Niort, a charming, medieval village in an idyllic setting on the Sevre Niortaise River, is just a short two hour and fifteen minute train ride from Paris. Major attractions include an historic food market, a 12th century castle, and boat rides in the lush marshlands.
We take the 3:22PM TGV train from Paris Montparnasse station and arrive at Niort station at 5:32PM (two-hours and ten minutes).
A scenic taxi ride takes us through rolling wheat fields with cylinder shaped hay bales and rows of sunflowers at their peak to our hotel.
Arriving 25 minutes later in a bucolic hamlet, Mazieres-en-Gatine, we check in to the sprawling Alexandra Palace, a newly opened hotel and golf course, by entrepreneur Zaya S. Younan of La Grande Maison Younan Collection. Originally Le Chateau du Petite Chene from the 17th century and listed as an historic monument, Alexandra Palace recently made its debut after three years of extensive renovations. Our Deluxe room with a tufted headboard, crystal chandelier, floor to ceiling brocade drapes with enormous tassels, and all white marble bathroom suite, was fit for a royal.
After we settle into our rooms, we take a tour of the grounds, which include the formal style French gardens, golf course, a pond, and surrounding forest.
Les Halles de Niort
The hotel organized a daytrip to Niort and we arrive at the indoor and outdoor market Les Halles de Niort. Now in its third incarnation since the 1400s, the main structure of the market is a glass pyramid dating from 1865. It’s a Saturday, and the market is brimming with locals filling their shopping baskets for the week. Seafood stalls are plentiful and we salivate over the mussels, oysters, langoustines, crab, and lobster. We cave and indulge in a six -oyster sampler platter. A vendor selling home baked delicacies offers us a slice of his most popular cake, a cross between a sponge cake and Angel food cake; the light, airy cake has a faint taste of cheese in it. One last indulgence, as we didn’t want to spoil our appetite for lunch, was a basket of succulent, wild strawberries.
Lunch is at Les Planches, a local favorite. We are seated on the outdoor terrace overlooking the Niort River and the old part of the village. Still on the seafood track after our oyster teaser, we enjoy a refreshing salad of smoked salmon, green apple, dill and cucumber, while sipping a lovely rosé de Provence. No proper French meal would be complete without a cheese course, and Saint Felicien roasted with honey, apricots and rosemary was a delicious finish.
Musée de Donjon
Our next activity was a visit to former fortress and prison, Musée de Donjon, an imposing set of high towers on a hillside in the center of Niort.
In 1154 when the Earl of Anjou became the King of England, he was able to expand his kingdom by purchasing the Donjon fortress in Niort, thanks to the generous dowry from his new wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. By the early 1800s the fort was converted into a prison, and in 1840 it was declared an historical site by the state.
Walking through the cavernous rooms, the history was well documented through plaques, artifacts, paintings, drawings, and an informative video simulating the various stages of the building of the fort. An accurate replica of a typical room from the 12th century, consisting of kitchen, living space and a bed, included a fireplace, authentic period furniture, and serving pieces for dining. Climbing the winding stairwell to the top of the fort, we were greeted with a concentrated view of Niort with its uneven skyline of terracotta roof tiles and church towers and spires.
Boat Ride Through Niort Marshland
We boarded a rowboat on a pier to begin our ride with a private guide through the canals of the dense marshland. Since it’s summer, the ancient trees are fully grown with leaves and the marsh is thick with brush. Gliding slowly through the green waters, we appreciate the calming effect, and the chilled water cools us off from the heat. The guide points out grassy meadows where you can moor your boat and have a picnic. We pass a few areas where cows are grazing, and at a certain moment the guide surprises us by showing how you can make flames come out of the water. Along the way the guide also points out much of the flora and fauna and also informs us of over 70 species of birds.
Dinner at Le Daniels Restaurant at Alexandra Palace
We are seated on the outdoor terrace, taking in the view of the manicured grass of the golf course and the forest beyond it.
Michelin-starred chef Ludovic Dumont, winner of Master Chef France in 2012, has smartly conceived a menu fitting every appetite size. He offers a three- and four-course dinner menu, along with a six-course tasting menu. We choose the four-course menu; the starter is a gorgeous presentation of red, yellow, and green tomatoes served with a melon sorbet. A steamed sea bream served with a delicate white foam and served fresh capers follows, after which there is a contrasting meat course of milk fed pig with asparagus. Certain fruits and vegetables at their peak ripeness stand on their own, and this theory is well proved with an outstanding plate of raspberries served with a delicate wafer underneath, along with thyme-spiced ice cream.
We experience a magnificent sunset, which burnishes the sky with a burst of orange, while we dine.
The Bar at Alexandra Palace
For our grand finale before our departure the next day, we savor a snifter of regional cognac while we relax in the opulently appointed bar, which doubles as a cigar room.
Le Petit Chene
Les Halles de Niort- Open daily except Monday
Musée de Donjon
rue du Guesclin , 79000 Niort
Rowboats through Niort Marsh