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Time to revise your bucket list, and include the Vallée du Loir

Time to revise your bucket list, and include the Vallée du Loir

QUIET COUNTRY roads wind through a pastoral setting peppered with woodland and verdant meadows. Elegant chateaux conceal their beauty at the end of winding gravelled roads; ornate villages boast small bistros offering locally grown produce; and quaint, family-run vineyards carry prestigious labels.

DSC_6183Tranquil villages dot the landscape at every turn

Here, in the enchanting Vallée du Loir in France, where life meanders at its own pace, I have discovered a treasure-trove of attractions, yet it would seem I have merely touched the surface during my time here, so all the more reason to return.

DSC_6100Domaine des Hardouinieres is set in glorious parkland

My trip could not have begun any better than at the Domaine des Hardouinieres, a delightful bed and breakfast owned and run by M. Gilbert Lefebvre and his wife Dominique. The property is set in a flower-filled park, bordered by the Fôret de Chambiers. The couple only opened their doors to guests this year, and offer four rooms with stunning views of the parkland. (www.domainedeshardouinieres.fr)

DSC_6092They also lay on a splendid breakfast, which set me up for the day ahead.

DSC_6114In the company of Véronique Richard, press relations officer with the Loir Tourist Office, we drove to the workshop of Yvon Cailleau (www.cailleau.fr), a small, traditional family terracotta tile-making business in the village of Les Rairies, in the heart of Anjou.

DSC_6119The extraction of stone and clay hereabouts for the production of roof tiles, floor tiles and pottery dates from the 15 century. During the 19th century, there were in the region of 50 kilns in production, and as many drying barns with their typical tiled roofs. Today, it is still possible to see a number of kilns throughout the village.

DSC_6125Natural wood-fired kilns are utilised as part of the traditional process

Since the death of M. Yvon Cailleau in 1993, Didier Cailleau has striven to maintain the family legacy of quality and tradition, choosing to preserve historical production methods, whereby the clay is taken from Anjou quarries and dried naturally in drying barns. It is then placed in natural wood-fired kilns. The company’s traditional terracotta tiles, with their shimmering colours, are recognised worldwide for their beauty and quality. As part of this heritage, the company’s ‘Croc’ brickyard is the only listed historical monument in the village.

DSC_6126Château de Baugé

From Les Rairies, we travelled to the Château de Baugé (www.chateau-bauge.com), which was built in pre-Renaissance style in the 15th century by René d’Anjou. He ordered the construction of the elegant château as a hunting lodge, drawn by the rich and abundant wildlife of the lush Baugé forests.

DSC_6128The impressive palm tree-shaped vaulted column in the western tower

We climbed the vast stone staircase in the western tower. The central column supporting the stairs ends in a magnificent palm tree-shaped vault of Plantagenet style, and on which are carved the arms of René of Anjou. We then settled on chairs in the large attic to watch a video unfold of the building’s history.

DSC_6130Knight in shining armour in the Château de Baugé

The tour then enters the king’s decorated chamber, before heading downstairs, past the depiction of a knight on horseback in full jousting armour.

DSC_6134Apothecary’s store in the Hôtel-Dieu de Baugé

Across the road from the château is the Hôtel-Dieu de Baugé, which opened its doors to the sick and homeless in 1650. The Hospital Nuns of Saint-Joseph worked in the institution until 1991. The most spectacular room is the Apothecary’s shop, one of the most beautiful in France, with its starred vault and marquetry floor listed as a historic monument. Its Louis XIII-style oak shelves accommodate a collection of vases, chemist’s jars and other receptacles holding over six hundred items. Equipped around 1675, this preparation room was still in use up to the 1940s.

DSC_6139

Curtain call in a ward at the Hôtel-Dieu
The Hotel-Dieu ran two wards, one male and the other female, with the patients’ beds having been partitioned during the 1960s. The tour continues with the chapter room and the refectory, which come to life through a number of collections of furniture and objects having belonged to the community of the religious Hospitaliers of St Joseph.
DSC_6141The Garden of Simples at Hôtel-Dieu
Outside in the square courtyard we walked around the Garden of Simples, based on the theory of the humours. The four squares represent the four elements regulating the four humours of the body, the whole oriented to the four cardinal points of the compass. The plants in each parterre have been selected according to their action on the humours (dry, wet, hot or cold) and are inspired by the drugs preserved in the apothecary’s shop. The development of the château and the Hôtel Dieu de Baugé forms part of the Baugé Renaissance tourist programme. An initiative of the Baugé commune, the programme aims to give a modern and attractive view of the riches of an entire city.

DSC_6154Restaurant Ô PRESTIGE à Baugé has a fine reputation

Still in town, we enjoyed lunch at the Restaurant Ô PRESTIGE à Baugé (www.oprestige.com), run by enterprising chef Yohann Fouineau, whose penchant is for sea produce and timeless dishes.

