Poitiers is one of those places where it seems that History itself is walking along the streets with you. Founded in the Roman times, it had aqueducts, baths, roads, fortifications, and of course churches. The oldest religious building in France, the 4th century Baptistery, is still standing. Though the town is not large, with the population of less than 100,000, there are perhaps more churches than anywhere else in Europe. The huge Saint-Pierre Cathedral was built in the 11-12th centuries. Eglise Notre-Dame is the oldest Romanesque style church in France. The University, founded in 1431, is one of the oldest in Europe. Many celebrated women left their mark on the town through the centuries. I remembered Diane De Poitiers (1599-1666) from a novel by Alexander Dumas. She was mistress to King Henry II of France. Twenty years his senior, she was virtually the queen in all but title for many years, until exiled, after Henry’s death, by his lawful wife Catherine De Medici. Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) walked those same streets much earlier. As a young girl, she was married to King Louis VII of France. When the marriage was annulled, instead of disappearing into obscurity, Eleanor married King Henry II of England, who was 11 years younger than she. She went on to be a great queen, and mother of two future kings of England. Joan of Arc’s inquest, which eventually led to her execution, was held in Poitiers in 1429. There are variously colored arrows drawn on the old cobblestone roads and streets, to make it easier for the tourists to visit most historical places. Before you go, it is useful to learn some basic phrases in French, as not everybody will speak English.
Poitiers is where we learned that Hotel De Ville is not a hotel, but the City Hall. It is very beautiful, facing a large rectangular square, with lots of cafes and restaurants strategically situated all around the perimeter. On sunny days, it seems that the whole town gets out for lunch or dinner. There is a huge market right next to the Notre-Dame church. Flower shops are located at every corner, and one is tempted to stop and stare at the lovely displays inside and outside. The local bakeries, patisseries, boulangeries, croissanteries, have an amazing selection of tartes, cookies, croissants, chocolates and various sweetmeats. Though all the shops are closed at weekends, one can find all the necessary toiletries in a pharmacy. Some places remind one unexpectedly of the south of Germany, like Office De Tourisme and the surrounding buildings. Many others are unique to the region. One can wander around, following the arrows, relaxing in parks, and then having lunch of dinner at a café. Poitiers is definitely a place which makes one remember all the lessons of history, which may have seemed rather dull at school, and which come alive in this beautiful old modern town.