Life in Vienne

PUBLISHED: 14:13 26 September 2012

Gouzon castle © A la france / Alamy

Gouzon castle © A la france / Alamy

© A la france / Alamy

Standing proud between Paris and Pau, Vienne has a rich past and one eye firmly fixed on an exciting future, as Paul Lamarra discovers

No other locality has a promotional film quite like the department of Vienne. Lying halfway between Paris and Bordeaux, Vienne and its capital Poitiers have had to find imaginative ways of making their presence felt.

Once you have been strapped into your seat at the Dynamic Vienne attraction at the department’s Futuroscope theme park, you are subjected to a thrilling 4D cinema experience that has you swooping like a raptor over rivers, driving a racing car around the track at Le Vigeant or trying to avoid a crash in an out-of-control Citroën 2CV on the narrow streets of historic Chauvigny.

The lasting impression, however, is not one of thrills and speed but of a department shaped by its meandering rivers: the Vienne, Clain, Gartempe, Creuse and Anglin. Wooded for much of their lengths, the rivers give the gently rolling landscape of pasture and swaying wheat fields its character and, most importantly, give rise to the fertility that has drawn settlers here since the earliest times.

Created in the heat of the 1789 revolution, Vienne is one of the original 83 departments and borrows territory from the abolished duchies of Poitou, Touraine and Berry. Today it is the most northerly department of the Poitou-Charentes region, which stretches out to the Atlantic coast, La Rochelle and Île-de-Ré.

Poitiers, the biggest town and seat of the préfecture, has been settled since Celtic times and had by the forth century become the Roman city of Pictavium. There is no evidence that it was the capital of Gallia Aquitania, a province covering the whole of the south-west, but it is widely assumed that it must have been.

It was believed that Poitiers’ hill-top position overlooking the rivers Gartempe and Vienne made it virtually impregnable.

To be on the safe side, the Romans built a wall and a segment of this wall is one of the few Roman fragments to be found in the city today. Until 1857, a Roman amphitheatre that could hold 34,000 spectators (bigger than the Arènes de Nîmes), survived in Poitiers but it was swept away in a modernising purge.

It was, however, in the Middle Ages that Poitiers and Vienne really began to thrive. From the forth century, Poitiers had been an ecclesiastical centre and bishopric; with 35 parishes in operation, up until the Revolution it was known as the ‘city of 100 steeples’. Today there are 10 historic churches within the city and the most significant is Notre-Dame-la-Grande on Place Charles-de-Gaulle.

Known for its ornate Romanesque frontage, medieval stonemasons carved every object imaginable into its limestone blocks. As well as the usual biblical depictions, there are fruits and vegetables and earless elephants to be picked out.

Religious orders, attracted by the fertile land, established abbeys in the Vienne countryside at St-Savin-sur-Gartempe and at Montmorillon in the east of the department.

The abbey church was begun in the 11th century and its frescoed ceilings and Romanesque murals are considered the finest in France and perhaps Europe. It has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983.

Romanesque churches are a feature of Vienne and visitors can overdose on medieval art by following the River Gartempe through what is know as the ‘valleys of the frescoes’ between St-Savin and Saulgé. The art within the Crypt of Saint Catherine and the Chapelle Saint-Laurent in Montmorillon are also considered highlights.

Montmorillon has also declared itself a village dedicated to book craft and the written word; its streets are lined with intriguing bookshops and the studios of other artists attracted by the bookish ambiance.

Much of Vienne’s early prosperity was down to large numbers of pilgrims passing through on their way to Santiago de Compostela to visit the grave of Saint-James the Apostle and there are two important routes that cross the department. However, it was the Hundred Years War of the 14th and 15th centuries, when Poitiers fell in and out of English control, that was to have the biggest influence.

When Paris fell to the English in 1418, the French parliament and the University of Paris moved to Poitiers. For almost 20 years, the city was effectively the capital of France. When Jeanne d’Arc approached King Charles VII in 1429 to inform him of her divine mission, he sent her to Poitiers to be scrutinised by the bishops, theologians and legal minds based in exile there.

Much of the questioning took place in the Palais de Poitiers in a chapel adjoining the Salle de Pas Perdus – a hall so large that even the sound of footsteps is lost.

Still in existence at the very centre of Poitiers, in the 12th century it was home to the counts of Poitiers and most famously Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II and Queen of England. Since the Revolution, the palace has taken on the role of law court and the salle is its dramatic waiting room.

Today, Poitiers is considered one of the finest seats of learning in France, particularly for the study of law. The university, which was established in 1431 by those exiled academics, is the second oldest in France and its alumni includes Descartes, Rabelais and Balzac.

