The Independent Traveler's Newsletter                                PAGE FOUR

. . . and Five Timeless Châteaus to Welcome You

Map of Pays de la Loire region - courtesy of
This region of France is rich with history ~ widely known as Anjou, it was connected to Eleanor of Aquitaine through the Angevine empire.  Still called Anjou by many of the natives, it is a place of excellent climate, rich pastures, limestone soils perfect for vineyards, and the fertile land between Angers and Saumur which is perfect for growing flowers and vegetables.  It was aptly called the 'Garden of France', but today the industries include scientific research, education, electronics and fashion.  The Pays de la Loire is an area that takes in five départements, two of which border the Atlantic Ocean; in this issue we will tell you about the Maine-et-Loire (49) and the Sarthe (72), both bordering the Center region of the country and quite convenient to Paris.

A map of France dated 1337 locates Anjou both north and south of the River Loire between the cities of Tours and Nantes.  Its capital then was Angers which is still its major city.  Today's Anjou is a large part of the Pays de la Loire overlapping the départements of Maine-et-Loire and the Loire-Atlantique.  The history of the region is fascinating with far-reaching consequences.  Founded by Foulque Nerra, the Dukedom of Anjou goes back to the early 11th century.  By the 12th century, Angers, under the rule of the Plantagenets, was the regional capital of an empire that reached as far away as Scotland.  Hundreds of castles still dot its landscape as a reminder of its earlier glory. 


Today, the city of Angers on the River Maine, and the capital of the Maine-et-Loire department,  is a peaceful place and very French.  In fact, it is said that the people of the Anjou region of France speak the most perfect French, free of any regional  patois.  Angers is a wonderful city from which to begin your visit to Anjou and the eastern Pays de la Loire. 

You can drive around the city quite easily to visit the most interesting places.  It is a city of art, a medieval castle, museums and a cathedral, and most interesting is its old quarter well worth a visit.  The Musée des Beaux-arts, a building of flamboyant Gothic architecture,  was built between 1493 and 1495 as the home of Olivier Barrault, the Mayor of the city and Treasurer of Brittany (this part of France was once officially in Brittany), and it was opened as a museum in 1801.  The museum houses a fine collection of art and archeology covering three floors and includes art from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, furniture from the 15th and 16th centuries, regional sculptures, 18th and 19th century French masterpieces, and 16th through 18th century paintings from France and elsewhere in the world.

The Gallery David d'Angers is not far from the museum at 37 bis, rue Toussaint, located in the ruins of a 13th century abbey church whose sides were glassed over to provide a home for the plaster casts of the works of a local sculptor, Pierre Jean David (1788-1856), also known as David d'Angers.
Château d'Angers, photo courtesy Wikipedia

The impressive Château d'Angers, entered by a drawbridge to the Porte de la Ville, was a feudal fortress built between 1230 and 1240.  As a tribute to its fortitude, the castle has never been taken by any invading force in history, but it was used by the Germans in World War II to store arms, some of which exploded causing damage to the château.  The last Duke of Anjou, King René I, added buildings, gardens, an aviary and a menagerie.  The dry moat contains exquisite formal gardens, and an occasional deer can be seen.  The Chapelle Sainte Geneviève on the grounds of the château is still used, and we witnessed a bridal party emerging into the courtyard from the chapel. 

Tapestry of the Apolcalypse, photo WikipediaFire at Château d'Angers, January 2009, photo Wikipedia
Tapestry of the Apocalypse, Logis Royal                          Logis Royal fire 2009 at Château d'Angers

The Château is the home of France's most famous medieval tapestries ~ the 14th century wool Tapestry of the Apocalypse about 100 meters in length and a priceless treasure.  On January 10, 2009, the castle suffered severe damage from an electrical fire. The Logis Royal, which houses treasured documents and the tapestry (it is actually many tapestries displayed as one), as well as administrative offices, was heavily heavily damaged with 4,300 square feet of the roof destroyed.  The tapestries, miraculously, were not harmed, but the devastation was estimated at two million euros. Contributions and donations to the city of Angers which owns the château were collected for the restoration.  Although it was predicted at the time of the fire that the Logis Royal would be open to the public at the end of 2009, the work took far longer than anticipated, and it will reopen to the public during the Summer of 2012. 

Cathédrale St-Maurice, constructed at the end of the 12th century, has a central lantern tower added during the Renaissance.  It is still a striking presence in Angers despite time-worn and damaged sculptures on its Gothic façade.  It is best known for its Angevin vaulting in the nave and its transept which is one of the earliest and best examples of its kind.  The interior is lit through exceptional stained glass windows, including a 15th century rose window.

Château de Saumur, photo courtesy of http://www.37-online.netAnother city in the Maine-et-Loire that should be on your 'not to miss' list is Saumur with its magnificent turreted chateau built in the last half of the 14th century by Louis I, Duke of Anjou and brother of King Charles V.  It was the Duke's country home, and today it houses two interesting museums: Musée du Cheval and Musée des Arts Décoratifs.  The Musée du Cheval has an interesting collection and tells the fascinating history of the horse's place in history from prehistoric times to the present.  It was founded by a veterinarian of Saumur's cavalry school.

