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Cathedral and around
France > Southwest > Poitou > Poitiers > Cathedral and around

At the eastern edge of the old town stands the Cathédrale St-Pierre, (daily 8am–6/7.30pm) an enormous building on whose broad, pale facade pigeons roost and plants take root. Some of the stained glass dates from the twelfth century, notably the Crucifixion in the central window of the apse, in which the features of Henry II and Eleanor are supposedly discernible. The choir stalls, too, are full of characteristic medieval detail: a coquettish Mary and Child, a peasant killing a boar, the architect at work with his dividers, a baker with a basket of loaves. But it's the grand eighteenth-century organ, the Orgue Clicquot, which is the cathedral's most striking feature, often playing deafening tunes, with organized concerts in the summer.

Opposite – literally in the middle of rue Jean-Jaurès – you come upon a chunky, square edifice with the air of a second-rate Roman temple. It's actually the mid-fourth-century Baptistère St-Jean (April–Oct daily 10.30am–12.30pm & 3–6pm; Nov–March daily except Tues 2.30–5pm; €0.61), reputedly the oldest Christian building in France and, until the seventeenth century, the only place in town you could have a proper baptism. The "font" was the octagonal pool sunk into the floor. The guide argues that the water pipes uncovered in the bottom show the water could not have been more than 30–40cm deep, which casts doubt upon the popular belief that early Christian baptism was by total immersion. There are also some very ancient and faded frescoes on the walls, including one of the emperor Constantine on horseback, and a collection of Merovingian sarcophagi. Striking a postmodern note between the cathedral and baptistry is the small domed shape of Espace Mendès-France (Tues–Fri 9.30am–6.30pm, Sat & Sun 2–6.30pm), containing a state-of-the-art planetarium (€5) and laserium (€1.80).

Next to the baptistry is the town museum, the Musée Ste-Croix, 3bis rue Jean-Jaurès (June–Sept Mon 1.15–6pm, Tues 10am–noon & 1.15–8pm, Wed–Fri 10am–noon & 1.15–6pm, Sat & Sun 10am–noon & 2–6pm; Oct–May Mon 1.15–5pm, Tues 10am–5pm, Wed–Fri 10am–noon & 1.15–5pm, Sat & Sun 2–6pm; €3.50, free on Tues and 1st Sun of the month;, featuring an interesting collection of farming implements. There's also a good Gallo-Roman section with some handsome glass, pottery and sculpture, notably a white marble Minerva of the first century. The same ticket is valid for the Musée de Chièvres at 9 rue V.-Hugo (June–Sept Mon 1.15–6pm, Tues, Wed & Fri 10am–noon & 1.15–6pm, Thurs 10am–noon & 1.15–9pm, Sat & Sun 10am–noon & 2–6pm; Oct–May Mon 1.15–5pm, Tues–Fri 10am–noon & 1.15–5pm, Sat & Sun 2–6pm; €3.50, free on Tues and 1st Sun of the month;, a rather dusty old collection of not very exciting paintings, pottery, furniture and arms, and the Hypogée.

If you still have an appetite for sightseeing, there's a seventh-century subterranean chapel, the Hypogée des Dunes at 44 rue du Père de la Croix (closed for renovation at the time of writing; call for latest details), and the Pierre Levée dolmen, a prehistoric stone chamber located on the eastern side of the river across the Pont Neuf, where Rabelais came with fellow students to talk, carouse and scratch his name.

Alternatively, you could take a more relaxed walk along the riverside path – on the right across Pont Neuf – upstream to Pont St-Cyprien. On the far bank, you'll see a characteristic feature of every French provincial town: neat, well-manured potagers – vegetable gardens – coming down to the water's edge with a little mud quay at the end and a moored punt.

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