Beyond the City: France

 

  Staff photo / JM

EXPLORING THE WESTERN LOIRE

You'll find the “Pays-de-la-Loire” or “Western Loire region,” in only the most recent history books.   It’s one of the regions France created last century, that surrounds a capital (Nantes, in this case) considered a “balancing metropolis” or “métropoles d'équilibre.”  The name certainly implies an emphasis on geography, Pays (i.e. "lands") -de-la-Loire (i.e. "of the Loire River").   It's also worth noting that the bulk of the colorful history that’s chronicled so well throughout the region, actually took place before it was formed.  For the visitor, this is just fine.  Local communities remain the focal point of the history, traditions and culture in the Western Loire.

What never seems to change is the river that gives life to the region.   Without the banks of the Loire, would the settings for all of those green fields, wooded lands, and mysterious marshes be as beautiful as they are?  What about the rivers and streams that feed it?  Where would they flow?  What would the Bay of Biscay welcome if not the waters of France’s royal river?

Throughout history, man has populated these same embankments with vineyards, castles, stately homes, cities, towns and villages.  And while the kings and queens of France are gone, many of the chateaux that dot this countryside - like Brissac, Le Lude and Goulaine, are still home to aristocratic families that have occupied them for generations, or centuries for that matter.  

Until the advent of improved transport in the mid 1850’s, the Loire was the main avenue of transit from the Atlantic to the interior regions of France.  A westward manifest typically included timber, grains, limestone or barrels of wine.  Return trips frequently delivered salt from Guerande or sugar, spices and other goods from distant places.

Like most rivers, the Loire originates in the mountains at Cevennes, near the foot of the Gerbier de Jonc.  From there it flows toward the sunset for 634 miles before spilling into the Atlantic.  The Loire is not only France’s longest river, it’s the last remaining wild river in Western Europe. 

Thus unhampered by dams and locks, the last 125 miles of the Loire's westward run is through the Pays-de-la-Loire which covers nearly  33,000 square kilometers and the departments of Sarthe, Mayenne, Anjou, Loire-Atlantique and Vendée

The Western Loire is bordered by Brittany and Normandy in the North, Central Loire Valley to the East, and Pitou-Charentes on the south.  The western border is a 280 mile stretch of ocean shoreline punctuated with quiet coves, scenic fishing villages, salt pans groomed to near perfection and some of the most beautiful golden beaches in all of Europe. 

Over the next few days, I would learn much about the history that took place near this magnificent river.  I'd like to share some of these highlights with you now.

TGV spells “Train à Grande Vitesse”
The marvels of modern day rail transportation have reduced the travel time between Paris and Le Mans to less than an hour.   The journey from Paris was so quiet and comfortable, and the scenery so beautiful, that an hour in these creature comforts seems all-too-short.  Despite the ever changing panorama gliding past my window at 180 miles per hour, my sense of anticipation was in overdrive.  I was contemplating the chateaux, vineyards, charming villages and small towns that certainly awaited us at every turn. 

Before I knew it, we were in Le Mans, our gateway to the Western Loire and the starting point of explorations that would ultimately take us to the French Atlantic Coast.  A friendly greeting at the car rental office, a few formalities quickly dispatched, and we were on our way. 

  Staff photo / JM

A Renaissance Era Home, Old Le Mans

The Old City
In minutes, we were parking our Peugeot in the shadow of St. Julian’s at the edge of Old Le Mans.  The cathedral anchors the medieval city like a cornerstone.  Climbing the stairs toward the massive church affords you a first hint of the half timbered and renaissance buildings that call Old Le Mans their home. 

Le Fontainbleau is a superb Le Mans restaurant owned by M. et Mme. Mauboussin.   The dining room is elegant in traditional French décor.  However, we opted to dine outdoors in a lithely screened marquee the Mauboussin’s provide for their customers in warmer seasons.  Lunch that day started with a local specialty, a chicken marmite which was followed by Tournedos de saumon a la crème de champions and then, a Sorbet citron vert. 

With lunch, we enjoyed a Val de Loire product, a Jasniers by Aubert La Chapelle.  This was an excellent white wine, as enjoyable as any I have ever tasted and a reminder of the quality wines produced in the Val de Loire.     

Archeologists believe that in its earliest history the location of Le Mans would have been the site of a fortified city.  Prehistoric inhabitants of the walled town raised a standing stone that still stands in its original location marking 7000 years of occupation in the area.

Since the 3rd century, a Roman wall has defined the historic center of Le Mans and protected its inhabitants.  These walls, in their remarkable state of preservation, are considered one of the best preserved walls in the ancient Roman Empire.  The Roman Baths of Le Mans were discovered in 1980 by chance during a construction project.  A focal point of Roman social life, the baths were in continuous use for over two centuries.   Other vestiges of Roman occupation remain such as the city’s first urban plan with the cardo (a main north – south street) as well as other monuments in varying states of preservation. 

