Set on the banks of the River Sevre Niortaise, Niort is the gateway to the Marais. The town’s green riverside walks and gardens with footbridges and remains of old mill streams are pleasant places to wander or fish.
An old glove factory in ruins beside the river is a reminder of the time when Niort supported a prosperous leather industry.
The town has some fine Renaissance buildings, including the old town hall, and a variety of half-timbered houses in the pedestrianised areas of rue Victor-Hugo and rue St Jean.
Niort’s daily market in its nineteenth century glass-and-wrought-iron market hall is largest on Saturdays.
The town’s castle keep stands high above the river. This attractive twin-towered ‘donjon’ is reputed to have been begun by Henry II of England. Climb to the top for great views and visit its little museum to learn the local history of glove-making.
Modern Niort is an important centre for the insurance industry and there is no shortage of good shops - including chocolatiers selling Niort’s famous crystalised angelica - and plenty of lunch-time restaurants to choose from around town.
The churches of Notre-Dame and Saint-Andre each sit on one of the small hills on which Niort is built. For information on guided visits on Wednesday evenings in summer, tel: (00 33) 49 24 18 79.
Parthenay is said to have been created by the wave of legendary fairy Melusine’s wand. In reality, written records began in the eleventh century and the building of the town’s thirteenth century network of fortifications and moats was funded by the English King during his battles with the King of France.
Designated a town of artistic, architectural and historic interest, amongst buildings worth visiting are the Romanesque church of Saint Croix, castle chapel of Notre-Dame-de-la-Coudre and remains of a thirteenth century castle on a rocky spur overlooking the River Thouet.
Parthenay was once a major stopover on the route to Santiago de Compostela. History seems to come to life around the timbered houses and medieval suburbs on a loop of the river and especially the Saint-Jacques Bridge and fortified gate where pilgrims would enter the town. There are guided tours from the tourist office on Tuesdays and Fridays in summer - sometimes in English. For more information, tel: (00 33) 5 49 64 24 24. Parthenay also gives its name to the coppery Parthenais breed of beef cattle which you will see grazing in the surrounding countryside of the Gatine Vendeenne region.
Parthenay-Vieux is within walking distance of the town and its twelfth century church of Saint-Pierre de Parthenay-le-Vieux is well worth visiting. This beautiful Romanesque church with octagonal bell tower and typically poitevine façade, displays rich carvings which are a true delight. Spot all manner of characterful figures and animals including a siren half woman and half fish; mounted knight with his hawk; row of little cat heads and another row of long-haired ladies each half submerged in a tub.
Encircled by its river, Thouars the main town in the Thouet Valley, is another of Deux Sevres’s designated towns of artistic, architectural and historic interest. Visit the recently re-opened Prince of Wales Tower. The tourist office in this town of beautiful parks and churches with ancient ramparts organises themed guided tours in July and August. Tel: (00 33) 5 49 66 17 65 for more details.
Thouars is dominated by a chateau belonging to the Dukes de la Tremoille in the seventeenth century. After the Revolution, it was used as a barracks and later a prison. Today, the chateau is a school which can be visited by tourists on Sundays and in summer.
Of the various chateaux surrounding the town, Chateau d’Oiron is perhaps the most interesting. Children please note: it is said to be the background for an episode in Charles Perrault’s fairy story of ‘Puss in Boots’ - the cunning, sword-fighting cat more recently made famous in the Shrek films.
Chateau Oiron was built in the sixteenth century by Henry II’s grand equerry and is known as the most southerly of the Loire Chateaux. Although refurbished in the seventeenth century, the Chateau had become semi-derelict by the time the French government took it over before WWII. It is now a museum for contemporary art. The traditional exterior remains but be prepared for a surprise when you venture inside. Parts such as the Renaissance gallery, with its sixteenth century frescoes, have been renovated in traditional style but in other rooms contemporary artists have used modern materials to dramatic effect.
Open daily 1 June to 30 Sept, 1030 - 1800; 1 Oct to 31 May, 1030-1700. Closed Jan, 1 May, 1 - 11 Nov and 25 Dec.
Melle was founded in the reign of Charlemagne, became important because of its silver mines and developed in the twelfth century as a stopping point on a pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela.
This lively little town has a wealth of medieval houses and 3 beautiful Romanesque churches built during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The most impressive is Saint-Hilaire now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Any tour of the town and its surroundings should include Melle’s ancient fountains and wash-houses such as the Pre de la Maladerie, reserved for lepers. Those wanting to stretch their legs further can take the 6km ‘Aboretum, Chemin de la Decouverte’ themed walks along what was once as a railway track past over 1000 different trees and shrubs and many roses.
Melle tourist office has information on routes and audio guides for hire. The Friday market is the place to buy local produce including Deux Sevres’s famous chabichou goat’s cheese.
Visit the historic walled town of Airvault, 20km north east of Parthenay. Its gem of a Romanesque church, St-Pierre d’Airvault, has an underground spring and is said to have been built in 975AD by the wife of Viscount Herbert I of Thouars.
Close by, the ancient Augustinian abbey to which it belonged has been converted into an extensive museum of country life. Open every day May to Sept and Wednesday afternoons only Oct to April. Other times by appointment. Contact Airvault Tourist Office on (00 33) 5 49 70 84 03 for more information.
Best known for its wine appellation controlee Saumur - and its underground pigeonnier - it’s well worth stopping at Tourtenay to explore its narrow streets, eleventh century church, troglodyte dwellings, chateau and Roman bridge.
Melle silver mines were once the site of the French mint, producing coins known as Deniers between the fifth and tenth centuries. By the eighteenth century, the mines had fallen out of use.
Today, this site of the oldest silver mine in Europe is a tourist attraction with guided tours of part of its 20km long galleries each day offering fascinating information on geology and Carolingian methods of mining and minting. Open every day 1 April – 2 Nov. Tel: (00 33) 5 49 29 19 54 for other times. Free entry for under 6s.
The royal Abbey is a superb seventeenth century building standing in beautiful formal gardens. Parts of the church with its Gothic bell tower are said to date back to the twelfth century. Open to the public every day from 15 June till 15 Sept. For more information contact: (00 33) 5 49 32 14 99.