Poitiers, a stroll through the Romanesque in a quiet city

There are a lot of us who appreciate strolling through the quiet historic section of a city when we travel, far from the bustling hotspots, visiting places of deep cultural interest and glimpsing delightful, out-of-the-way nooks. That is what I was able to experience during my visit to Poitiers. Poitiers is on the World Heritage list as part of the French network of cities on the Way of Saint James, and it’s worth visiting, even should you have been originally drawn to this area of western France by the nearby Futuroscope theme park. Poitiers’ great Romanesque heritage, including stunning murals, is enough of a reason to get to know the city.

Church of Notre Dame

The Romanesque Church of Notre Dame is the great artistic jewel that justifies a trip to Poitiers. It stands in the main square of the city’s historic centre. I was really impressed by its 12th-century façade and especially the great beauty of the murals from the same era that decorate the church's interior. What’s more, in summer the façade is made even greater by a light show, a different one each night; when I was there, I saw it lit up in the Byzantine style. You can see more murals in two other Romanesque churches, the Church of Sainte-Radegonde (spectacular!) and the Church of Saint-Hilaire.

Musée Sainte-Croix

The best way to get to know the historical roots of the city of Poitier is by visiting the Musée Saint-Croix, where you’ll see all kinds of things, from archaeological findings from thousands of years ago and Roman-age items to objects and works of art from later eras. What really drew my attention among these objects were a crystal reliquary vase from the 11th century (the only such vase still remaining from the Middle Ages) and the sculptures and the very interesting story of Camille Claudel, an artist who in her time was better known for being in a relationship with her mentor Rodin.

3 bis rue Jean-Jaurès
Facebook Musée sainte-Croix (External link)

Saint Peter’s Cathedral

Romanesque art is really the star in Poitier, but the city is also home to one of the leading examples of Gothic architecture, the 12th-century Saint Peter’s Cathedral. Inside is a 12th-century stained-glass window, but what really caught my eye was the painted murals from the same period. The murals were discovered only very recently, in 2010, and now they can be viewed fully restored.

Hotel Mercure Centre

In downtown Poitiers you can also stay at a charming hotel like the Mercure Centre. Located in a building that used to be a Franciscan monastery in the 19th century, the Mercure Centre has rooms like the one I stayed in, thoroughly modern in design but adapted to the building’s unique features, where space is distributed along the wooden structure that holds up the roof. The hotel’s very nice restaurant, Les Archives, occupies the space where the cloister used to be. Its original roof is upheld by thick columns, and the restaurant has now become one of the most stylish places to lunch or dine in Poitiers.

14 rue Edouard Grimaux
Mercure Centre (External link)

Baptistery of Saint John

One small but stunning historical nook of Poitiers is the Baptistery of Saint John. This is the city’s oldest religious building, as it traces its origins to a 4th-century baptismal font in a Roman villa. Inside the 11th-century extension you can see walls covered with murals from the same period.

Rocinante wine cellar and bar

The increasingly popular trend in France is for wine shops to become tapas bars in the evening. And Poitiers has just such a shop. Rocinante is run be Renée, a Spaniard who first went to Poitiers as a student 15 years ago and has since made the city her home. While we snacked on cheese and sausage during our visit, Renée let me in on the key to Rocinante’s success as a tapas bar: ‘Making potato omelettes like they do in Spain’.

176 Grand'Rue
Cave Rocinante (External link)

Macarons de Montmorillon

If you like sweets, in Poitiers you mustn’t miss trying the macarons de Montmorillon. Made with almond and eggs, and in different flavours, these are nothing like the famous Parisian macarons. Bakers have been making them in Poitiers for the last five generations. I discovered them at the Rannou Métivier bakery, where you can also try another typical local sweet, the broyé, a big biscuit that you break into pieces and share.

30 Rue des Cordeliers
Rannou Metiviers (External link)

From the Place Charles de Gaulle to the square in front of City Hall

The backbone of any visit to the old town runs along the pedestrian streets between the Place Charles de Gaulle, where the Church of Notre Dame stands, and the square in front of Poitier’s city hall, the Hôtel de Ville, a great French classical building. In this area you can see more of the city’s cultural heritage, like the former Palace of the Counts of Poitiers, now the courthouse, whose grand Salle des Pas Perdus will remind you of the splendour of 12th-century Poitiers. But the Romanesque heritage peeks out elsewhere as well, like the remains of a former convent you can see in the Passage Cordeliers shopping centre.