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.
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.
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)
In 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
The tour then enters the king’s decorated chamber, before heading downstairs, past the depiction of a knight on horseback in full jousting armour.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lunch followed at Chez Miton – Le Bistrot de Chahaignes (firstname.lastname@example.org), 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.
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.
Sébastien runs the Domaine de la Roche Bleue (email@example.com), and has already succeeded in winning over some of the finest tables in France with the authenticity of his Jasnieres.
Sébastien has already succeeded in winning over some of the finest tables in France with the authenticity of his Jasnieres
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.
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.
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.
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.
We boarded the Spirit of Adventure at La Chartre sur Le Loir, with skipper Michel Timmerman at the helm. (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.
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.
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.
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.
As 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.
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
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