Next to the timeless Loire River, Nevers is the capital of the quiet and rural Nièvre Department in central France.
In the past the city was ruled by the Counts and Dukes of Nevers, whose opulent Renaissance house is now the Town Hall.
If you know about decorative art you may already know about Nevers faience, fine earthenware crafted by master potters in an industry that employed thousands of people in the 17th and 18th centuries.
A few workshops still practise this art, and the city’s museum is replete with pieces of astounding workmanship.
Lets explore the best things to do in Nevers:
1. Nevers Cathedral
Anyone familiar with cathedrals will sense something peculiar about this sublime medieval building: There are two apses, one at the west end where the portal to the nave would normally be, and another on the usual east side.
This makes the cathedral utterly unique, and came about because the apse on the west end is a vestige from an earlier Romanesque church that burned down in 1308. In this older apse there’s a fresco painted in the 1100s, and you can descend into the crypt to see an entombment from the 1400s.
The nave and the eastern apse meanwhile are Gothic and mostly from the 13th and 14th centuries.
2. Palais Ducal
On the high ground where Nevers’ political and religious institutions are set is the Ducal Palace, the symbol of power for the old Counts and Dukes of Nevers.
The architecture is spellbinding; it’s a blend of Renaissance designs from the 16th and 17th centuries, with dormer windows, decorative chimneys and a central spiral staircase you can see from the front.
The man who started it was Jean de Clamency, the Count of Nevers, who wanted to live in something more stately than a fortress.
The palace is now the town hall, but also houses Nevers’ tourist office and an exhibition about the city’s past.
3. Musée de la Faïence
Heaven for people with an eye for fine decorative items, this museum in a Benedictine abbey has hundreds of pieces of local faience.
You’ll appreciate the technical knowhow of the Nevers Manufactories.
And this comes in all forms, including tiles, dishes, ceremonial plates statuettes and bottles, all representing more than four centuries of expertise.
But the galleries don’t end there as you can also admire almost 300 pieces of intricate enamelled glass from the 17th and 18th centuries, crafted with a technique that has since been lost.
On top of all this there’s a stash of art from the French and Italian Schools.
4. Faience Workshops
Nevers’ faience industry took off at the end of the 1500s when Italian potters settled here at the invitation of the Duke of Nevers.
Everything was just right for this craft, as the Loire promised swift export and the wood sourced from the Morvan forest could belt out the 1000°C heat to bake these ceramics.
The trade went into decline at the end of the 18th century and only one of the original 12 manufactories survived.
Since the 20th century there has been a rebirth, and you can call in at three workshops, Faiencerie d’art de Nevers, Faiencerie Georges and Faiencerie Bleue to see a master potter at work and make a purchase.
5. Porte du Croux
There’s a really evocative slab of medieval heritage on the west side of the old centre: Looking at the Porte du Croux as you enter the city you can see the slits in the front of the gate for the chains on the drawbridge.
Back in the 14th century this would have been lowered to allow people to cross the Passière River, which has since moved underground.
Look higher and you’ll see the machicolations and turrets that are supported by corbels.
Inside there’s a little archaeology exhibit for Nevers and its region spread over three floors.
6. Promenade des Remparts
From the Porte du Croux you can stroll down to the right bank of the Loire in a pretty garden complemented by a long sliver of the city’s old walls.
These defences were built in the 12th century by the Count of Nevers, Pierre de Courtenay to defend the Abbey of Notre-Dame.
After the 1600s they were never needed again.
But this long stretch of the wall remained incorporated by local properties, while the land that became the garden was never developed because of its marshy ground.
So by a quirk of history and the landscape there’s now a big chunk of the medieval wall beside pergolas, trees, a rose garden and flowerbeds, all ending with vistas over the Loire from the Quai des Mariniers.
7. Église Saint-Étienne
Although not many tourists make it to this church on the east side of the city, anyone who values historic architecture should make the short walk.
The Church of Saint-Étienne is an exceptional Romanesque building, built from a subtly golden limestone more than 900 years ago and hardly altered since then.
The great 19th-century restorer Viollet-le-Duc called it “the most perfect 11th-century monument left to France”. The architecture is sober, and there isn’t much sculpture or ornamentation, but for purity of style and preservation you’ll have to travel a long way to beat this church.
