Actually, I could yell, or roll out a yoga mat in front of the magnificent sculpted fireplace, or set up my laptop on one of the wood tables created by a local 3-D-printing enterprise. Because this room, inaccessible to the public since the 19th century when the Palace of the Counts of Poitou-Dukes of Aquitaine was converted into a courthouse, was reopened last year as a “covered public square.” (The court moved to new digs in 2019, and the vacated building was acquired by the city of Poitiers.) Dubbed the Salle des Pas Perdus (Hall of Lost Footsteps) when people awaited court verdicts here, this majestic room now hosts concerts, art exhibitions, seminars, even fencing demonstrations. Just like the days of Eleanor’s court . . . except you don’t need an invite to go.
I’ve been known to swerve off the road for medieval castles. (In France, where I live, it’s not hard to find them.) I make detours for turrets and towers. Despite my kids’ groans, I will brake for piles of stones, even crumbling ruins. Don’t even get me started on gargoyles, the more grotesque and fantastical the better. In my mind, the mystery and intrigue of the Middle Ages hold powerful sway. And I’m not alone in my obsession. Across screen and printed page, medieval mania grips our current age, such as in Ridley Scott’s 2021 star-studded film “The Last Duel” and in prizewinning novelist Lauren Groff’s new book, “Matrix,” in which Eleanor of Aquitaine is fictionalized as the dazzling sun in the besotted protagonist’s solar system.
But in the many years that I had taken the train through Poitiers to visit my French in-laws in the region, I had never known about one of the most iconic places of all, an ensemble of civic medieval architecture that’s so exceptional that Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the celebrated architect behind restorations such as the Notre Dame Cathedral, stated in 1862: “We have few civic buildings in France that have the importance of the Palace of the Counts of Poitiers.” Hidden in plain sight, the palace is now at the heart of a grand urban transformation project that will celebrate cultural heritage while also greening the city to help fight climate change.
“Our mission is to render the palace visible and connect it with the quarter,” explained Charles Reverchon-Billot, a deputy mayor and vice president of culture, heritage and tourism for Grand Poitiers. New walkways will allow circulation around the edifice, drawing visitors through gardens and along the major artery of the Rue de la Cathédrale. Veering away from the palace’s museumification, Atelier Novembre, the architectural studio that won the bid for the project, aims to bring history to life. “The palace will be simultaneously a destination for locals and an engine for tourism,” said Reverchon-Billot. Work is not expected to begin until 2024, and the grand aula will stay open throughout the restoration.
The grandmother of Europe
Long before Angela Merkel became one of the world’s most powerful women and Queen Elizabeth II ruled as Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, a savvy queen forged an empire. Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most influential figures of the Middle Ages. Heiress to a significant territory, she first wed the king of France, and then, when the marriage was annulled in 1152, remarried Henry Plantagenet two months later. Eleven years her junior, Henry was soon crowned king of England — the Plantagenet name stemming, as legend has it, from his father’s custom of affixing broom flowers (plante genest in archaic French) to his helmet.
In an age when women were pawns in geopolitical alliances, Eleanor was recognized for her authority, diplomacy and political sagacity — a legend in ballads even in her own time. Over the centuries, this fascination has only increased, perception colored by successive contemporary lenses. “In the 19th century, Jules Michelet, who wrote the French history textbook for schools, detested Eleanor, because she had abandoned the French king,” explained Sébastien Lefebvre, a guide in Poitiers. “In the romantic period, the public became interested in this woman who lived her loves and passions. And today, what we esteem is that this woman of the Middle Ages succeeded in imposing her will in an age when women weren’t allowed to speak their minds.”
My own fascination has been fueled by Amy Kelly’s masterful 1950 book, “Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings,” which drew on contemporary chronicles to craft a history as entertaining as a novel. With an adventure-loving spirit, Eleanor went on the Second Crusade with Louis VII, galloping off to the Holy Land with a coterie of female warriors. In fact, she was a tireless traveler her entire life, crisscrossing and administering her domains, affixing her signature to more than 100 charters, ruling England as regent when her favorite son, Richard the Lionheart, was absent on crusade. When he was held hostage by the Austrian emperor, she collected the ransom and delivered it across the Rhine.