  Staff photo / JM

St. Julian's Cathedral, Le Mans

Five centuries of building gave St. Julian’s a handful of styles that are surprisingly harmonious in its livery of local roussard stone, limestone and glass.  It is said that Le Mans cathedral is the “archeological” cathedral of medieval religious art.  At 134 meters in length, and covering 5,000 square meters, it is one of France’ largest cathedrals.    

Within the network of cobbled streets that thread the Old City, are a hundred or so well preserved half-timbered houses.  The oldest date back to the 14th century, most however, were built in the 15th and 16th centuries.  Restoration of these buildings has included bringing them back to their original colors - red, blue or green.   The Grabatoire, an excellent example of a Renaissance mansion of the 16th century, is the bishop’s residence that faces the porch of St Julian’s at Place du Cardinal Grente. 

Later, 17th and 18th century Le Mans was characterized by construction or reconstruction of residences, convents and other ecclesiastical buildings.  Unique in city planning for the period is the tunnel, constructed from 1872 to 1877, which dramatically intersects the old city.

The Plantagenet City

The Plantagenet Dynasty began in Le Mans when Geoffrey V,  Count of Anjou and Grandson of William the Conqueror, married Empress Matilda, the daughter of Henry I, king of England.  Tradition has it that the name Plantagenet arose from Geoffrey’s habit of decorating his hat with broom flowers (genet) when hunting in the countryside.  Thus, "plant a genet" became Plantagenet. 

Many notable figures in the middle ages were Plantagenets. Among them: Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and kings of England Richard I - better known as Richard the Lionhearted – Henry III, Edward I and Edward II.

Of the original Plantagenet Palace that was the birthplace of Count Geoffrey and his son Henry II (who would rule England one day), only the walls and walled Roman windows remain.  Queen Berengeria lived there after her husband, Richard-the-Lionhearted, died.  With the queen in residence, the count’s palace became a royal palace.

  Staff photo / JM

Francis Piquera, director of the Musee Automobile de la Sarthe

Le Mans and its love affair with the automobile   

The Bollee family, bell manufacturers by profession, turned Le Mans into a center of automotive and aviation technology.  Amadee Sr. with his sons Leon and Amadee Jr., created a steam-driven automobile as well as a five ton vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. 

In 2006, a centenary of automobile racing will be celebrated in Le Mans.   In 1906, Georges Durand organized the first the Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France.”  A few years later, he would create a 24 hour endurance race, a  trial for drivers and automobiles alike.  Since the 1920’s, the course at Le Mans has been famous for long straight-aways where the highest speeds can be achieved as well as the tight curves and corners that really test the driver’s skills.

The Automobile Club de l”Ouest which organizes the 24 hours of Le Mans Endurance Race, loans the most interesting cars in its 45 year-old collection to the Musee Automobile de la Sarthe.  The exhibition covers 5,000 square metres for displaying 150 vehicles, 23 of which are motorcycles.  There are 40 historic racing cars on display, 15 of which were winners of previous 24 hours at Le Mans races.   The remainder are prestigious luxury marques - many bodied by famous coachbuilders - prototypes and brands with a unique history.

  Staff photo / JM

The Country Club Chateau, Le Mans

A Chateau for the night

The Country Club Chateau is a former 18th century chateau turned hotel, a short drive from central Le Mans.  In one of those happy circumstances where contemporary decor works quite harmoniously with architecture from another period, it’s been nicely updated for the convenience of today’s traveler.  The building is an architectural classic in a parkland setting.   An assortment of more recent buildings - stables and other equestrian facilities – compliment the chateau quite nicely. 

 

  Staff photo / JM

The Cloisters at Fontevraud

Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud
From its founding in 1101, Fontevraud served as a royal abbey until the French revolution.  Napoleon turned it into a prison capable of incarcerating 1750 inmates.   In World War II, many captured members of the French Resistance were held there only to be replaced by Nazi collaborators at the end of hostilities.  In September 1985, the last inmates left Fontevraud forever.  Their final duty was to remove any trace of a penal institution from the place.  

Today, Fontevraud is thought of as a “Villa Medici of digital technology.”  Since 2002, it has been populated by multimedia designers and those who specialize in the world of cultural and heritage imagery.  It regularly serves as venue for  historical or cultural events.  It also lends its wonderful atmosphere and undoubtedly, its marvelous acoustics, to concerts of classical and religious music.  Thus the quiet piety of the abbey and the anguish of the inmate have given way to Gregorian chants, the soft staccato of the fountains and the bells that toll at Fontevraud.

