provide a useful guide to the major towns in the region


Niort in Poitou-Charentes is an important modern finance
centre with a rich historical past as a trading port and the second largest donjon (keep) in France. During the 12th and 13th centuries Niort was a wealthy port town with strong trade along the river and from the the sea in salt, wine, cereals and skins. Leather tanning became big business in the town and chamois leather and glove-making employed thousands here in the 19th century.In the 12th century Henry II, or his son Richard the Lionheart, began the construction of a huge château on the river. Finished in the 15th century, the château is now largely destroyed - all that is left is the immense keep, the Donjon de Niort, sometimes called the Château de Niort.One of the most important and most impressive examples of medieval military architecture in France, it now houses an archaeological museum and other temporary exhibitions as well as having rooms decorated in the regional Poitevin style. The town has some stunning religious architecture, most notably the 11th century church of St André that was rebuilt in the  19thcentury in the Gothic Revival style and has twin spiers that tower 70m high and the church of Notre Dame, a Gothic church with some Renaissance features whose bell tower reaches up 75m high into the skyline.

The Musée Bernard d'Agesci holds three different museums inside the former girls' school - a fine arts museum, a natural history museum and a museum dedicated to the school and the history of its teaching practices. Nearby you'll find the Place de la Bréche, the largest square in the west of France, which is home to the Tourist Office and a 4 acre garden with underground carpark. Across the town you'll discover several different weekly and monthly traditional markets and pass the bronze dragons that are synonomous with the town from local legends. Inside the Halles de Niort, an 18th century Baltard style building of cast iron, glass and steel is a large indoor market of over 140 stalls on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays that is also open for breakfast. Explore the narrow backstreets and be welcomed by decadent chocolateries, intriguing artisans stores, and specialist food shops selling terroir produce. Delicacies not to be missed are the fine and delicate Echiré butter, the mojette (or mogette) - white beans that are grown in the nearby marshes, and angelica, a plant known for centuries for its medicinal properties and used in sweets, jams and liquers. In particular, Niort is famous for serving candied angelica in its sweet shops.

Just outside of Niort are the marshes of Marais Poitevin, a network of  waterways that is full of pretty villages, and rich in flora and fauna. This nature park can be explored as the villagers have travelled for centuries - by flat-bottom boat - or why not go hiking, cycling or horseriding through this charming area? There are over 100 miles of cycle routes and trails winding their way though the hills and valleys and uncovering châteaux and landscapes that you will remember after you leave! The Château Mursay, whose ruined garden is an historical monument, and the Château Couldray-Salbart, a 13th century castle said to have been built in three nights by the fairy Melusine, are both just 20 minutes away.

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