333km (206 miles) SW of Paris; 177km (110 miles) SE of Nantes

Poitiers stands on a hill overlooking the Clain and Boivre rivers—a strategic location that tempted many conquerors. Everybody has passed through here—from Joan of Arc to Richard the Lionheart. Charles Martel chased out the Muslims in A.D. 732 and altered the course of European civilization. Poitiers was the chief city of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had her marriage to pious Louis VII annulled, so she could wed England’s Henry II (a marriage that effectively launched the modern Bordeaux wine trade).

For history buffs, this is one of the most fascinating towns in France. The Battle of Poitiers, fought on September 19, 1356 between the armies of Edward the Black Prince and King John of France, was one of the three great English victories in the Hundred Years’ War, distinguished by the use of the longbow in the skilled hands of English archers.

After decades of slumber, the town came alive with the opening of the Futuroscope theme park in 1987, which now gets upward of 3 million visitors per year. The thriving student population (25,000 of Poitiers’s 92,000 residents are students) adds vitality as well.