France: Pays de la Loire
The Loire Valley flows from East to West crossing 2 vast regions of the Hexagone: Centre Val de Loire and Pays de La Loire. In 2000 it was added to the list of the World Heritage Sites. Five administrative departments form the region of the Pays de La Loire: La Loire Atlantique which used to be part, with Nantes as the capitale, of the Duchy of the Dukes of Brittany; le Maine et Loire, better known in ancient days as Pays d’Anjou; la Mayenne and la Sarthe : for these two, their names also apply to the tributaries of the Loire river. La Vendee used to belong to the former province of Poitou. Le Pays Nantais is the area around Nantes. As you travel you will recognize all these names, which may get confusing if you are not familiar with French history and geography!
Chateaux & Abbeyes
The largest chateaux are in the cities of Nantes, Angers and Saumur. It would be impossible to name all the chateaux which are worth a visit, but here are a few of the most interesting:
The Château de Montsoreau has a Renaissance motif and is the only one built directly on the river. It is located at the confluence of the Vienne and the Loire Rivers, which is also the crossroads of three historical regions: Anjou, Poitou and Touraine. This strategic location made it historically important for defense and toll collection purposes. It was turned into a Museum of Contemporary Art in 2016, which houses a large collection of conceptual avant-garde art of the Art & Language pioneer movement. Nearby is a quaint little village which is listed in both the “Villages de Charmes” and “Most Beautiful village in France”. There is also a famous flea market which attracts thousands of tourists and antique collectors on the 2nd Sunday of each month.
Laval was a stronghold during the Middle Ages. The Counts of Laval started a textile industry in the early 14th century and it stayed prosperous till the 20th century. The original castle has distinctive circular towers, and a Renaissance wing was added in the 16th century. The Lactopole, or “City of Milk”, is a museum for both children and adults, with a history of the dairy industry and unique exhibits including the opportunity to taste some of the local cheese.
At the meeting point of Anjou, Touraine, and Poitou, near Saumur, stands the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud, which is an Abbey like no other. It was run by an Abbess of high nobility and it gave shelter to both men and women. Eleonor D’Aquitaine came to live there after the death of her husband Henri II. She ordered that reclining effigies of herself, her husband and their son Richard the Lionheart be exhibited in the Abbey church. She died in her eighties at Fontevraud in 1204. After the French Revolution it became a high security prison. It was one of the toughest in the country, where resistance members were incarcerated and executed during WWII.
Nantes is the 6th largest city in France with slightly over 300 000 inhabitants, and is the capital of the Pays de La Loire region. Historically and culturally it belongs to Brittany with its medieval Chateau of the Duke of Brittany . This chateau is now a local history museum and its multimedia exhibits make it worth visiting. Entrance to the courtyard and to the remparts are free of charge. The “Machines of the Isle” is an interesting project which is now making Nantes quite unique and famous. It is an amusement park of sorts inspired by Jules Verne and Leonardo da Vinci, and its uniqueness makes it hard to describe. The Giant Elephant which can take you around the old shipyards is one of the symbols. The “Isle de Nantes” is another new development project. It is interesting to stroll around through the city center and along the River, through the Parc de Beaulieu, along the Quai des Antilles, and among many bars, restaurants and terraces. The “HAB Gallery” is a huge warehouse converted from an ancient hanger for bananas. It hasa variety of bars and clubs with music and concerts, The Cathedral Saint Pierre and Saint Paul of Nantes, the Basilica of Saint Nicholas and the Eglise Sainte Croix with its bell tower, are all worth a visit. For those who love food and farmers markets you should not miss the Marche de Talensac. Passage Pommeraye is a gilded arcade from 1843, an old time shopping mall. Along the River Erdre is the RIverside Neighborhood , a bohemian area with waterside bars, houseboat restaurants,and creperies with crepes of buckwheat Galettes reminding you of the Breton gastronomy. A 3 hour cruise along the estuary of the Loire will take you all the way to Saint Nazaire, passing industrial areas, fishing villages, wetlands with the local wildlife, containers and shipyards.
Angers is the capital of Anjou. Located on the River Maine, just 3 miles from its confluence with the Loire, it is a very pleasant university town where you can walk around the many parks, gardens, lakes, museums and galleries. Cobbled streets and market places contrast with modern and wide streets open to traffic. The main attraction is the 13th century medieval fortress with 17 defense towers, many remparts, and the famous 130 feet long “Apocalypse Tapestry” with 90 scenes telling the story of the apocalypse from the book of Revelation by St John the Divine. Cointreau liqueur is made from orange peels and has been manufactured in Angers since 1849. A visit to the factory and its museum is quite educational and interesting, and shouldn’t be missed. It is considered one of the cultural heritage sites of the city.
