flat-bottomed boat or barque, watching out for coypu, water birds and deer. Aim for early morning or dusk for the full marais magic.
Boat may be the traditional method of transport in the Marais Poitevin, but travellers have been crossing the department on foot since the Middle Ages. One of the main pilgrims’ routes to Santiago de Compostela slices across the south-east corner of the department, linking Poitiers with Saintes via Melle, while a secondary route brought pilgrims south through Parthenay and Niort. Today the Romanesque churches and chapels that dot the routes attract not just pilgrims but anyone who enjoys spiritual architecture. The church of St-Hilaire in Melle is one of six buildings along the main route that have been listed by UNESCO.
This southern part of Deux-Sèvres is also famous for its goats’ cheese, the distinctive white domes of the Chabichou, as well as the lesser known Mothais-sur-Feuille, a cheese that takes on the flavour of the chestnut, sycamore or plane leaf it is wrapped in while ripening. Follow the brown Route du Chabichou et des Fromages de Chèvre signs to visit farm producers.
North of Niort and the flatter lands of the Niortais, you pass seamlessly into the bocage landscape of the Gâtine which surrounds Parthenay, an enchanting town with a population of 10,000. Classified as Pays d’Art et d’Histoire, the area is bisected by the picturesque River Thouet. Look out for distinctive Parthenais cattle grazing the lush meadows, recognisable by their russet brown coats and soulful black eyes edged in white.
Parthenay grew up around a strategic castle on a rocky promontory tucked in a meander of the river and was partly financed by King John, then Count of Poitou. Today, only the outer walls and a couple of towers remain, but enter the vast grassy courtyard and it’s easy to imagine the influence it would have had in the Middle Ages.
Follow in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims – ancient and modern – through narrow streets lined with half-timbered houses; admire Parthenay’s Romanesque churches; and enjoy panoramic views across the rooftops from the ‘medieval’ hilltop gardens and from the citadel terrace above the old tannery district of St-Paul. Parthenay is also something of a party town; its cultural centre and Palais des Congrès hosting jazz, traditional music and dance, and a two-week summer games festival in early July.
There are games of a very different kind at Bressuire to the north-west, the surprise venue for a hugely popular Highland Games in early June. Bressuire has been twinned with Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire for two decades and the fifth anniversary of the twinning was celebrated with a Highland Games weekend in 1996, with a repeat performance in 2001. Now the athletics, dancing and music are an annual event, held beneath the walls of the 1,000-year-old château.
Part of the World Series of Highland Games, the competition revolves around five core ‘heavy’ events – the caber toss, stone put, Scottish hammer throw, weight throw, and weight over the bar. Competitors come from all over Europe in an attempt to add to their world series scores, and of course there are marching pipe bands and Scottish dancers, with the added bonus of a Saturday night concert.
If all this energy spurs you into action, you can enjoy a gentler form of exercise by following the Thouet à Vélo cycle trail, which links the Loire à Vélo at Saumur with the Marais Poitevin at Niort. On a bigger scale, it is part of Véloroute 43, a national trail linking the ferry port of Caen-Ouistreham in Normandy with La Rochelle on the Atlantic Coast.
Around 150km of the route passes through Deux-Sèvres along the pretty Thouet valley, following quiet agriculture roads or dedicated cycle tracks. Along the route, five towns, including Parthenay and Thouars, offer parking areas where short-haul cyclists can leave their cars, and 30 rest areas provide chill-out time with a view, as well as picnic areas. Ask at any departmental tourist office about bike hire, as well as the free booklet containing route maps, facility information and ideas for places to visit.
You don’t need to cycle very far either to find something of interest. I found some delightful distractions in the pretty village of St-Loup-sur-Thouet with its 17th-century château and adjoining gardens, beautifully restored and listed as monuments historiques. And less than 10km along the river, I stopped at Airvault, where the village centre is dominated by a Romanesque abbey church and a rectangular covered market surrounded by stone pillars.
Legend has it that Aldéarde d’Aulnay, Viscountess of Thouars at the end of the 10th century, fell into a marsh and was pulled to safety by a cow, presumably a Parthenais. To show her thanks, Aldéarde founded the abbey and the town grew up around it. If hunger beckons, park your bike – or car – close to the abbey and head for Le12, a buzzing bistro serving a daily lunch menu of fresh local fare.
A variety of colourful historical figures have been associated with Château de Tennessus, just off the Thouet valley, near Lageon. Now a unique chambres d’hôtes it’s a fabulous example of how new life can be breathed into old buildings by caring owners.
There are more beautiful heritage buildings in Thouars, an attractive small town perched on a cliff above the Thouet, and a short drive to the east stands the impressive Château d’Oiron, the most southerly castle of the Loire Valley. Now run by Monuments Historiques, its Renaissance exterior hides some dramatic surprises. Instead of rooms full of lavish period furnishings, Château d’Oiron is home to a collection of contemporary art, some weird, some wonderful, but all of it guaranteed to make you think.
Launched in 1993, the collection of Curios and Mirabilia is inspired by the former owner and avid art collector Claude Gouffier, equerry to François I and Henri II. Based on the Renaissance theme ‘Cabinets de Curiosités’, each room is a work of art in its own right; created by artists from around the world.
I particularly like the Bulb Room, where light shines through glasses of red wine to create a light bulb effect, and the Dining Room, where profiles of 150 inhabitants of the local village are painted on white plates hung on the walls. Beneath each plate, the owner’s initials are engraved on wine glasses, and their fingerprints reproduced on napkins that are used each year at a celebratory dinner.
And among all this modern interpretation are examples of the château’s original décor, including the fabulous painted walls and ceiling of the Renaissance Gallery – a shining example of how old and new blend perfectly together in the department of Deux-Sèvres. LF