No, it’s not a spelling mistake. The river Loir, and its tranquil countryside setting, is emerging from the shadow of its bigger and much better-known cousin, the Loire, as a destination in its own right. I visited this too often overlooked slice of France. His list includes a château fit for a Queen (Mum), wine served in the Shard, and a school for musketeers.
I’m sure there are people (like me) who took no notice of Le Loir on a map because they assumed it was La Loire, misspelt. The little Loir – the name means “dormouse” – flows through sleepy, gently-rolling French countryside, scattered with meadows and small villages, 26 miles north of its larger near-namesake. We found the Loir Valley, bounded by Le Mans, Tours and Angers pleasantly quiet, even in late July, with good, almost empty roads and an attractive old landscape, crowned by the forest of Bercé, with its venerable old oaks. The fast train connections from London make it easy to reach. We took the Eurostar to Paris. Le Mans is one stop beyond by TGV, which makes it closer to Southern England than Scotland.
Queen Mum’s Castle
If you drive south from the Channel ports, the first big château you reach is at Le Lude, on the Loir. Grand enough to rival the castles of the Loire further south, it dominates this pretty little town. We are lucky it survived in the state it is today. The owners held onto their heads during the French Revolution, largely because the locals liked them. Furniture and internal decorations survived the rampaging revolutionaries. That includes fine Belgian tapestries which the owners hid for 80 years under the floorboards. Their descendants still own and run the castle today. One famous house guest was our own Queen Mother. The current owner is admirably conservation-minded, and there are good examples of old features
and restored plants in the gardens. There’s another fine castle at Baugé.
Raise a glass
High above London today, somebody will be savouring a glass of a distinguished white wine which you won’t find in your supermarket. It was quite a coup for the British distributor of Joel and Ludo Gigou’s Jasnières to persuade one of the restaurants in the Shard to stock it. We visited the father and son winegrowers, working their skill in a horseshoe-shaped cave deep under the hill by the river in La Chartre-sur-le-Loir With so much wine mass-produce these days, the pair’s hands-on process is a revelation. They keep complete control over the entire operation. The bottled bounty of many harvests stands in neat piles, growing ever more dusty and cobwebby as you go back through the years. Mme Gigou gives tastings back at the house, which is also a B&B. You would pay a lot more in the Shard.
Room for two.
The towns and villages on the Loir are far too small for the big hotel chains. This gives plenty of scope for owners to create distinct and welcoming places to stay, in converted old buildings. French-Canadian Gilles Martel took on a project in early retirement to do up an old watermill near the village of Flee. There are just two rooms for guests in this comfortable B&B, Le Moulin Page, which opened in 2014. He has included the sort of facilities you’d expect in any good hotel, a swimming pool, sauna and hammam (Turkish bath). You may reserve them for yourselves, or share them with friends staying in the other room. This was an excellent base for exploring this area. I would also recommend the family-run Henri IV hotel in La Fleche.
La Fleche is a perfect example of the little old French town you have never heard of, too small to trouble the guide books, but full of interest, and several good restaurants. Start with its solid, straight streets. One leads to the wide square. Another to the castle and the Military Academy, founded in 1604 by King Henri IV. It would be nice to think that it had, amongst its distinguished students, a certain Athos, Porthos and Aramis. But there is no record, so we have to imagine our own dashing Musketeer heroes. The town means a lot to Canada – some of founders of Montréal came from here in the 17th century, The Theatre and Opera house, close to the main bridge, beyond which the River Loir makes a picturesque little curl, is named after distinguished local Leo Delibes, composer of Lakmé and Coppélia.
From Baugé it’s just 26 miles to Angers, the Plantagenets’ one time powerbase. This stepping stone for the Loire Valley boasts a formidable medieval castle, ancient half-timbered buildings, broad boulevards, handsome squares, the home of a world famous liqueur, an 800 year old tapestry and umpteen little family-run cafes and restaurants. Now it has come bang up to date. Terra Botanica is the first European theme park entirely devoted to plants. This is a sensory delight, full of colour and aroma, as ambitious and compelling as a David Attenborough nature series.We wandered through the abundant habitats of the world, from the Louisiana Bayou via Cleopatra’s tulips to a glade of living prehistoric trees. www.terrabotanica.fr
Gareth travelled with Rail Europe. www.raileurope.com/