In 2008, fleeing the transport nightmare that was Paris, we did a flying visit to La Rochelle with our daughter, just to see what it was like. We fell in love with the place and will have to go back sometime. La Rochelle was easy to walk around with a beautiful, large central park. The shopping centre was colonnaded like a Roman forum and great to stroll around. The marina area was lively with plenty of outdoor dining available. If you like mussels this is the place to go, though, because this town caters more for English tourists than Aussies, your mussels will probably come with chips!
Not wanting to be in Paris, research prior to leaving home suggested that Poitiers and surrounding areas would be an interesting part of France to visit. We weren’t disappointed. Poitiers itself is a really attractive town, steeped in history and there was so much to see and do in the area, we just didn’t have enough time.
We decided to splurge and stay in a real castle. Le Chateau d’Avanton dates from the 16th century and is located 10 km from Poitiers. We had an apartment that spanned both levels of the turrets, accessed by a narrow, winding stone staircase. This was so much fun. There is no point in travelling if you are going to stay in generic, brand-name hotels that look the same world over. Staying in a castle, however gives you a sense of history and culture that you can’t get anywhere else.
You really need to hire a car to appreciate the Poitiers region fully. Driving in Europe on the “wrong” side of the road is always a challenge for Aussies, but France was particularly difficult as signposting was virtually non-existent. The day we went to Saint-Sarvin it took us several attempts to find the right road out of Poitiers! In hindsight it would probably be wise to get GPS.
Notre-Dame la Grande is a Roman Catholic church dating from the early 11th century. It was extensively restored in the 1990s and every evening in summer the western façade is colourfully illuminated to recreate the original mediaeval paintwork. What an effective and stunning way of bringing history alive!
Futuroscope is a place I find difficult to describe. Located 10 km from Poitiers it is France’s second largest theme park. Wikipedia describes it like this: “Futuroscope, or Parc du Futuroscope is a French theme park based upon multimedia, cinematographic futuroscope and audio-visual techniques.” It is definitely something very different, not a roller coaster in sight, and is a fun day out.
L’Île aux Serpents – Snake Island. My husband has always been an amateur herpetologist and has passed his love of all things scaly onto our daughter. I tolerate them as long as the reptiles stay behind glass. When they found a brochure for L’Île aux Serpents there was no stopping them. The website is in French so you will need to translate it if you wish to refer to it. In addition to more than 300 reptiles, L’Île aux Serpents, has a mammalian display of reptile predators including mongoose, meerkats and otters. Whilst the whole display was excellent, my favourites were the otters. The female appeared to be collecting nesting material whilst the male ran back and forth, standing erect to keep watch whilst emitting lots of high-pitched squeaking sounds to ward us off. It didn’t work, we were entranced and stayed for ages.
Saint-Savin is 50km east of Poitiers and boasts a World Heritage listed Abbey which is well worth visiting.
“The Abbey of Saint-Savin sur-Gartempe in the Vienne is famed for its 11th century paintings that have made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site – it has been called the Romanesque Sistine Chapel – but the church itself is also beautiful with its marble-style columns (put in during the 19th century) that are swirls of lovely colour, stretching upwards.
The abbey is said to have been founded in the time of Charlemagne (747-814), to shelter the bodies of two fifth-century martyrs, Savin and Cyprian – the original tomb still survives. It was rebuilt in the 11th century and the murals are from this time. The spire was added in the 14th century …
… The murals were first restored in the mid-19th century, and then again in between 2005-2008 and now the colours – ochre reds and yellows, browns and greens – are really strong. They portray stories from Genesis and Exodus, in the order in which they are found in the Bible. Some have disappeared but most are still there including Noah’s Ark, the old man drunk and naked sometime later, the Passage through the Red Sea with its rearing horses, and the building of the Tower of Babel.”
As you can see, just as the UK is not all about London, France is so much more than Paris.