On two hills in western France’s Deux-Sèvres Department, the town of Niort has a workmanlike reputation founded on its financial services. But if you take a closer look, Niort and the nearby Marais Poitevin region will win your heart.
Holding sway over Niort’s old quarter is a medieval fortress from the days of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and if you journey along the Sèvre Niortais there are more castles from a distant era when Poitou was independent from France. Niort can also be your home while you discover the Venise Verte, a pastoral landscape of wetlands traversed by canals.
Lets explore the best things to do in Niort:
1. Donjon de Niort
After marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine, English King Henry II attempted to shore up his new lands by building spectacular castles like this.
What you see now was once the centre of a whole fortified district, with gardens, houses and parade grounds.
Now there are two 12th-century keeps, 28 metres high and joined by a smaller slate-topped building from the 1400s.
The keeps have near-identical architecture, with cylindrical towers on the corners and almost no openings in their walls.
For a small fee for a tour or independent visit, ascending the tight spiral stairways to the roofs and checking out the archaeological exhibits inside.
2. Musée Bernard d’Agesci
A son of Niort, the 18th century painter Bernard d’Agesci was about to become member of the Académie in Paris just as it was suppressed during the Revolution.
So he returned to Niort and did much for culture in the town, establishing the first library and opening a museum and botanic garden.
This attraction, which opened in 2006, is named in his honour and is essentially three museums in one, with fine art and natural history wings, as well as galleries about the history of education as it is set in a former girls’ school.
Among the many excellent exhibits are Parthenay ceramics, antique string instruments, regional goldsmithery, fossils and teaching paraphernalia from the 1900s.
3. Old Niort
It’s good fun to get lost on Niort’s old streets that scamper up the two hills, and every now and again you’ll be faced with an exceptional old building to photograph.
You can get hold of an itinerary of all the “hôtels particuliers” and timber-framed houses in the city, like the sensational Maison de la Vierge, so-called for its sculpture of Virgin and Child on one corner.
On Rue du Pont you’ll come across l’Hôtel de Chaumont, which dates to the 1400s and was the birthplace of Françoise d’Aubigné, the second wife of Louis XIV.
4. Le Pilori
This eye-catching trapezoidal hall in the middle of Old Niort is where the medieval pillory used to be, which explains the name.
Le Pilori dates to the 1500s when it was given its current renaissance design, while the belfry above is from the following century.
Up to the Revolution this was Niort’s town hall, and is suitably splendid, with semi-circular towers on the corners, decorative machicolations and mullioned windows.
For a time it was a bookshop but is now a space for temporary art exhibitions.
5. Château du Coudray-Salbart
Under 10 kilometres up the D743 from the centre of Niort are the ruins of a commanding castle.
The Château du Coudray-Salbart was deployed in the 1200s by the Lords of Parthenay, allies to the English King John, to guard the crossing of the Sèvre Niortaise River.
But when Poitou was annexed to the French Crown a few decades later the castle lost its strategic value and has been sitting dilapidated ever since.
That’s great for us because we can check out 13th-century architecture that has never been reworked: Ribbed vaults, gigantic fireplaces, latrines, arrow loops and, coolest of all, a secret passageway running inside the walls.
6. Marais Poitevin
Niort is at the eastern edge of a magical region of marshland, rich in history and nature.
You’ll be closest to the wetter part of the marshes, the Marais Mouillés, which have been dubbed Venise Verte (Green Venice). The scenery here is laced with canals, crossed by wooden footbridges and lined with untouched ash, alder and poplar forest or adorable stone cottages.
Everything moves a bit slower in Venise Verte and you can drift along the waterways by boat or ramble deep into the woodland on unfrequented footpaths.
7. Maison du Marais Poitevin
At Niort’s close neighbour, Coulon you can get to grips with the Marais Poitevin and ecosystem, industries and customs.
There are five exhibition rooms inside this historic house, complete with something called a “Maraiscope”, which has animated projections about the history of the Marais.
You can learn how people made a living from the land, fishing eels in the marshes and navigating the channels on special flat-hulled boats.
It’s just the place to arm yourself with facts about the nature and ways of life in the Marais before you go and explore it for yourself.
