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NIORT, 50km southwest of Poitiers, and connected to it by regular trains, makes a useful stopover if your goal is the Marais Poitevin. the town itself has enough of interest to fill a pleasant morning's stroll, and it's the last place before the marshes to get a really wide choice of provisions. The most interesting part of the town is the mainly pedestrian area around rue Victor-Hugo and rue St-Jean, full of stone-fronted or half-timbered medieval houses. Coming from the gare SNCF, take rue de la Gare as far as avenue de Verdun with the tourist office and main post office on the corner, then turn right into place de la Brèche. Rue Ricard leaves the square on the left; rue Victor-Hugo is its continuation, following the line of the medieval market in a gully separating the two small hills on which Niort is built. Up to the right, opposite the end of rue St-Jean, is the old town hall, a triangular building of the early sixteenth century with lantern, belfry and ornamental machicolations, perhaps capable of repelling drunken revellers but no match for catapult or sledgehammer.

At the end of the street is the river, the Sèvre Niortaise, with gardens and trees along the bank and, over the bridge, the ruins of a glove factory, the last vestige of Niort's once thriving leather industry. At the time of the Revolution, it kept more than thirty cavalry regiments in breeches. Today Niort's biggest industry is insurance: the most bourgeois town in France, so it's said, because of the prosperity brought by the large number of major insurance firms making their headquarters here. Accordingly, restaurants are usually packed at lunchtime, and well-heeled shoppers throng the pedestrianized streets, giving a fairly lively – if affluent – feel.

Just downstream, opposite a riverside car park, is the market hall (with a café doing a good cheap lunch) and, beyond, vast and unmistakable on a slight rise, the keep of a castle begun by Henry II of England. Now housing a museum (daily except Tues 9am–noon & 2–5/6pm; €3, free Wed), it displays mainly local furniture and an extraordinary variety of costumes that were still commonly worn in the villages until the beginning of the twentieth century.

If you want to see the surrounding Marais area, the most pleasurable way is by bike – it's completely flat and small enough to pretty well cover in three days.

Pages in section ‘Niort’: Practicalities.

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