At nearly 80 years old, she crossed the Pyrenees to fetch a granddaughter to wed the French king, an attempt to secure peace between England and France. Famously she did not choose the oldest granddaughter, as was expected, but the girl who displayed intelligence and character. Her wise pick of Blanche of Castile, the mother of Saint Louis, would later be proved in the annals of history. In fact, Eleanor’s 10 children wed monarchs across the continent, earning her the nickname “the grandmother of Europe.”
But above all, the highly educated Eleanor was a great patron of the arts. A unique style of Plantagenet or Angevin Gothic architecture flourished in her domains, a territory stretching from Scotland to the Pyrenees, as did religious artwork in enamel. Influenced by the vernacular verse of her grandfather Guillaume le Troubadour, Eleanor cultivated poetry at her court of Poitiers, establishing a code of chivalry and manners. It’s not hard to imagine “unsurpassable fetes” — as Kelly described them — in the palace.
Clearly this room would make a perfect setting for a TV series on Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Eleanor's haunts in Poitiers
Perched on a rocky plateau encircled by two rivers, central Poitiers is a designated pedestrian zone, its cobblestoned streets lined with half-timbered houses and lively restaurants. A university was first established here in 1431, and the city’s youthful population (half under the age of 30) brings an energetic vibe. Of France’s “second cities,” restaurant-rich Poitiers is where you can get great value for your money. Case in point: I had to do a double take recently when I saw a three-euro appetizer on the menu at the Rooftop, a terrific spot with panoramic views atop the Theatre Auditorium de Poitiers.
Poitiers traces its origins to Celtic Gaul, affording an unparalleled glimpse into the past. Harboring one of the largest historically protected zones in France, the city is rife with legends, like that of the fairy Mélusine, linked to the Plantagenets. Archaeological digs continue to unearth marvelous finds, especially at the palace. “We dream of a mini Pompeii,” explained Nadège Gauthier, who organizes palace cultural events like the Traversées festival of contemporary art. “This is the grail for archaeologists.” Even the local Zara boutique exhibits ancient Roman arcades while another shop, le Nid de Cigognes, shows off vestiges of the bridge that once connected the palace to the cathedral.
Many landmarks existed in Eleanor’s time. The 4th-century Baptistère St. Jean, considered one of the oldest Christian buildings in Europe, features an aqueduct-fed octagonal pool for baptisms. The St. Radegonde Church houses the tomb of the 6th-century patron saint of Poitiers; Radegonde renounced her royal life as queen of the Franks to found one of the Western world’s first convents. And Notre-Dame-la-Grande, heralded in history books, has a sculpted facade that’s so jewel-like that even locals stop to admire it.
But Eleanor’s emblem is the St. Pierre Cathedral, a towering limestone masterpiece that she commissioned along with Henry II. Inside, a luminous stained-glass window, one of the biggest created in the 12th century and a costly gift from the royal pair, represents one of the only contemporary depictions of the queen. The couple is shown in the bottom panel, beneath the crucifixion of Jesus, offering the window as a gift.
Significantly, the cathedral is a prominent showcase of the Plantagenet Gothic style, incorporating a ceiling of rounded ogive vaults and walls with blind arcades beneath bay windows. Could the queen have been influenced by what she saw with Louis VII in the Ile-de-France? “Eleanor was there at Abbot Suger’s inauguration of the St. Denis cathedral,” Lefebvre explained. “She saw the architecture, what’s considered the first Gothic style.”
Another homage to Eleanor exists in the 19th-century stained-glass window in Poitiers City Hall. In it, Eleanor is celebrated signing the charter that gave the city its first mayor in 1199, centuries before other French cities such as Tours. Today, Poitiers is led by Léonore Moncond’huy, elected in 2020 as the youngest green-party mayor in France.
Sleep in Eleanor's abbey
Eleanor’s imprint can also be found at the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud. About 50 miles north of Poitiers in Saumur, the abbey was established in 1101 as one of the era’s largest monastic communities, overseen by a string of impressive abbesses who were connected to the Plantagenets. For Eleanor, Fontevraud became a place of rejuvenating calm in a life marked by drama and adventure. (Just one example of such turmoil: When Eleanor incited her sons to revolt against their father in 1173, Henry II ordered her imprisoned. She fled in men’s clothes but was captured with her band of Poitevin knights, held at the Chinon fortress, then locked away in England until Henry’s death in 1189.) It was here at Fontevraud where Eleanor was buried along with Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, and where their gisants, or recumbent funerary statues, though disturbed during the French Revolution, are now given pride of place.
