With its ancient churches, numerous bookstores and fantastic shops, Poitiers is one of my favourite French cities. Its medieval centre is a delight to wander around, a maze of winding streets featuring charming timber-clad buildings and distractingly tempting food shops and cafés.
When we arrived in the city, we decided to take a self-guided walking tour around its medieval centre, which took in most of the city’s sights. After a quick cup of coffee near the university, we set off down the Rue Gambetta, stopping to look in the many shops that took our fancy – and there were quite a few! – along the way.
Our first destination was the Church of Saint Hilary the Great. The church is a short walk beyond the city centre, tucked away in a residential area, and as I followed the map to the church, I had to repeatedly reassure everyone that we were going the right way.
The church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was built in the 11th century to honour the first Bishop of Poitiers, St Hilaire. The Romanesque church is a striking, weathered building, the highlight inside being its beautiful high vaulted ceiling, and I was glad we’d made the detour to go to the church as it was well worth seeing.
From the church, we walked back towards the city centre, where we passed the impressive town hall and carried on walking in the direction of the Palace of Justice. The palace was once the home of the counts and dukes of Aquitaine, and counts the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine among its former inhabitants.
Its renowned for its dining hall, the Salle des Pas Perdus (the hall of the lost footsteps), which was commissioned by Eleanor of Aquitaine in the late 12th century and is so-called because it’s said to be so big you can’t hear any footsteps within. We weren’t able to go inside on the day we visited, so we stopped to admire the stunning view of the back of the palace instead (above).
We then made our way to the Rue Jean-Jaures and carried on down the street to the Baptistery of St John (above). The Merovingian baptistery is said to be the oldest church in France and dates back to the 4th century. We had a quick look inside and found it to be a fascinating, unusual place with amazing medieval frescoes on the walls and random stone sarcophagi dotted around the place.
From the baptistery, we headed over to the city’s cathedral, the Cathédrale de Saint Pierre (above). The impressive 12th century cathedral was commissioned by Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and was built on the site of a ruined Roman basilica. It’s a massive, imposing structure from the outside, while inside it’s an elegant space with creamy stone walls and a high vaulted ceiling.
We spent ages looking around the cathedral, admiring its many notable features including its 13th century wooden choir stalls, its bright, colourful stained glass windows and its grand 18th century organ. I was particularly taken by the intricate carvings above the main doors (above).
Having looked around the cathedral, we headed back to the town centre, passing some quirky and intriguing shops on the Rue de la Cathédrale and the large Notre-Dame la Grande church as we went.
Before leaving, I was keen to visit a large bookshop I’d passed earlier in the day on the Rue Gambetta, Gilbert Joseph. I’m a massive bibliophile and always on the look out for some new (French) children’s history books I can read, so I was keen to check out their selection. Despite having a very thorough rummage – much to everyone else’s consternation – I couldn’t find what I was looking for.
With its long and varied history, characterful buildings and excellent shopping, Poitiers is a wonderful city and I could easily have spent longer there. In fact, I probably could have done with a whole day just to browse in all the interesting shops I passed. The food shops in particular looked very enticing, especially the chocolate shops and patisseries, and I’d probably need a month to eat everything that took my fancy. I thoroughly enjoyed my day trip to the city, so much so if I were ever to move to a French city, Poitiers would be at the top of my list.