As Northampton, our ex-home town, is twinned with Poitiers, we decided that being in the general area it was essential for us to visit the town. Although about 45 minutes in the opposite direction to our planned route, what have we got if not time to spare? So off we went to Poitiers.
We drove a futile loop of the central ring road from north east to south west, looking for a suitable parking space, but nothing was available, the streets were lined with cars parked haphazardly on pavements and packed tightly into small car-parking spaces – no room for us in Benny.
We eventually got parked in a partly residential and partly commercial area, on a small side street called Rue Blaise Pascal, the first opportunity we had found to leave Benny and begin our walk into the centre; rather than bikes, we decided it was trainers on and a brisk half hour jaunt into town.
Approaching from the south west, we first arrived in Parc de Blossac, a beautiful fountained park with avenues of coiffured trees and tiny hidden spaces featuring ponds or statues. These were the moments we both savoured; being out in the fresh air in a new place, with no fixed goal, exploring and discovering something new to us. It also didn’t hurt that it was a Monday morning, the sun was high in the sky, the morning temperature already 34C and we had literally nothing to do other than be here, walking and enjoying the day.
Poitiers has a long and complicated historical past, being an important and strategic city since Roman times. We headed first for the local tourist office, both to utilise their free wi-fi and to find out more information about the town, ensuring we explored its main sights fully.
We passed a fantastic central plaza adjacent to the Hôtel de Ville, the impressive town hall, built from matching marble. The local cafés spilled tables out onto the sun-drenched marble and crowds of locals enjoyed an early lunch, created a wonderfully vibrant atmosphere. We walked on through old, cobbled streets lined with modern stores with high-end shopping, before reaching the more historic centre-ville.
Within the main central quarter sits one of the best preserved Romanesque churches in Poitiers, the Notre-Dame-La-Grande. The church was originally built on this site in the 10th century, was rebuilt in the 11th and subsequently consecrated by Pope Urban II in 1086. With a chequered history, the church was extended and renovated many times over the following centuries, until many of the intricately detailed statues were deliberately defaced or destroyed in 1562 due to the iconoclasm of Huguenots. Major renovations were undertaken later in the 1990s to protect the church from the ravages of pollution and time.
Internally, the plan is lacking a transept, so does not form the traditional Latin cross plan of most churches. In the 19th century, the interior columns were brightly decorated in decorative murals, although the boldness and gaudiness of the interior was heavily criticised by notable contemporary historians. The coffered ceilings and internal chapels are mostly gothic, with a modern Great Organ being added in the late 20th century. The history and the present of the church is a mixed collection of eras, ideas and contrasting styles. In summer, although we arrived too late for the spectacle, the local council, at twilight, bathe the front façade in colourful motifs to reflect the ancient past and recreate the medieval tradition of painted churches. From available postcards, this looks to be quite the transformation; sorry to have missed it.
After a brief lunch on a cool stone bench beside the Notre Dame La Grande church, we walked on to visit the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Poitiers. Sporting a grand façade with asymmetrical towers each side of an arched entrance, unfortunately this one was closed, open for only one hour a day, half in the early morning and half late at night, so we were unable to visit the interior. Still, it was definitely worth the walk to see.
We’re enjoying being able to be more active during the working week day times, instead of just limited to nights and weekends. Although only a leisurely walk through interesting streets, it still feels quite decadent to be outside, feeling the benefit of simple exercise and with the sun on our backs. Reading and learning of new places also helps to exercise the mind, remembering how to study, observe and ultimately understand.
The city of Poitiers contrasted sharply with my thoughts on Northampton town centre, although this may be the bias of an ephemeral visit over living permanently talking, expanded by the fantastic weather that generally increases the beauty of everything. In all, a worthy place to see, we’re glad we made the detour.