Saumur is known for its Cavalry School and its good wine. The small town was built between the Loire and the Thouet Rivers, and is surrounded by vineyards. The region produces Saumur and Bourgueil wines, which are among the finest in France The French Cavalry has been based in Saumur since 1763. If you are passionate about horses you cannot miss visiting the Riding School, a.k.a. “Le Cadre Noir”. You can see both the training and the show performance, but check the scheduled times of the performance and try to book ahead, as it is often sold out. There is also an incredible collection of motorized military machines and tanks at the nearby “Musee des Blindes”, the best museum of that kind you will ever see.
Chinon has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 2000. History buffs will love this little town, which saw its heydays during the Middle Ages when it was serving both French and English kings at the same time. The Royal Fortress of Chinon is in fact made up of 3 different castles: the Middle Castle, Fort Coudray, and Fort Saint George. Visiting the Middle Castle is the most interesting with its Royal Quarters, Argenton Tower, Dogs Tower, and the Clocktower. The history of the chateau is strongly related to the Knights Templars, who during the early Crusades protected the soldiers en route to Jerusalem. There is an interesting interactive exhibit laid out in the park and the towers of the fortress.
Saint Nazaire is a seaport town 38 miles northwest of Nantes and is located on the Loire estuary where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Originally a small fishing village, it grew tremendously during the 19th century industrial revolution to become one of the largest shipyards in the world. The “Chantiers de l’Atlantique” are well known today to be where the “SS Normandy”, SS” France”, RMS “Queen Mary ”, and the world’s largest cruise ship “The Symphony of the Seas” were built. During WWII Saint Nazaire was a large U-boat base, and was almost completely destroyed by Allied air raids. It has since been reconstructed entirely, and is now an interesting engineering and science center. Among the main attractions besides the panoramic terrace and the waterfront promenade, you will enjoy visiting the submarine base and the Ecomusee. Also take the two hour tour of STX shipyards, or visit the Airbus facilities that manufacture some major aircraft components and segments that are then sent on to Toulouse for final assembly.
Built on the River Sarthe, Le Mans has a well preserved and very interesting old town called “Le Vieux Mans”. The old walls and baths along the river are from Roman times, and the cathedral is dedicated to Saint Julien who was the first bishop of the city. But Le Mans is most famous for “The 24 Hours of Le Mans” which since 1923 has taken place every year in June. It is one of the most prestigious automobile races in the world, and is a unique test of endurance and efficiency.
North of Saint Nazaire is La Grande Brière, a vast area of marshlands that is 2nd largest in France after the Camargue. In older times the only activities in these wetlands were peat digging and reed picking, but it is now a National Park which attracts many tourists who come for the wild life, to enjoy bird watching, or explore the swamps by boat.
Marshes of Poitou
The former Marshes of Poitou have been transformed into 220,000 acres of remarkable biodiversity with canals, ditches, peat bogs, reed beds, meadows, woods and agricultural fields. Some parts were kept as animal sanctuaries and the ecosystem was intelligently maintained. Tourists can enjoy nature as they ride on flat boats and can spot many of the 136 species of birds which have found refuge in the marshes.
Gastronomy & Wines
The most typical dish of the region, especially in Nantes or Angers, is a delicious and delicate sauce called “Beurre Blanc”, which is typically served with fish. It is a hot butter sauce mixture made up of white wine, lemon juice, shallots, and butter that is slowly melted a little bit at a time. Should you prefer meat, you can try Muscatel Sausages or Rillauds d’Anjou, both of which can be served with the local white beans known as “Mogettes de Vendee”. Paté with Prunes is also an excellent specialty of Angers. The best local cheese are “Port-Salut” and “Cure Nantais” Generally speaking the wines of the Loire Valley are always presented in Burgundy style wine bottles and they are excellent value. The Anjou Region of the middle Loire around Angers is known primarily for its rosé wine known as Rosé d’Anjou. Some of the higher quality vintages are labelled with the AOC designation of “Anjou Villages”. Saumur is known for its sparkling Crémants wine. These sparkling wines are made from Chenin Blanc grapes. They are readily available (12 millions of bottles produced annually) and moderately priced, and compete very effectively with Champagne Chinon and Bourgueil produce the majority of the red wines from the Loire Valley. Chinon reds are softer while Bourgueil tend to be more tannic and firm. Muscadet and Gros Plant are wines produced in the “Pays Nantais” area around Nantes. Both are dry and crisp white wines with light body. They are especially appreciated with seafood.