On two hills in the French department of Bicolor Forre in western France, the town of Niort has a craftsman-like reputation for its financial services. But if you look closely, Niort and the nearby Marais Poitevin area will win your heart.
Dominating the old town of Niort is the medieval fortress of Aquitaine from the time of Eleanor, and if you travel along the Sèvre Niortais, there are more castles from distant times, when Poitou is independent from France. Niort can also be your home, while you explore Venise Verte, an idyllic landscape of wetlands traversed by canals.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Niort:
1. Donjon de Niort
After marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine, King Henry II of England tried to prop up his new land by building imposing castles like this one.
What you see now used to be the center of the entire defensive area, with gardens, houses and a parade ground.
There are now two 12th-century castles, 28 meters high, connected to a smaller slate-roofed building from the 1400s.
The architecture of the castle is almost identical, with cylindrical towers in the corners and few openings in the walls.
For a small fee, visit or visit independently, climb the narrow spiral staircase to the roof and view the archaeological exhibits inside.
2. Bernard Dahchesi Museum
Niort’s son, the 18th-century painter Bernard d’Agesci, was about to become a member of the Académie in Paris, as it was suppressed during the Revolution.
So he returned to Niort and did a lot for the town’s culture, building the first library and opening a museum and a botanical garden.
Opened in 2006 and named after him, the attraction is essentially three museums in one, with fine art and natural history galleries, as well as galleries on the history of education, as it is located in a former girls’ school.
Excellent exhibits include Parthenay ceramics from the 1900s, antique stringed instruments, regional goldsmiths, fossils and teaching aids.
3. Old Niort
It’s fun to get lost in the old streets of Niort, which run up two hills, and every now and then you’ll be confronted with a remarkable old building to take photos.
You can get itineraries of all the “special hotels” and timber-framed houses in the city, such as the sensational Maison de la Vierge, named for its sculpture of the Virgin and Child in one corner.
On Rue du Pont, you’ll find l’Hôtel de Chaumont, which dates back to the 1400s and was owned by Françoise d’Aubigné, the second wife of Louis XIV place of birth.
This striking trapezoidal hall in the middle of Old Niort was once the site of medieval pillory, which explains the name.
Le Pilori dates back to the 1500s, when it was given its current Renaissance design, while the bell tower above is from the next century.
Before the Revolution, this was Niort’s town hall, very ornate, with semicircular towers in the corners, decorative mechanisms and mullioned windows.
Once it was a bookstore, but now it is a space for temporary art exhibitions.
5. Château du Coudray-Salbart
10 km up the D743 road from the centre of Niort is the ruins of a castle.
The Château du Coudray-Salbart was deployed in the 1200s by Lord Parthenay, an ally of King John of England, to guard the crossing of the Sèvre Niortaise River.
But decades later, when Poitou was annexed by the French crown, the castle lost its strategic value and has remained in dilapidated condition ever since.
It was great for us because we could see 13th century buildings that had never been remodeled: ribbed vaults, huge fireplaces, toilets, arrow rings and, coolest, a secret passageway inside the walls.
6. Marais Poitevin
Niort is located on the eastern edge of the magical marshland, rich in history and natural beauty.
You will come closest to the Marais Mouillés, the wet part of the swamp, which is called Venise Verte (Green Venice). The scenery here is surrounded by canals, crossed by wooden footbridges, and lined with unspoiled ash, alder and poplar forests or lovely stone houses.
Everything moves a little slower at Venise Verte, and you can raft down the waterways by boat or stroll deep into the woodlands on off-the-beaten-track walkways.
7. Maison du Marais Poitevin
In Coulon, near Niort, you can learn about Marais Poitevin and ecosystems, industries and customs.
The historic house has five exhibition rooms, complete with something called the “Maraiscope”, which features animated projections about the history of the Marais.
You can learn how people make a living on the land, fish for eels in the swamps and navigate the waterways in special gondolas.
This is just the place to get the facts about the nature and way of life in the Marais before you go and explore for yourself.