To visit Fontevraud is to embrace the history of this region.  Eleanor of Aquitaine's ancient garden still exists at the abbey she defended.  Henry II Plantagenet, his daughter-in- law Isabella of Angouline and his son, Richard the Lionhearted, are buried here.  Their recumbent figures are still prominent in the Abbey Church.   There’s an artful symmetry between the churches, cloisters, Romanesque kitchen orchards and gardens which are like the planets in a universe that at one time was the largest monastic center in the western world.

 BOUVET – LADUBAY

MAISON FONDEE EN 1851

Especially well known for a “sparkler” that’s 90% Chenin Blanc and 10% Chardonay that is imported into the U.S. market.  BOUVET- LADUBAY in Saumur, has a well designed tasting facility at “The Caves”  their underground aging facilities in Saumur.   A tour of the caves is an interesting and insightful experience into the world of the wine making.

 

Dinner at La Prieure
 A Chateau in mid-town Saumur

Chateau de Verrieres  is unique in that it offers its guests a setting in a four acre park “a l’anglaise” with all the convenience of being located in a historically listed district of Saumur. This is a house of grand proportions, designed by a disciple of Visconti, and built for a general of Napoleon III’s army.  It eventually became city residence to a family notable in the world of champagne.

Guests of the chateau, enjoy tastefully furnished and individually decorated rooms with very high ceilings and large luxury bathrooms.  Guest accommodations overlook either the XVIII century buildings of the Cavalry School or Saumur Castle in the distance.  Reception rooms feature ceilings painted with roses, clouds, garlands and aerial perspectives.  Rich paneling is a trademark of the house, as is the exquisite stained glass window that compliments a dramatic grand staircase.

While in Saumur, we met the new president of Combier, Franck Choisne, who’s bursting with enthusiasm for this respected brand.  The originators of Triple Sec are looking for new distribution which will bring their products to American shores once again.  A new tasting facility allows the visitor to explore the range of products produced at Combier.

From its namesake chateau, to a host of other chateaux in the area, Saumur is built largely with local tufffeau stone.  There are sixty or so listed churches, the prestigious National Riding School, famous vineyards and dozens of historical attractions.

At lunch, we were told that the first “troglodytes” were birds that lived in holes in cliffs overlooking the ocean.  When ingenious local residents began inhabiting limestone caves hewn from the removal of stones for chateau or cathedrals in the Middle Ages, a new subterranean culture emerged in Saumur which took on the identity of . . .  you guessed it,  troglodytes.   These most unusual dwellings serve as wine cellars, mushroom caves, museums galleries, restaurants even homes.  Some even have facades finished with classic architectural features. 

Les Caves de la Genevraie a Rochemenier is a “Restaurants Troglodytiques”  featuring “fouaces” a bread not unlike a pita, which is cooked over a wood fire and filled with Rillettes, fresh butter, white beans or button mushrooms with goat cheese and salad.   This dish was popularized locally by farmers and workers who enjoyed the local specialty, prepared in community kitchens.

The Loire and the Chateaux
The chateau and the Loire are synonymous, every city or major town in Pays-de-la-Loire seems to have one that bears its name.  The rule of thumb seems to be: the bigger the city, the larger the chateau.  Some are massive and heavily fortified, while others are classic in their design serving as highly fashionable residences.

If you visit the tropical butterfly farm at the Chateau de Goulaine, you just might meet the Marquis de Gouliane tending to his “friends” as he does each day.  When one meets the Marquis de Goulaine, one comes face to face with a national treasure and the manifestation of a family that reestablished peace between kings of England and France.   Goulaine is also home to a permanent exhibition of the LU company,  which showcases the talents of popular French artists commissioned to create posters and illustrate the packaging of France’s famous biscuit maker.

Chateau Goulaine was rebuilt in the 15th century on foundations of a castle dating from the early Middle Ages.  The central building, built between 1480 and 1495 is flanked by wings from the 17th century.  The large tower at the entrance is a remnant of the old defensive structure that housed the family archives for centuries.

At the Chateau de Brissac-Quince, you can book accommodations that have welcomed nobles throughout the ages.  The Marquis de Brissac has increased the number of rooms available to visitors by redecorating additional facilities this year.  These apartments are sumptuous in their proportions. Many feature larger-than-life four poster beds plus furnishings and wall hangings that date to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.   For anyone wanting a taste of the royal lifestyle, this is the chance of a lifetime.

Dinner and overnight at Chateau de Noirieux

This was an opportunity to see just how good, good can be.  For a start, this is a wonderful facility in an absolutely beautiful setting.  Everything is geared to guest comfort and convenience, including a friendly and attentive staff.   Accommodations are spacious, comfortable and handsomely decorated.  Bathrooms literally sparkle with amenities, the warmth of rich terry robes, premium towels and linens.   Dining rooms reflect an immense talent in the kitchens of Chateau de Noirieux.  Service is top notch.

The Chateau de Noirieux, in itself, a good reason to be in this part of the world.

