Get to know France’s Western Loire region
As the Loire River runs west towards the Atlantic, the traveler enters a peaceable region of lush countryside, vineyards, long sandy beaches and salt marshes, dotted with many small undiscovered castles, manor houses and hunting lodges. Bucolic pleasures are mixed with fascinating cities, stunning artwork and cultural festivities.
Western Loire Highlights
Le Mans-Laval: The famous 24-hour car race and “rillettes”, a local gastronomic speciality, have, in their different ways, assured the town’s reputation. Le Mans is a shop window for progress but it is also knows how to maintain its traditions. While speed rules on the Bugatti racing track, vintage and more recent cars can be found in the Musee de L’Automobile. Enclosed within high gallo-Roman walls outside the town is the 13th century Abbaye de L’Epau and its vast Gothic Cathedral, a monument to the memory of the Plantagenet Kings of England.
Not to miss: the neighboring medieval fortress of the Lude. The chateau de Lude is the only chateau in France uniting three architectural styles: medieval fortress, Italian Renaissance and French Classicism. The chateau is open to the public for guided visits. Laval, an historic art-filled town set on the banks of the Mayenne river, was the birthplace of Douanier Rousseau. Highlights of the town include the medieval castle (transformed into a fine arts museum), the churches Notre Dame des Cordeliers and Notre Dame de Pritz, and the Public School Museum.
Saumur/Fontevraud: Saumur is France’s military and equestrian center based in the Western Loire. For nearly two centuries the cavaliers of the reenactment of Cadre Noir have been the pride of this city, which is also home of the National Riding School. The town’s castle, a luxurious residence for the Dukes of Anjou in the Middle Ages and bastion of Protestantism in the 17th century, overlooks the majestic river and seems to watch over the Old Town, one of the most beautiful in the Loire Valley. Extending over nearly 37 acres, Fontevraud is the largest group of monastic buildings anywhere in Europe. Of the five abbeys founded in the 11th century, three still exist.
The English Plantagenet Kings chose as their final resting place and the recumbent figures of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionhearted and Isabel of Angoulême can be admired in Abbey Church. The kitchen, built in the Romanesque style, is the best known and the most curious of the recently restored buildings.
Angers: The Maine river flows peacefully at the foot of the imposing Chateau d’Angers in the Western Loire, which, together with the towering Cathedral, protects the Old Town and its half-timbered houses houses. Angers is a great benefactor of the arts and is at the forefront of tapestry design. The world largest liqueur, Cointreau, is produced in Angers. Moreover, Anjou boasts a great number of wine producers and chateaux owners offering wine tasting of the extremely diverse local production.
Nantes: Gateway to the Atlantic – Nantes is the capital of the Western Loire region of France. It is also the historical capital of the Dukes of Brittany.
A fascinating and varied town, Nantes various quarters are steeped in history and its museums are rich in art collections. Don’t miss the Gothic Cathedral with its ducal tombs, the passage of Pommeraye or the Graslin neighborhood and the rue Crebillon with its chic boutiques. Jules Verne, born here, has his own museum. To the south of the Loire, Gros Plant and Muscadet wines are produced.
Nantes, with a population of about 300,000, is considered the gateway to the Western Loire and France’s Atlantic coast, but it is very much a river town, being right on the banks of the Loire. The locals have a Breton flair, though technically the city is just outside Brittany. The Breton spirit meant independence from the French king until the 16th century, and a resistance to the worst depredations of the French Revolution of 1789. As such, the locals are their own brand of French.
Nantes has an eclectic list of famous sons, from Jules Verne, to whom the city has dedicated a museum, to the top-scoring French soccer player of all time, Philippe Gondot. More ignominiously, Nantes prospered vastly from the slave trade until its abolition. The city’s industrial base has had its ups and downs, and recent times have led to re-framing the city as a green destination, with excellent public transport, bike trails through the city and especially along the Loire river.
Visitors can enjoy using the water bus which connects Nantes to other river cities along the Erdre and Loire rivers. Centuries of international trade brought exotic plants from around the world, preserved in the city’s truly special botanical gardens.
As for food, you’ll be visiting the city where the delectable sauce beurre blanc originated, as well as the Petit Beurre biscuit. Local wine is from the Muscadet grape, and a typical lunch would include a galette, a heavy, more savory type of crepe made from buckwheat flour.
Puy du Fou: The tragic wars in the Vendee in 1793 have left a deep mark on the inhabitants of this area of hills, pastures and woodlands. Every summer, some 800 actors and 50 horsemen stage a dramatic reenactment of these events for 380,000 spectators at the Puy du Fou. A permanent heritage center, the Eco-Museum of the Vendee, complete with period villages has been created around the Chateau of the Puy du Fou.
Travel through the centuries at the Puy du Fou Grand Parc and give free rein to your emotions. Shiver as you watch the incredible chariot race in the Gallo-Roman Stadium (Stadium Gallo-Romain), tremble before the daunting Viking attack on the Fortress from the Year 1000 (Le Fort de l’An Mil), thrill to the rhythms of the fantastic Battle of the Keep (Bataille du Donjon), and soar along with the majestic flight of the eagles in the Falconry show (Fauconnerie). At the Grand Parc at Puy du Fou, you will find an array of non-stop dazzling spectacles to amaze you!
The Islands: Although the island of Noirmoutier and the Ile d’Yeu are fairly close to each other and both are unspoiled and peaceful, they are quite different. With its Chateau and abbey, the island of Noirmoutier is linked to the continent by a bridge. Another approach to the island; at low tide only; is the “Gois”, the causeway across the sea. Further to the south and some twenty miles from the mainland, a small granite projection, the Ile d’Yeu, rises from the Atlantic. Accessible by sea and air, the island is dominated by the fortress of Pierre Levee and the 11th century church. Its coastline is rocky, its climate so mild that mimosa and laurel grow abundantly.
La Baule & the peninsula of Guerande: From La Baule, the most beautiful beach in Europe, to Le Croisic, a fishing and salt marsh region, the treasures of Cote d’Amour face the Atlantic Ocean. For centuries, Guerande, a medieval town, has hidden behind its ramparts. Near it lies the Natural Regional Park of La Briere, a preserved space of 100,000 acres with a seductive network of canals, islets, lagoons and marshes. St-Nazaire is the city where the France and the Monarch of the seas were built; today the frames of the Airbus planes are assembled here.
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Western Loire Map
Read more: Learn about the ten “magical villages” of the Western Loire.