8. La Coulée Verte
In 15 hectares at the centre of city, the Coulée Verte (Green Corridor) is a belt of quays, banks, river islands and bridges on the Sèvre Niortaise.
With an abundance of foliage it’s a wonderful place for walks by the water, crossing bridges with evocative names like Le Pont des Arts or Eax Vives (White Waters). Niort’s main landmarks like the Donjon and the churches of Notre-Dame and Saint André are all lined up for photos, and the stone riverside houses beside Les Vieux Ponts make this a very pretty scene.
Often referred to as the capital of Venise Verte, Coulon is also in the list of the “plus beaux villages de France”. If you fancy a trip on one of the region’s distinctive flat-bottomed boats, known here as “batais”, this is the place to be.
You can ask for a guide/boatman who will tell you about the marshes, or get your own boat and go wherever you choose.
There aren’t many big sights in the village but there’s a lot to love about its twee canal banks and charming old houses with colourfully painted shutters.
10. Les Halles de Niort
Indoor markets are always recommended in French cities, but Niort’s is definitely one of the more animated.
The exquisite metal and glass hall from 1869 is a pillar of the community, next-door to the Donjon and with more than 100 traders.
It’s not just gourmands who will be overwhelmed by the quality and variety of meats, charcuterie, cheeses, fish, fruit, honey, fresh bread, vegetables and pastries.
If you have your own holiday home you won’t want to shop anywhere else, but day-trippers could stock up on delicious local food for the perfect picnic in Venise Verte.
The best time to call in is early on Saturday for market day when there are also stalls outside.
11. Église Notre-Dame
Niort’s oldest church was begun in the 1400s on the site of Christian buildings goings going back to the early middle ages.
The Church of Notre-Dame was completed relatively quickly, by 1534, and is a consistent example of Flamboyant Gothic architecture both inside and out.
Restorations were made in the 1800s, but these respected the Gothic architecture.
One of the standout contributions from this time is the magnificent carved oak pulpit from 1877, depicting scenes from the new testament.
Outside check out the pinnacles on the spire, which give the 75-metre structure a curious serrated appearance.
12. Les Oiseaux du Marais Poitevin
An eight-hectare patch of the Marais Potievin is reserved as a bird sanctuary where you can get within metres of 70 different species that make their habitats in the wetlands.
These oystercatchers, herons, ducks and stilts live in semi-captivity in open enclosures under nets.
Included in the entry is a boat ride along the canals in the park, to have the nature and human history of the marshes explained by a multi-lingual guide.
Afterwards you can stop by the petting zoo where you can make friends with domestic animals from the region like donkeys, mules and goats.
13. Château de Cherveux
Minutes up the road is an extremely romantic château surrounded by a moat and with architecture dating between the 1100s and 1400s.
It was passed down by various noblemen and at one time was in the hands of the Scottish clansman Robert Cunningham.
Its 18th-century owners, the Count and Countess of Narbonne-Pelet were guillotined in the Revolution, and the property was seized by the state and sold off.
The building is now a private residence but its owner gives informative tours by prior arrangement, showing you around towers, stone bridge, grounds and pointing out the expertly carved stonework.
14. Maillezais Cathedral
Rising above the marshland are the striking ruins of this abbey-turned- cathedral that was abandoned in the 1600s.
You have to see it for its decaying architecture, but there’s a bit more to this site.
When the Benedictine monks arrived this was an island poking over a waterlogged landscape, but in the 13th century they dug canals to create arable land and had a lasting impact on the Marais.
Some of the stone was removed in the 1700s, but the cathedral was designated a heritage site in 1840 so large fragments of the cathedral, refectory, cellars, kitchen, dormitory and defensive system survive.
15. Local Delicacies
Something very particular to Niort and the Marais Poitevin is l’angélique (garden angelica). Since 1602 this plant has been cultivated to cure every ailment you can think of, and was even taken to ward off the plague! At one time every part of the plant was eaten whole, but now the stems and roots are used to flavour candies, liqueurs or turned into jam.
The liqueurs, jams and candies are excellent gifts to take home, but garden angelica also goes into local savoury dishes like pan-fried trout or omelette.
Also, if you check the map you’ll notice you’re only an hour north of Cognac, so day trip to Martell or Hennessy would be something to consider.