Poitiers has been one of my favorite towns in France since I lived there in the early 1960’s. While the town and its suburbs are fairly large, the city center has changed little in centuries. Rising above the rivers Clain and Boivre, Poitiers is built on a series of hills which rise forty meters above the streams that surround it on three sides. Poitiers guards a gap in the Massif armoricain which rises in the west of France and the Massif central which dominates the center of the country. This gap connects the Paris basin and the Aquitaine basin. The position has always been strategic and, as a result, numerous battles were fought in the region.
In 507, the Franks under Clovis defeated the Visigoths under Alaric II at the Battle of Vouillé, just west of Poitiers. In 732 the Saracens burned the Abbey Church of Saint Hilaire on their way to sack the Cathedral of Saint Martin in Tours. Just north of town, at Mousailles-le-Bataille, Charles Martel and his Franks stopped them in their tracks. In 1356, during the Hundred Years War, the French King Jean le Bon was captured at the Battle of Poitiers fought just south of town at Nouaillé-Maupertuis. In addition, Poitiers was besieged and pillaged many times.
But Poitiers also had a higher purpose than war. From the military camp of the Abbeville Caserne on a hill just east of town, one can see three of the seven great churches of the city. Just below, near the river, is Sainte Radegonde. Halfway up the hill is the Angevin gothic Cathédrale Saint-Pierre with its magnificent stained glass. At the top of the hill in the city center is our favorite, the Église Notre-Dame-la-Grande. The sculpted western facade is one of the treasures of the Romanesque world, but the interior (at least to me) is among the most moving in all of France.
Poitiers is also home to the abbey founded by and dedicated to the first Pictavien bishop and subsequent saint, Hilaire (315-368). His disciple Saint Martin of Tours is considered by many the patron saint of France. The Église Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand has been one of the most famous and important in France since the fourth century.
Another favorite is the small Église Sainte-Radegonde-de-Poitiers. This was the abbey church founded in the sixth century by the Saint herself. Radegonde was one of six wives of the Frankish king, Clotaire I, who was the son of Clovis. After Clotaire I had her brother assassinated, Radegonde left him and founded the nunnery on this site. The current church is 12th Century, for the most part, but the crypt dates from Radegonde’s time and holds her remains to this day.
The largest medieval monument in Poitiers is the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre. Its construction began in 1162 by Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine on the ruins of a Roman basilica, and work was well advanced by the end of the 12th century. It is famous for the superb Crucifixion window, thought by many to be the finest single work of stained glass in the world.
In addition to these churches, there is the second oldest surviving religious structure in France, the Baptistère Saint-Jean (4th century). Outside of town is an underground crypt and chapel from the early fifth century, the Hypogée des Dunes.
Poitiers is a small, unspoiled city with wonderful restaurants and a delightful downtown, well worth a visit when you go to France. In the immediate area is the Abbey Church of Saint Savin with the finest Romanesque frescoes in France, the Collégiale Saint Pierre in Chauvigny with its remarkable capitals by Gofridus, and so many other memorable churches. I was twelve years old when our family moved from North Carolina to Poitiers and the shock and delight that I felt at the time is still with me a half century later.