Mushrooms play a big part in the economy of Saumur; in fact, it has a museum dedicated to this delightful little morsel: Musée du Champignon.  Offered to visitors is a tour of the limestone caves to see how mushrooms are grown and a tasting of gallipettes farcies (stuffed gallipette mushrooms).  Visit their web site for visitors information and photos!

Three churches worth visiting are Eglise St-Pierre, the Gothic Eglise Saint-Nicolas and Saumur's oldest church, Notre-Dame de Nantilly.  Another 'must see' is the nearby Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud built in the 12th century and a magnificent example of Romanesque architecture and only 18 kilometers from Saumur (12 miles).  Transformed over the XVI, XVII and XVIII centuries, it is the resting place of the Plantagenets.

Eglise St-Nicolas, photo courtesy Saumur Tourist Office web siteEglise St-Pierre, photo courtesy Saumur Tourist Office web siteCloisters at Abbaye de Fontevraud, photo courtesy Saumur Tourist Office web site

                                                             Interior of Eglise Saint-Nicolas                    Eglise Saint-Pierre              Cloisters at Abbaye de Fontevraud


Further north, leaving the banks of the Loire and the region of Anjou, visitors will find the départements of Mayenne (53) and Sarthe (72), each named for the rivers that flow through them.  We will focus on the Sarthe in this issue.  The River Sarthe flows down from the north just above Le Mans, the principal city of the département, and meanders in and out of tranquil woods and meadowlands continuing on its way to join the River Mayenne near Angers.  Both départements share a third river in their southernmost reaches - le Loir.  These gentle rivers offer boating, fishing, canoeing and kayaking to visitors.  The area is abundant with wildlife, and some of the most popular pastimes include birdwatching, hiking, biking and walking. 

Sabots, wooden clogs, are still produced by local craftsmen in Jupilles in the Forêt de Bercé, an area famous for its old oak trees.  Another craft which still survives is glassblowing, and the region even has a bread museum in Vaas.  Wine is grown in the Valley of the Loir in the Sarthe ~ perhaps little known to other than residents of the valley.  You will find names like Coteaux du Loir and Jasnières made from Pineau d'Aunis and Chenin grapes.  There is an interesting little wine museum in Lhomme.

Château du Lude, photo courtesy of
Château du Lude in the Sarthe

Pioneering the son-et-lumière (sound and light show), Château du Lude in Le Lude ~ an old market town with charming narrow streets lined by 15th, 16th and 17th century houses ~ was probably most well known for this extravaganza.   They recreated the château's history with about 350 actors, as water jets added to the drama of images being projected onto the 650 foot wall.  Sadly, we understand that they no longer offer the program, although other châteaus in France still continue the son-et-lumière tradition.  But, do visit the château for its splendor and history.  Built in the 10th and 11th centuries on the banks of Le Loir, it was used to defend the valley first against the Normans and then the English.   The château is open from March 31 to September 30 (closed Wednesdays in April, May, June and September) and to group tours year 'round by request.  Open times for the gardens are: 10:00 - 12:30 noon and 2:00 - 6:00 pm and for guided tours of the château: 2:30 - 6:00 pm.

Cobbled street in Le Vieux Mans.  Photo copyright 2009-present Cold Spring Press.  All rights reserved.
Cathédrale St-Julien, Le Mans.  Photo copyright 2009-present Cold Spring Press.  All rights reserved.

The principal city in the Sarthe is Le Mans, world famous for its 24-hour auto races at the racetrack south of the city.  Be sure to visit Le Vieux Mans (the Old Town) when in the city and wander its narrow streets, enjoy meals at its many cozy restaurants, and admire the 15th and 16th century half-timbered buildings lining its cobblestone streets.  Old Roman walls border the northwest side of the Old Town along the River Sarthe.  Considered perhaps the most magnificent cathedral in France, you will come upon the Romanesque and Gothic Cathédrale St-Julien, famed for its intricate flying buttresses.  Built from the 11th to 15th centuries, and dedicated to its founder Bishop Julien who first built a church on this site in the fourth century, the cathedral has 13 chapels radiating out from the chevet.  It also has one of the most beautiful collections of medieval stained-glass windows in the world including an 11th century window depicting the Ascension.  In September of 1134 the city and the cathedral burned and there was a second fire four years later. In rebuilding, it was decided to vault the nave requiring the supporting flying buttresses.  This new cathedral was dedicated in 1158. 

Henri II of England (Plantagenet) was born in Le Mans on March 5, 1133 and baptized in the Cathédrale St-Julien.  He was the son of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and his English wife, Mathilda, daughter of King Henry I of England.  When her brother died, she became the King's sole heir, and she involved her son Henri, then 14, in her quest to claim the throne of England.  Henri II became Duke of Normandy at the age of 17 and in 1152, through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose union to King Louis had recently been annulled, gained Anjou uniting it with the English crown.  It remained in his control and that of his son, Richard the Lionheart, until 1199.  We once suggested the book Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings by Amy Kelly ~ we still consider this recommended reading today.  It relates the critical role played by the English Royal House of Plantagenet and the Angevin empire from Eleanor's birth in 1122 to her death in 1204.  The Plantagenets reigned from 1153 until 1399, but it was not until 1453 that the English were driven from France as the Hundred Years War drew to a close.