Similar to Oxford and Cambridge, the University of Poitiers occupies many of the ancient townhouses that are to be found in the narrow medieval back streets that lead away from the palace. Here in Poitiers, there is a continuity of learning that is unusual in France where university campuses tend to be modern.

With 25,000 students out of a population of 93,000, Poitiers has a very lively feel. Nowhere in France is there such a concentration of students.

The university with 2,600 members of staff is, along with the university hospital, by far the biggest employer in Vienne although the department is also a popular locale for distribution companies and large multinationals such as Peugeot, Chrysler and Michelin.

La Serrurerie, a belle époque Poitiers bistro, hums over lunchtime with intelligent chat as students and academics enjoy the carefully prepared but inexpensive fair.

The atmospheric surroundings of La Serrurerie, with its zinc bar top, ornate mirrors and neat rows of wooden tables, also offer a valuable insight into the mindset of Poitiers and Vienne: it is clearly a department that values tradition but also one that celebrates youth and one that is eager to look ahead.

Modern fashion outlets in Poitiers respect the medieval half-timbered frontages while a large black modernist cube houses the new 800-seat theatre and 1,028-seat auditorium where the Orchestre Poitou-Charentes always plays to a full house. As a venue, it is widely known as one that embraces contemporary arts.

It is, however, for the Futuroscope theme park that Vienne is best known. Always delivering a sense of the future is a relentless undertaking. However, Futuroscope continues to successfully maintain its position as France’s second most popular theme park after Disneyland Paris with its continually changing versions of the future. This year, it celebrates its 25th birthday but there will be no looking back.

Buildings of striking and unusual geometry that confound traditional norms house cinemas that offer cutting-edge audio-visual experiences of which Dynamic Vienne is just one.

Currently it is 4D cinema that lies at the frontier and new attractions such as the 4D Arthur Adventure, which places the viewer in the fantasy world of the popular feature-length animation; replacing a passive 3D experience with a very realistic adventure that features every twist, turn and near miss of a high-speed flight aboard a willing ladybird. The viewer, of course, is safely strapped into a hydraulically controlled seat.

Earlier this year, the new Arthur attraction was awarded the best worldwide theme park ride of the year and is the first French attraction to be so acclaimed.

A gentler and more timeless appeal is to be found in the Vienne countryside. The lazy meandering rivers overhung with oaks are perfect for a peaceful day’s fishing or a soothing paddle in a canoe.

The gently undulating countryside is the ideal landscape in which to site a golf course and Golfe du Poitou situated on the shores of Lac de St-Cyr halfway between Poitiers and Châtellerault boasts a pitch n’ putt course for all comers, nine-hole course for improvers and an 18-hole course for more experienced players.

Cycling free on the many miles of quiet back roads or confined to Vélo Rail is perhaps the most popular way of getting to know Vienne.

Despite its restrictions, pedalling the tracks of the Vélo Rail that run on an old quarry line to the east of Poitiers does, however, afford the best views of the medieval citadel of Chauvigny and its five fortified châteaux. One of the daily musts of a visit to Chauvigny is the Giants of the Sky bird shows where vultures, eagles and owls fly among the ruins of Château des Évêques.

For those who prefer to roam on foot, there are thousands of kilometres of marked trails.

The two variants of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela are signposted as grandes randonnées: GR48 and GR655. Both routes emanate from the city of Tours by the Loire. However, GR48 enters Vienne from the east at Angles-sur-l’Anglin and takes in the most important religious centres at St-Savin and Montmorillon whereas the GR655 takes a more direct route through Châtellerault and Poitiers.

Angles-sur-l’Anglin, one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France, is dominated by an 11th-century fortified château that runs along the spine of a limestone bluff overlooking the river. Once famous for its lace, Angles is now a sleepy backwater.

Two kilometres upstream from Angles there is the Roc aux Sorciers where cave art depicting bison, horses and goats was discovered in 1927. The detailed reliefs are thought to be around 15,000 years old and have prompted locals to claim that Vienne is a birthplace of humanity.

Vienne and its capital Poitiers have the best of many worlds. It has the vitality that students bring, there are good TGV connections with Paris, Bordeaux and Charles-de-Gaulle airport, there is a vibrant and cutting-edge cultural scene and yet there is space here to breathe and to wander and above all life in a small city such as Poitiers or in the Vienne countryside is affordable.

Lying halfway between Paris and Bordeaux, it is an area that has had to learn to adapt to change and while its roots stretch deep in the past its spirit is soaring boldly towards the future.

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