8. La Coulée Verte
The Coulée Verte (Green Corridor) of 15 hectares in the city center is a belt of marinas, river banks, river islands and bridges on the Sèvre Niortaise.
With its rich foliage, it is a great place to walk along the water, crossing bridges with evocative names such as Le Pont des Arts or Eax Vives (white water). Niort’s main landmarks, the Donjon and Notre-Dame and Saint André churches all line up for photos, and the stone riverside houses next to Les Vieux Ponts make this a very pretty scene.
Coulon is often referred to as the capital of Venise Verte and one of the “beautiful villages of France”. If you like to ride one of the region’s unique gondolas, known as “batais”, this is the place for you.
You can ask your guide/boatman to introduce you to the Everglades or take your own boat to any place of your choice.
There aren’t many big attractions in the village, but there’s a lot to love about its banks of the Twey Canal and charming old houses with colourful shutters.
10. Les Halles de Niort
French cities always recommend indoor markets, but Niort’s is definitely one of the most dynamic.
Built in 1869, the fine metal and glass hall is the backbone of the community, adjacent to Donjon and home to over 100 merchants.
The quality and variety of meat, charcuterie, cheese, fish, fruit, honey, fresh bread, vegetables and pastries is not just for gourmets.
If you have your own holiday home, you won’t want to shop anywhere else, but day-trippers can stock up on delicious local food for the perfect picnic at Venise Verte.
The best time to call is early Saturday on market day, there are also stalls outside.
11. Église Notre-Dame
Niort’s oldest church was built in the 1400s on the site of Christian buildings dating back to the early Middle Ages.
By 1534, the Church of Our Lady was completed relatively quickly and is a consistent example of ornate Gothic architecture both inside and out.
Restorations were carried out in the 1800s, but these respect the Gothic architecture.
One of the outstanding contributions of this period is the magnificent carved oak pulpit of 1877, depicting scenes from the New Testament.
Look outside to see the spires on top of the spires, which give the 75-meter structure an oddly jagged appearance.
12. Les Oiseaux du Marais Poitevin
An 8-hectare plot of land in Marais Potievin has been reserved as a bird sanctuary, where you can get up close and personal with 70 different species that inhabit the wetlands.
These oyster catchers, herons, ducks and stilts live in open enclosures under nets in semi-captivity.
Includes a boat tour along the canals in the park, with a multilingual guide explaining the natural and human history of the swamp.
Afterwards, you can stop at the petting zoo, where you can make friends with the area’s livestock such as donkeys, mules and goats.
13. Château de Cherveux
A few minutes’ walk down this road is an extremely romantic castle surrounded by a moat and dating back to the 1100s and 1400s.
It was passed down by various nobles and was once in the hands of Robert Cunningham, a Scotsman.
Its 18th-century owners, the Count and Countess of Narbonne-Pellet, were guillotined during the Revolution, and the property was confiscated and sold by the state.
The building is now a private residence, but its owners pre-arranged to provide informative tours that take you around the towers, stone bridges, grounds, and point out the elaborately carved stonework.
14. Maillezais Cathedral
Standing above the marsh are the striking ruins of this monastery-turned-basilica, which was abandoned in the 1600s.
You have to see its decaying architecture, but there’s more to this site.
It was an island on a flooded landscape when the Benedictine monks arrived, but in the 13th century they dug canals to open up arable land and had a lasting impact on the Marais region.
Some of the stones were removed in the 1700s, but the cathedral was designated a heritage site in 1840, so large fragments of the cathedral, refectory, crypt, kitchen, quarters and defense system survive.
15. Local Food
Something very special for Niort and Marais Poitevin is l’angélique (Angelica Garden). Since 1602, this plant has been used to cure every disease you can think of, and has even been used to ward off plagues! Once, every part of the plant was eaten whole, but now the stems and roots are used to flavor sweets, liqueurs or make jams.
Liqueurs, jams and sweets are great gifts to take home, but garden angelica can also be used in local savory dishes like fried trout or omelets.
Also, if you check the map, you’ll see that you’re only an hour north of Cognac, so consider a day trip to Martell or Hennessy.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Niort, France
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