Divided by the River Vienne, Châtellerault is a quiet town with more going on than meets the eye. On the right bank is a historic quarter of Renaissance townhouses where the philosopher René Descartes studied as a child. And across the river via the dignified 16th-century Pont Henri-IV is Châtellerault’s old industrial quarter.
For 150 years this was a weapons factory employing thousands and has recently been spruced up. There are an excellent car and motorcycle museum now, and the restored 19th-century factories and warehouses have found new roles. Then you can plan trips to an ancient battlefield, a deep forest with a lake, a Gallo-Roman amphitheater and a network of underground medieval tunnels, all moments from the town.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Châtellerault:
1. Musée Auto, Moto, Vélo
In a cavernous old weapons factory on the left bank, there’s a fleet of some 200 vintage cars and motorcycles.
These show you the evolution of transport over the last 200 years, from the 19th-century innovations in horse-drawn carriages to ultra-modern prototypes.
The motorcycle collection is outstanding, and there are an authentic Bugatti and four iconic Citroën 2CVs in perfect nick.
A space is also devoted to the weapons factory, which was central to France’s First World War effort, while there are also intriguing artefacts from Châtellerault’s defunct history museum.
2. Pont Henri-IV
The only route into Old Châtellerault from the west, this sturdy bridge was built in the last decades of the 16th century.
On the left bank of the Vienne, you have to pass between two circular towers with mullioned windows and slate roofs.
Despite their tough appearance these were never meant to defend against armies; rather they were used for tolls, or to restrict entrance into Châtellerault when there were epidemics.
Those towers and the nine arches are very photogenic from the town’s quays, especially against the foliage of the Cognet river island.
3. Maison Descartes
Although the town isn’t overrun by big-hitting monuments there are quite a few compelling smaller sights to see in the medieval core and upmarket 19th-century quarters.
One photo opportunity is the Maison Descartes, 16th-century home of René Descartes’ grandparents on Rue Bourbon.
The eminent philosopher stayed here regularly and attended the old college in front for several years (labelled with a plaque). Sadly the house isn’t open to visitors apart from on heritage days in September, but you can add it to your walking tour and study the fine Renaissance architecture, with sculpted pediments above the windows and portal.
4. Hôtel Sully
An interesting thing about this 17th-century house, apart from its plush architecture, is that it was built using leftover stones from the Pont Henri-IV. The designer was Charles Androuet du Cerceau, who was one of a distinguished family of architects that plied its trade in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Take a peek through the gates at this gorgeous Renaissance property, fronted by a large courtyard.
This used to be the town’s museum until 2004, and has since become a bone of contention: It is owned by the municipality but lies empty until a decision is made on its future.
In the meantime the town’s precious textile collection is in storage, while a small collection of local artefacts is on show at the Musée Auto, Moto, Vélo.
5. Boulevard de Blossac
On the east side of the old centre, Châtellerault’s defences were torn down in 1700s to make way for a bold new development.
The Boulevard de Blossac is the result, and follows the same path as the old walls.
You’ll get a feel for the ebb and flow of life in the town, and can wander the tree-shaded avenues and pause by the wrought iron bandstand.
The plaza in front of the town hall is a plaza with lawns, a fountain and benches under stone pines for a bit of repose in the middle of the day.
Also get a photo the Italianate Blossac Theatre, and the 19th-century bourgeois townhouses along the boulevard.
6. La Manu
The building for the Musée Auto, Moto, Vélo is just one in a whole district of factories built at the start of the 19th century.
From 1819 thousands of people worked here making swords, before moving on to cannons and smaller firearms, and by the 20th century was manufacturing carbines, automatic rifles and pistols.
This is all came to an end in 1968, but the facilities have since been rehabilitated.
As well as the museum there’s a military archive, and the French national circus school.
Colossal warehouses, chimneys and the Envigne canal add up to a very evocative spot for a walk, particularly at night when the complex is illuminated.
7. Église Saint-Jacques
This church came through a Neo-Romanesque restoration in the 19th century when the facade was altered and the two towers were added.
But the remainder of the Église Saint-Jacques is much older, going back to the 11th century.
The church is a landmark on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and the polychrome statue of St James, dressed as a pilgrim is a reminder that travellers have long stopped here to pray.
In the north tower there’s a carillon of 52 bells, the only one existing in the Poitou-Charentes region.