DSC_6162Entrance to the magnificent Château du Lude

Our next stop was the Château du Lude (www.lelude.com), one of the architectural jewels of the first French Renaissance. Standing at the crossroads of Anjou, Maine and Touraine, Le Lude is one of the last important historical castles in France, and the same family have occupied it for the last two hundred and sixty years. The stronghold was transformed into the elegant house that we see today during the Renaissance and the 18th century. The stately rooms attest to a brilliant and refined history. Visitors can discover a succession of apartments complete with their original furniture, including the 15th century kitchens. The outbuildings are still composed of the 16th century’s vaulted stables.

DSC_6167The magnificent River Loir runs by the Château du Lude

It was a delightful afternoon during which to wander around the gardens, which are based on a 17th century design and stretch over several terraces, with wonderful views of the Loir Valley.

DSC_6169The rose garden at Château du Lude is rich in colour and smell

Rich in colour and diversity, they are composed of formal gardens, a rose garden with Chinese and Tea roses, a romantic park and a kitchen garden.

DSC_6186Auberge Relais du Cheval Blanc also serves an excellent dinner

I spent a relaxing evening in the small village of Beaumont Pied de Boeuf, staying at the Auberge Relais du Cheval Blanc (www.aubergechevalblanc72.com). The auberge is owned by Évelyne and Philippe Cauchois, who also run the adjacent inn, which is renowned for its authenticity, atmosphere and cuisine.

DSC_6196Philippe Cauchois has received many accolades for his cuisine

Philippe, a master restaurateur, has received many accolades for his inventive, fresh and simple cuisine, made with local, seasonal produce. Only that morning he had been out collecting mushrooms in the nearby Fôret de Bercé, from which he produced a delicious appetiser at dinner.

DSC_6198Fôret de Bercé contains many magnificent trees

The forest was the first port of call the following morning. Sunlight danced through the tree canopy as we approached a parking area of what remains of the once immense forest of Carnutes.

DSC_6200The only way is up… Véronique Richard relaxes as she views the tree canopy

There are still 5,400 hectares of glorious woodland to wander around, complete with softwood varieties and oak trees several hundred years old, producing high-quality wood, which is much sought-after for barrel making.

DSC_6203The soaring giants pierce the canopy

These soaring, straight ‘pillars’ of Bercé pierce the canopy, owing their perfection to the method of growing beech forests in sub stages, forcing them upwards towards the light. They are indeed a wonder to behold.

DSC_6207Carnuta – La Maison de l’Homme et de la Fôret

In the nearby village of Jupilles you can pop into Carnuta – La Maison de l’Homme et de la Fôret (www.carnuta.fr). In this space dedicated to both fun and learning are two areas, one dedicated to temporary exhibitions, while the other invites visitors to take a walk through the heart of a reconstituted forest where, as part of an interactive display, you can discover sounds, images, stories and smells.

DSC_6225One of the many wine cellars of the Domaine des Gauletteries 

We then called into the Domaine des Gauletteries (www.domainelelais.com) for a wine tasting. Owned by Francine and Raynald Lelais, the wine cellars of the 17ha domaine are dug into the tufa rock on the banks of the Loir near the charming village of Poncé sur le Loir, and create an extraordinary experience.

DSC_6240The vineyards and wines of the Loir Valley are more than a reality

Since the early Middle Ages, the vine has occupied an important place in the Loir Valley. Henry IV, who rode between La Fleche and Vendôme, liked Jasnieres so much that he had it served in the royal castle of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. As such then, the vineyards and wines of the Loir Valley are more than a reality. They are its identity.

DSC_6221Domaine des Gauletteries 

From Villiers-sur-Loir to Chateau-du-Loir, south-facing vineyards produce the best from their grape varieties. The reds, produced from the grape variety Pineau d’Aunis, are light but full of character, with spicy notes. The grape originated in Anjou, but has been cultivated on the Loir hillsides for over a thousand years. The whites, from the grape variety chenin blanc (or Pineau de la Loire), are also an old Anjoy grape variety, and develop an exceptional flavour from the time of harvesting. and often become great wines for keeping, They can be recognised by their taste of flintstone, also known as gun flint, acquired in the unique soil of the region.

DSC_6245Chez Miton – Le Bistro de Chahaignes makes the perfect lunch stop

Lunch followed at Chez Miton – Le Bistrot de Chahaignes (chezmiton@orange.fr), located at 15 Place de l’Elise in the attractive village of Chahaignes. By all accounts, a loyal clientele travel for miles to eat here, and I can understand why.

DSC_6251Chef Naoko offers home-made, seasonal cuisine

Chef Naoko offers diners home-made and seasonal cuisine using local produce in a gourmet bistro-type setting. The wines are specially selected by manager Miton, the list including Coteaux du Loir and Jasnieres wines from some twenty winegrowers in the region.

DSC_6272Sébastien Cornille runs the Domaine de la Roche Bleue

It was then time for more wine tasting, this time with Sébastien Cornille, the latest wine maker to the vineyards of the Sarthe. 