There is a lot to attract vacationers to the Pays de la Loire.  Museums, cathedrals, medieval cities and ancient ruins draw visitors, but another plus is its convenience to Paris (an hour by TGV), and easy access to the royal châteaux of the Loire Valley, only a bit to the south.  There may be more castles and châteaus in northwestern France than anywhere in the world.  Fortunately, for those of us who do not live in a French château, they are not all private homes that shut out the rest of the world.  Instead, many of the fine families who own them ~ whether they are carrying on a long tradition of their own or who may be fairly new owners fulfilling their dreams of having a château in France ~  open them to guests to share their splendor and history.  Perhaps you would like to know how you can spend several nights as a guest in a château soaking up the history and charm, or rent a gîte or apartment on the grounds of a chateau, or even have the opportunity to rent an entire château as your very own for a gathering of family and friends.

Why not take the opportunity to stay in a French château in this region of France?  You will be enveloped in the rich history of the Pays de la Loire and, perhaps, come away with some special memories having experienced 'château life' for a brief time.  There are five châteaus, each offering something different to their guests, that we suggest you consider.


Château de Cheman.  Photo copyright M/M Liebreks. All rights reserved.Château de Cheman is a 15th century wine estate located south of the River Loire between Angers and Saumur.  The owners, Jan and Gerdie Liebreks, have renovated the property to a high standard offering five double en suite bed and breakfast guest rooms at very reasonable prices.  Dinner is offered to guests five nights per week (not Tuesday or Saturday) when you can dine with other guests and have the opportunity to know your hosts better ~ they can be so helpful with sightseeing information and answer any questions you may have.

The château produces its own wines: a white, a rosé, and several high quality reds.  There is also a swimming pool, pétanque and free bicycles for use to explore the lovely countryside.  More information at Château de Cheman.

Château de Challain.  Photo copyright C. Nicholson.  All rights reserved.Château de Challain is a spectacular Renaissance chateau providing luxurious bed and breakfast accommodations as well as hosting elegant weddings occasionally during the year.  Only a half hour from Angers, the château is in a lovely small village.  It has a pond, park, gardens and a games room for the use of its guests.  Dinner is served at the château by advance reservation.  The American owners have a friendly and reliable staff on hand to ensure guests are well served.

A new apartment has been created in the Gate House for rent by the week.  And, if you are interested in renting the entire château for a group gathering, it will sleep about 27 people.  More information at Château de Challain.


Château de la Barre.  Photo copyright Count and Countess de Vanssay.  All rights reserved.Chateau de la Barre is an historic property in the same family since 1421!  It offers en suite bed and breakfast accommodations, two apartments in the cottage, and candlelight dinners served in the stunning 17th century grand dining room.  Your enthusiastic hostess, Countess de Vanssay, schedules activities at the château and in the region throughout the year including musical concert weekends, tours of private and public châteaus, and classic car events including racing at Le Mans.

In winter months, when there are fewer guests, take French Immersion classes with the Countess.  Wine tastings for guests can be arranged at any time during the year, and Count de Vanssay is please to relate the history of his ancestral home and tell you of the wonders of the Sarthe and Loir Valley.  More information at Château de la Barre.

Château de Vaulogé.  Photo copyright M. Tassan Din.  All rights reserved.Château de Vaulogé, on the banks of the tiny River Gee, is a warm and welcoming chateau whose Italian owners are eager to have guests experience is charm and history.  Beautifully proportioned, this château offers bed and breakfast lodging in spacious en suite guest rooms where you will find comfort and relaxation.  The Sarthe is one of the most bucolic parts of France filled with woodlands, small winding rivers and unique villages that have never lost their authenticity or charm.

Italian cooking classes, Chinese massages, Zen gymnastics, and wellness packages are some of the activities in which you can participate to make your vacation in France a bit more interesting.  And, if you want dinner at the château, you may specify French or Italian cuisine.  Château de Vaulogé will certainly send you home with many happy memories.  More information at Château de Vaulogé.

Château de Grand-Lucé.  Photo copyrighted by T. Corrigan.  All rights reserved.Château de Grand-Lucé is an exceptional and elegant rental château for those special celebrations or family events.  The château's grandeur is hard to put into words, but when you see it, you will know just how exceptional and remarkable it is.  A large property, it has fourteen bedrooms sleeping up to 28 people.  There is a heated swimming pool, outdoor terraces, and bicycles available for exploring the countryside.  All ground floor rooms have fireplaces. 

Professionally decorated by the owner, Timothy Corrigan, the château has an elevator, fully-equipped kitchen, several salons and dining rooms, and provides WiFi, iPod dock, satellite television and all the comforts you would expect.   More information at Château du Grand-Lucé.

We hope we've tempted you to visit the Pays de la Loire when you next visit France.  You will find the peaceful verdant countryside, tiny hamlets, friendly people and pleasant climate the perfect place to spend a relaxing vacation or to celebrate an anniversary or birthday with family and friends.


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