8. Nevers Magny-Cours Circuit
Petrolheads will be aware that the French Grand Prix was a yearly fixture at this racetrack up to 2008 when the French Motorsports Federation pulled out of the tour.
The track is only 15 minutes down the road and apart from welcoming a few minor international events, is mostly used for heritage rallies, testing and “track days”. So if you’d fancy taking a spin on a circuit graced by the likes of Michael Schumacher, Mika Häkkinen and Ayrton Senna you can book a driving experience with one of the companies putting you behind the wheel of a Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche or F1 car.
9. Espace Bernadette
Nevers is also a big pilgrimage site as it was where Bernadette Soubirous became a postulant, and worked in a convent until she passed away in 1879. In case you’re wondering, Soubirou was the woman who witnessed the supposed Marian Apparition that turned the town of Lourdes into one of the most important places in the Catholic world.
There’s a museum here, at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity, explaining her life and routine around the former Saint-Gildard Convent.
Her apparently incorrupt body is displayed in the adjacent chapel.
10. Église Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay
If you wander up to Nevers’ northern suburbs you’ll come across a building that looks nothing like the delicate architecture in the old centre.
You’ll be forgiven for thinking that you’ve found a relic from the war, as this church bears a striking resemblance to a German concrete bunker.
That is no coincidence because the functionalist designer Paul Virilio was a big admirer of the blockhouses that were scattered around France in the post-war years.
There are two half shells of concrete cantilevered on a central pillar, and we can guarantee that you’ve never seen a church like it.
11. Voie Verte de Nevers
In the 19th century a long canal was dug to run alongside the Loire to ensure that goods could still be shipped when the river flooded in winter or dried up in summer.
At Nevers a 13-kilometre length of the canal’s towpath has been converted into a greenway.
This designated cycle lane allows riders of all ages to get out into the verdant countryside around Nevers, which is a mosaic of market gardens bounded by hedges.
And if you’re up for something more adventurous, at the Pont de Guetin the greenway connects with Loire à Vélo, a signposted and serviced trail which traces the river all the way to its estuary in the Atlantic.
12. Chapelle Sainte-Marie
Navigating the streets of the centre, this extravagant building on Rue Saint-Martin should turn your head.
The Chapelle Sainte-Marie has a lavish Italian Baroque style that is unheard of in the Nivernais region and rare in the rest of France too.
It was attached to the Monastery of the Visitation, and was built in the first half of the 17th century.
The future Queen of Poland, Duchess Louise-Marie de Gonzague laid the first stone.
It’s enough to pause in front and gaze at the columns and statue of Madonna with Child, but you can go in to nose around on Saturdays in summer.
13. The Loire
You could also ramble next to this “Fleuve Royal” and imagine the barges shipping faience to all corners of France and Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The banks around Nevers are picturesque and quiet, with little more than woodland, water meadows, hedgerows and vegetable farms.
If you sort out a fishing licence you could visit these banks to catch perch, pike, whitefish and carp.
And you could also rent a canoe or take part in a guided paddle with the Canoë Club Nivernais.
For a motorised voyage there’s a small port at Sermoise-sur-Loire where you can hire a boat for a day or more on the Lateral Canal.
The Allier River joins with the Loire a couple of kilometres west of Never, and if you retrace the course of the Allier for a few minutes you’ll come to a village that needs to be seen to be believed.
Apremont is a group of tiny settlements on the west bank of the river.
Here the Allier’s waters, the rich greenery on the riverside, the rustic stone houses and the Château d’Apremont all combine to make this an unforgettable place.
The Château’s grounds are a marvellous floral park, flowing down to the river and decorated with follies, ponds and cascades.
15. Local Gastronomy
To order something regional when you’re at a restaurant in Nevers, go for Charolais beef, which is a cornerstone of Burgundy’s meaty cuisine.
In Nevers this will be served as a tartare, but if that makes you uncomfortable the entrecôte steaks are fantastic.
There’s also fish straight from the Loire, and perch, pike, trout or small fry (deep-friend) are all on the menu.
At the Carnot covered market, open Tuesday to Saturday mornings you could also get to know some other local products like goats’ cheese, honey and pain d’épices, a sweet spiced loaf similar to gingerbread.