DSC_6280Wine bottle bottoms makes a unique picture

Sébastien runs the Domaine de la Roche Bleue (domainedelarochebleue@ymail.com), and has already succeeded in winning over some of the finest tables in France with the authenticity of his Jasnieres.

DSC_6267

Sébastien has already succeeded in winning over some of the finest tables in France with the authenticity of his Jasnieres

DSC_6276Mould collected on wine bottles after spending years in the cellar

Outside Beaumont-sur-Deme lies Les Jardins du Prieuré de Vauboin, an extraordinarily arrangement of contrasting yet complementary gardens, one being a ‘Hortus Conclusus’ (enclosed garden), the other a century-old box plantation.

DSC_6289The extraordinary maze at Les Jardins du Prieuré de Vauboin

The gardens are the inspiration of Thierry Juge, who tends them at the foot of a limestone hillside with its own spring, which in turn gently trickles around a 14th century house.

DSC_6294Thierry Juge’s wonderful 14th century house

DSC_6290Wooden mushroom carvings litter the hillside

The garden plants are a beautifully orchestrated symphony of greens, punctuated by the occasional hint of white. Cast your eyes towards the hillside, and Thierry has created extraordinary box plant shapes in the shade of century-old oaks.

DSC_6299River Loir, pretty as a picture

A visit to this region would not be complete without a cruise on the River Loir. The weather could not have been kinder, with dappled sunlight piercing the trees, which in turn cast long shadows across the still waters.

DSC_6307Véronique Richard takes the helm, with Michel Timmerman watching over

We boarded the Spirit of Adventure at La Chartre sur Le Loir, with skipper Michel Timmerman at the helm. (micheltimer@hotmail.fr).

DSC_6303Santé… the only way to cruise the river

We joined a small party already enjoying oysters and champagne for lunch, and cruised along the river with glasses to hand, captivated by the scenery and the odd carp which left ripples across the surface.

DSC_6306Michel pours a glass of champers

My final night was spent at Le Grand Moulin (www.mdmillet-moulin.fr), a rather splendid bed and breakfast in La Chartre sur le Loir.

DSC_6317View from the bedroom at Le Grand Moulin

The water mill stopped activity in 1972, and was converted to offer attractive accommodation in 2005. It sits in a lovely location enclosed by a large wall, with the garden terrace overlooking the Loir. I opened the shutters of my pleasant room to discover the same view.

DSC_6321Hôtel de France has many attachments to Le Mans 24-hour race track

I dined with friends just round the corner at the Hôtel de France (www.lhoteldefrance.fr), a country relais forever attached to the Le Mans 24-hour race track, with signed photographs of drivers lining the walls of the bar. Once again, the chef produces tasty local dishes, drawing inspiration from seasonal produce.

DSC_6204As you can imagine, the Vallée du Loir offers the visitor an inspiring landscape with its many easily discoverable treasures. So, if your liking is for fine wine, gourmet food, boutique accommodation, bountiful visitor attractions, all suitably washed down with romance and serenity – and I am sure you will tick all of those boxes – then this region is definitely for you, and somewhere you would wish to return to time and again.

FACTFILE

REGION – For more information on the Loir Valley please visit www.loir-valley.com

FLIGHTS – Leeds Bradford-Paris with British Airways – British Airways flies from Leeds Bradford Airport to Heathrow three times a day, giving customers in the Yorkshire region a gateway to the airline’s worldwide network of flights from its flagship home in Terminal Five. There is a choice of up to seven return British Airways flights a day from Heathrow to Paris Charles de Gaulle and up to four flights a day to Paris Orly Airport. Customers connecting to onward flights at Heathrow have a quick and easy transfer through Terminal 5. Return hand baggage only fares from Leeds Bradford to Paris are available for £204 and are available to book on www.ba.com. All British Airways fares include free seat selection and on-line check-in 24 hours before departure, complimentary refreshments and drinks on board, and no debit card charges.

TRAIN – Fares from London to Le Mans start at £68 standard class return. All fares are per person and subject to availability. For bookings visit www.voyages-sncf-com or call 0844 848 5848. Personal callers are welcome at the Voyages-sncf Travel Centre, 193 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EU

  • All images © Essential Journeys/Michael Cowton

For related articles, see 

https://www.essentialjourneys.co.uk/bed-and-breakfast-but-not-as-you-know-it/

https://www.essentialjourneys.co.uk/restaurant-o-prestige-is-set-to-soar/

https://www.essentialjourneys.co.uk/river-cruise-on-the-loir-france/

https://www.essentialjourneys.co.uk/chateau-du-lude-vallee-du-loir-france/

About The Author

Mike Cowton

Michael Cowton, an outdoors writer, editor and photographer with a passion for nature-based travel and wildlife. He is a former editor of EcoTravel, Outdoor Pursuits, Camping, Lakeland Walker and Which Motorcaravan magazines, and national newspaper journalist.

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