Ever-strategic Eleanor herself commissioned the creation of these sculptures, her own limestone statue showing a serene queen reading a book. “Her idea was to create a Plantagenet necropolis here to rival the Capets in St. Denis,” explained guide Tiphanie Rauber. Even in death, she sought to perpetuate her dynasty and glorify the empire she had built. But for me, Eleanor’s bigger legacy is cultural.
Converted into a prison by Napoleon, Fontevraud was reborn with another vocation in 2014, as an arts hub and all-encompassing tourist destination that’s one of my favorite getaways in the Loire Valley. The on-site hotel was the first I booked after France emerged from successive pandemic lockdowns in 2020. Designed by the Jouin Manku agency, the interiors channel the abbey’s history, its monastic simplicity reflected in the elegant custom-made furniture. Guests are allowed after-hours access to the abbey, and we gleefully explored the arcades at dusk, discovering sculptures and art installations, the December mist wrapping around gnarled trees in the garden. The highlight was the dinner, served in baskets in-room at the time because of coronavirus restrictions: locally foraged mushrooms with a perfect egg, fish from the Loire river in a fermented bouillon, wine-soaked pears with abbey honey and spices. Taking inspiration from historical recipes, chef Thibaut Ruggeri has won both a star and a sustainability award from the Michelin Guide.
I returned this autumn to see both the Plantagenets exhibition (running until Jan. 10) and the new modern art museum. Inaugurated in May in the former stables, the museum houses the Cligman Collection, which was donated by a remarkable couple. (Léon Cligman was a textiles magnate, fought in the French Resistance and was awarded the Légion d’honneur by President François Mitterrand; Martine is an artist.) Works by the likes of Edgar Degas, Albert Marquet and Kees van Dongen are displayed next to Buddhist statues and Peruvian masks in rooms with original timber beams. Curated as a thought-provoking dialogue between civilizations and eras, the museum wonderfully complements the place that’s already known for a rich cultural program and works by artists in residence.
Fontevraud blossoms like yellow broom flowers.
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If you go
Where to stay
Hôtel Mercure Poitiers Centre
14 Rue Edouard Grimaux
Just a two-minute walk from the Palace of the Counts of Poitou-Dukes of Aquitaine, this four-star hotel is housed within a former Jesuit chapel and has historical details such as ornamental windows and columns in the guest rooms. Inside the old church nave, Les Archives restaurant is a popular gourmet destination for Poitevins and was awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand. Rooms from about $115 per night. Fixed lunch menu from about $13 per person; dinner menu from about $34.
Where to eat
6 Rue de la Marne
Perched on the Theatre Auditorium de Poitiers, the Rooftop offers a large indoor-outdoor space for enjoying panoramic city views and evening concerts. The menu emphasizes seasonality, with most of the ingredients sourced locally. Fixed lunch menu about $18 per person. Dinner appetizers about $8, and mains from about $18.
What to do
Palace of the Counts of Poitou-Dukes of Aquitaine
Place Alphonse Lepetit
The Palace of the Counts of Poitou-Dukes of Aquitaine is built on a Gallo-Roman foundation at the highest point in Poitiers. The pièce de résistance is the large ceremonial hall built during Eleanor of Aquitaine’s era — today converted into a covered public square accessible to the public. Open daily 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Guided tours are available.
St. Pierre Cathedral
1 Rue Sainte-Croix
Rebuilt in the 12th century, the city’s magnificent limestone cathedral has long been associated with Eleanor of Aquitaine, who married Henry Plantagenet there and donated an enormous stained-glass window. Classified as a historic monument in 1875, the cathedral is free and open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter and 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (and sometimes 8) in summer.
Fontevraud Abbey and Modern Art Museum
The renowned monastic complex founded in 1101 is today a cultural destination in the Loire Valley with a modern art museum, hotel, restaurant and rich events program. A calm refuge with rooms designed in elegant simplicity, the hotel offers 24-hour access to the abbey, free with your room rate (from about $110 per night). There’s a firm focus on sustainability at Fontevraud, with Michelin-honored chef Thibaut Ruggeri also recognized for his environmental initiatives. Combined ticket price for the abbey and museum about $16 per person, about $10 for children and free for kids under 8. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 1 to March 31; closed Tuesdays.
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