Nantes

The massive medieval Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, is undergoing modern day repair and maintenance and isn’t scheduled to reopen to the public until 2006.  At that time, thus revitalized, it will be home to two museums.

Nantes is a city with a historic cathedral, magnificent town houses, grand streets, squares, and boulevards.   There’s a youthful enthusiasm that arises from its temporary residents who are students at local universities.   Nantes has a Japanese garden and a wonderful Art Nouveau Brasserie - La Cigale - in the theatre district that is definitely the place to eat, meet and greet when in Nantes.

Chateau du Cleray

To Pierre Sauvion it’s his "garden.”  Actually, it’s the family’s vineyard that on this warm afternoon seems to stretch all the way to the setting sun.   Pierre knows his vineyard like Caesar knew his generals.  He muses about the 16 different soil compositions that produce Muscadet grapes with characteristics unique to each plot of earth.    He ponders the weather and the quality that the 2005 harvest will deliver.

In the tasting room, the conversation turns to juries as evaluators of wine, blending, aging in wood, where the best barrels are made and the pursuit of quality.  Always quality.  We taste a Chateau de Cleray Sauvion, an Allegorie du Cleray (vinified in oak) and the Sauvion Prestige cuvee, a Cardinal Richard.   We learn about the merits of each from the winemaker himself.  

Staff photo / JM

A luxury resort facing the ocean boulevard in La Baule

La Baule

There’s still a bit of the belle époque in this cosmopolitan seaside resort.   Its streets are lined with smart shops, galleries and restaurants.  Luxury hotels, a casino and two seawater therapy centers are at the ready to pamper the traveler. 

The focal point of La Baule is a nine kilometer stretch of lush sandy beaches on La Baule Bay that attracts the visiting sun worshiper.   For the recreationally minded there’s golf, tennis, footpaths, bridle paths, and water sports.   Explorers can discover the coves and caves that dot the coastline along the smuggler’s path that runs from the headlands at Penchateau all the way up to Le Croisic. 

Throughout the year, La Baule is a well suited host to a wealth of events from show jumping to tennis, polo, golf and yachting. 

Staff photo / JM

An afternoon shower in the old city of Guerande

Medieval city in the heart of the salt marshes

The collegiate church of St. Aubin, is a focal point in the fortified town which has inspired many famous French writers - among them Balzac, Daudet and Flaubert.    Two museums focus on local history, shops and artisans provide an authentic and colorful backdrop for the visitor.

The name Guérande means "White Land" in the Breton language – this is an obvious reference to the salt trade upon which the town was founded.  The salt from around Guérande is still regarded as some of the finest - and purest - in the world.   There is (of course!) a Museum of Salt - La Maison des Paludiers - at Saillé, near Guérande.

A paludier is a salt-farmer. They work in the salt-pans where they gather two types of salt, the coarse grey salt, or the fine, sparkling-white which collects in crystals on the surface of the salt-pans. The latter, high-quality salt is gathered with a tool called a lousse and is especially rich in magnesium.

  Staff photo / JM

A history of France - up close and personal

Look beyond the entertainment aspect of the PUYDUFOU and you realize this is a very clever packaging of the history and culture of France.  In my case, this realization took hold at about the same time that it became clear, this is more than just another theme park.  There's a bit of Disney magic with a touch of Colonial Williamsburg authenticity going on here.

As you move about, you're moving less from place to place than you are from century to century.  Your world changes at the turn of every corner.  As you experience each presentation, you forgive a touch of melodrama here and there.  After all, this is France: where feelings run deep. 

There's a Gallo Roman stadium complete with gladiators and racing chariots.  As you move about this life-sized historical calendar, there's a Medieval City, an 18th Century Village and Le Bourg, a market town from the 1900's. 

An open-air arena is venue for Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantomes or, The Ghost-Birds' Ball. Here eagles, vultures and falcons are free to sail through the air, just above the audience, from the arms of one falconer to another. 

It's curtain up when the sun goes down 

In two hours: 1,100 actors, with 4,500 costumes, 800 fireworks per performance, 3,000 digitally piloted spotlights, 1,500 computerized fountains, 120 horses and riders, 400 staff and 60 technicians will portray 700 years of French history on the world's largest - 23 hectares - stage.   This is a product of modern technology where state-of-the-art visuals and 72 tracks of audio deliver cinematic quality surround sound to every seat in the "house"

Words fail to describe this experience.  This is a spectacular blend of theatre, pageantry and the storyteller's art taken to its zenith. 

Our visit to La Baule was especially exciting because we cycled from place to place.  France is committed to safe, pleasurable cycling and has hundreds of miles of new routes and bike paths to enjoy.  We'll bring you information about cycling in the Loire and other updates about destinations in the region in future issues.

In the mean time, we remain grateful to all of the wonderful people we met in  the Western Loire Region of France.