8. Pont Camille-de-Hogues
Upstream from Pont Henri-IV is a bridge that doesn’t look like much at first glance.
This was constructed at the turn of the 20th century to link the manufacturing district on the left bank to new suburbs on the right.
But architects and engineers may be intrigued to read that this was the first reinforced concrete road bridge in France.
The bridge was designed by the great innovator, François Hennebique, and was built in just four months.
In 2002 it won some recognition when it was given the “monument historique” label.
9. Théâtre Gallo-Romain du Vieux-Poitiers
Not to be mistaken for modern Poitiers, Vieux-Poitiers is the Roman city of Vetus Pictavis, 10 minutes from Châtellerault in the village of Naintré, It’s an enthralling site, covering more than 80 hectares and dating from the reign of Emperor Augustus.
The city was on a road that linked Poitiers with Tours, and set where the Clain and Vienne Rivers meet.
The amphitheatre is the centrepiece, more than 116 metres wide and with a former capacity of 10,000. The foundations and large chunk of an arch hint at what stood here before.
If you’d like more context you can book a guided tour to learn about the amphitheatre and the pottery kilns, villas and temples in the city.
10. Souterrain Refuge de Prinçay
Ten metres under the village of Prinçay is an exciting piece of heritage only recently discovered: There’s a system of man-made caves set on two levels down here.
These date to the 1100s and would have been used as a refuge from bands of looters travelling along the Vienne in times of conflict.
In winter it was a good spot hemp spinning, out of the cold, and later it would have been a hiding place during the Revolution when this region saw the bloodiest conflict.
This isn’t an attraction you can just turn up and see, but the tourist office in Châtellerault will give you a tour schedule.
Only 10 kilometres south of Châtellerault there was a titanic battle in the 8th century that changed the course of history in Europe.
In 732 the Battle of Tours (or Poitiers) was fought on this spot between invading Umayyad Caliphate and combined Frankish and Burgundian forces led by Charles Martel (grandfather of Charlemagne). The Franks won the day: The Moors retreated back to the Iberian Peninsula, and the Carolingian Empire was founded, all on the back of this one battle.
The site has been commemorated with a large chessboard, and orientation tables explaining the build-up, action and aftermath of the battle.
12. La Forêt Domaniale de Châtellerault
In the absence of a park, Châtellerault has a generous swathe of woodland at the southern entrance to the town.
This forest covers more than 530 hectares, and is laced with trails for cycling and walking.
If the weather’s good you could grab a baguette and some cheese and charcuterie from the town’s market and come to the forest for a picnic.
In summer you could also bring littler family members for a dip in the lake, which is safe for swimming and patrolled by lifeguards in July and August.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2017, this high-tech theme park is all about multimedia and special effects.
The shows are in futuristic pavilions housing 3D or 4D IMAX cinemas, or mixing live action with special effects like the new Forge aux étoiles production by the Cirque du Soleil.
And even after 30 years, the park remains on the cutting edge, introducing new shows and auditoriums almost every season.
One of the most recent is the Danse avec les Robots “robocoaster”, which came through an overhaul in 2013. This is a “robocoaster”, with industrial line robots lifting your seat into the air and literally dancing with you to a soundtrack by Daft Punk and Martin Solveig.
14. Abbaye de l’Étoile
Founded in 1117, the Cistercian Abbaye de l’Étoile is an almost complete monastic complex.
The abbey ha d a period of great prosperity in the 13th century, when a lot of the surviving buildings were built.
The site was then damaged in the 100 Years’ War, the French Wars of Religion and the Revolution in the 1790s, when it finally lost its religious function.
The most atmospheric building has to be the Gothic chapter house, with ribbed vaults and restrained, sober decoration.
There’s a dungeon for recalcitrant monks, with graffiti on its walls from the 1700s, and agricultural buildings with a bakery that still has its original ovens.
15. Local Gastronomy
The Vienne Department is melon country, growing more melons than any other part of France.
The Haut-Poitou melon is an IGP with rigid guidelines governing everything from crop rotation to soil, size storage, shipping and size.
It’s a cantaloupe with orange-colored flesh and in season from about June to September.
If you’d like to dine like a local, then be sure to try farci poitevin, which usually comes as a starter and can’t really be compared to anything else.
It’s a kind of cold vegetable pâté with cabbage, leeks and various other greens that have been chopped, tied in a net and poached in stock for several hours.