Situated in the West of France, Vienne is one of four departments in the region of Poitou-Charentes. Vienne has a land area of almost 7000km2 - ample space for the 400,000 inhabitants of the 38 cantons that make up the department. Located inland, Vienne is a hilly, forested area that seems a world away from the 100km distant Atlantic seaboard. The capital, Poitiers, lies at the heart of this agricultural region, where wheat and sunflowers are major crops. There is no shortage of dairy herds here, and Vienne is famous for delectable cheeses.
Vienne is one of the 83 departments created in 1790 during the French Revolution. The most exciting historical destination is the modern administrative capital – Poitiers – which dates back to the 4th century. Many examples of Romanesque architecture occur throughout the region, especially in Poitiers, dating from the time of the Crusades. Fine castles and semi-fortified churches attest to the region's fluctuating fortunes in the 14th to 16th centuries, when the region did not escape the conflict and bloodshed of the Hundred Years' War, notably during the Battle of Poitiers fought on September 19th 1356, and the Wars of Religion. Vienne manages to achieve a harmonious blend of Romanesque churches, medieval castles and archaeological sites that will fascinate anyone curious about the past.
Vienne enjoys a mild climate, influenced by the Atlantic Ocean despite the inland location. Rainfall is highest in the eastern part of Vienne, where it borders the Massif Central mountains, and an annual figure of 600 to 850 mm is usual. Vienne receives 1900 hours of sunshine annually, and enjoys summer temperatures of between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius (68 and 77 Fahrenheit). July and August are the hottest, driest months. Meteo France provides detailed climatic information for the area.
Twenty years after it opened, Futuroscope continues to pull in millions of visitors every year and is the second most popular tourist attraction in France. Located 10km north of Poitiers, it can best be described as a cinematic theme park. Documentary films are shown on huge screens, while other attractions use objects, smells and sounds to create innovative "experiences". Live shows, simulations and photo galleries complete the vast array of attractions on offer. Don't miss it!
Montmorillon is a charming town situated 50km southeast of Poitiers. The restored medieval quarter is home to bookshops, bookbinders, artist's workshops and all things literary so that Montmorillon has unsurprisingly become known as the Village of the Written Word.
Besides Futuroscope, family entertainment revolves around outdoor activities. The department has plenty to offer in terms of swimming pools, nature trails and water parks to keep your little ones happy.
Museums, galleries and culture
Poitiers is home to two worthwhile museums, the Musée Sainte-Croix and the Musée Rupert-de-Chièvres. The first charts the story of the Poitou region, from prehistory to the 19th century, and is housed in a building with Roman foundations. The second has a social history collection mainly dating to the 19th century. You'll find a slightly more unusual museum in the town of Châtellerault, in the form of the Motor and Bike Museum, which has a collection of over 150 vehicles as well as interactive displays to amuse the younger visitor.
The city of Poitiers has an outstanding architectural heritage, with numerous churches and historical buildings to be explored. The local tourist office has designed a series of walking routes which take in the city's most important sites. These include the 11th century church of Notre-Dame-la-Grande, with its sculpted west façade, faded frescoes and architectural splendour. The construction of the present cathedral of Saint-Pierre was begun in 1155, but a primitive version is thought to have been sited close by in the 4th century. Stained glass windows and a beautiful organ topped with an angel, are among the attractions. The final must-see in this ecclesiastical trio is the church of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, part of which dates from 6th century. This is a prestigious building with a fascinating history.
The 800 hectare appellation Haut-Poitou covers Vienne, as well as the neighbouring department of Deux-Sèvres. Less celebrated than nearby Loire Valley and Bordeaux wines, vintages are still eminently quaffable. Most wines are reds and rosés made using Gamay, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon grapes. The wines are good value, and you will find most vineyards open every day by appointment.
Poitiers has a good range of shops, with everything from large department stores to small antique shops. The larger towns are all well supplied with supermarkets, and many have a weekly market where you can pick up fresh produce. For a more exciting shopping experience, head for one of the region's many snail farms, where you can sample terrines and other snail dishes. Or buy acacia honey direct from the hive from a honey farm near St Jean de Sauve. At Sainte Radegonde you'll find a farm of Angora goats, where you can buy mohair scarves, blankets, and hand-knitted clothing as well as learning how the goats are sheared!
Walkers will enjoy a blissful time in Vienne, with over thirty hiking trails to choose from, and there is a range of excellent, inexpensive pocket guides available from local tourist information centres to help find the way. The main route of The Way of St James, known as the Camino Frances, passes through Vienne – walkers might like to try this as a warm-up before attempting the entire 780km pilgrimage! Vienne is also ideal for less structured walks – wandering through woodland and past fields of sunflowers is an ideal way to enjoy the landscape of this region.
If you are looking for golf in Vienne, there are five greens to choose from, including Le Domaine Saint-Hilaire . Between them, the courses offer challenging terrain and spectacular views. Green fees are very reasonable, equipment can be hired in most locations, and the club facilities are of a high standard.
There are half a dozen riding centres throughout Vienne, and this is a perfect area to learn to ride, with plenty of quiet natural areas and excellent stabling conditions. There are a number of riding centres offering multi-day tours on horseback, led by a qualified equestrian guide.
A great way of seeing the area is to take a hot air balloon ride, which affords breath-taking views of the region's most picturesque sites. The thrill of floating effortlessly with the wind comes at a price, but at 150 euros this seems an experience well worth the money - though you'll also have to get up at dawn to enjoy the best possible flight conditions!
The rivers of Vienne, including the watercourse that gave the department its name, are perfect fishing grounds. There are more than 2,000 km of riverbank to choose from, with a great variety of habitats and numerous species of fish. A two week fishing permit costs around 30 euros. For further information about fishing areas visit the Fédération de Pêche de la Vienne. And if you want to enjoy the water but don't fancy fishing, hire a canoe and explore some of France's most beautiful rivers by paddling along them.
Food and drink
Vienne is not famed for gastronomy to the same degree as many regions of France, but it offers delicious rustic, honest fare. There are many top-quality products on offer, particularly fish and shellfish, including oysters, mussels, clams and scallops. This is the second sunniest department of France, so melons grow well here and asparagus, shallots and pears are particularly abundant around Châtellerault. Cheese is fantastic in the region, particularly if you love goats cheese. The Chabis and Chabichou du Poitou varieties are especially recommended.
Ease of access
You can fly direct to Poitiers from London Stansted with Ryanair, and La Rochelle in the department of Charente-Maritime is a second option, being about 140km to the west. You can also reach the Vienne by train, by taking the TGV from Paris to Futuroscope (1h20) or Poitiers (1h30).
Value for money
Vienne offers good value for money, with inexpensive eateries and accommodation options. With less tourists than the coastal regions, it's often easier to find bargains outside the peak season. That said, it's easy to spend money in Vienne if you are tempted by the fantastic activities on offer like hot air ballooning and stocking up on wine...
With acres of tranquil countryside, arguably the best theme park in Europe, water-sports, terrestrial and aerial activities galore and the historic city of Poitiers at its heart, Vienne seems to have all the ingredients for a perfect summer holiday.