Historic connections abound along the Loire – Roger St. Pierre visits Angers in the Marne-et-Loire department, a culturally rich and historic town, proud of its Plantagenet history which joined French and English interests in the Middle Ages…
After the working week’s pressures and bustle, it was a perfect way to spend a Sunday morning – pedalling gently along the traffic-free dedicated cycle route that runs along the tranquil banks of the broad Loire, France’s longest river.
It’s a favoured locale for Brits – both expats and visitors – for the Anglo-French connection runs deep in this beautiful region – often called ‘The Garden of France’ – where England’s kings and queens once ruled in their concurrent role as Dukes of Normandy.
Sir Winston Churchill famously described the British and the Americans as “Two nations separated by a common language.” My own observation is that the British and the French are two nations separated by a common history.
Just look at my own background. Despite residing in England for 800 years, our family has kept its French surname and a strong feeling of affinity with our nearest Continental neighbours. Give it another three or four generations and perhaps we will be pure English but for now we treasure our Gallic roots.
We are far from alone. Many British families have roots in France, from the Norman Conquest to the mass influx of Huguenots fleeing the wars of religion and the current flood of young Frenchmen and women employed in the City.
Wherever you wander in Angers and its environs the ghosts of this shared Anglo-French past will follow your footsteps.
For a city so immersed in royal visits and affairs of state, it’s no surprise that, besides a mighty castle, Angers has a vibrant and richly endowed museum district. Must-sees include the Maison Bleue and the Galerie David D’Angers, with its vast collection of monumental 19th Century sculptures by the renowned local artist craftsman, as well as the imposing Collegiale St-Martin church, which itself dates back to the pre 1000 AD Carolingian period and is built over now excavated older buildings from the end of the Roman Empire.
Besides the fortress, which holds the spectacular Apocalypse tapestry, highlights of a stroll round the mediaeval old town include the riotously half-timbered Adam’s House and the cathedral.
Angers is rightly proud of its recently installed tramway system, a short ride on which will take you out to the Terra Botanica– an inspired new theme park dedicated to fostering a better understanding of the life of plants – as well as providing a fun day out for all ages. Given Anjou’s role as France’s premier horticultural region, it’s a perfect site and, now in its third season, is deservedly attracting huge crowds with its educational and pleasant and relaxing day out appeal.
A little further afield, the massive seven-storey Chateau Brissac is the country’s tallest castle, built in 1502 and still occupied by the Ducs of Brissac. It stands in the midst of 500 acres of beautiful parkland.
To appreciate the gently undulating countryside at its best, I’d recommend taking that bike ride. You’ll find a choice of well-maintained machines at Loire à Vélo. Follow the Natura2000 riverside trail signs and then take a short detour for a wine tasting at the Domaine du Closel where Viscountess Evelyne de Jesse Pontbriand reigns as the fourth generation of women vintners at this delightful property.
Round out your time in Angers with a guided tour of the Espace Cointreau distillery where the delicious Cointreau liqueur has been made for the past 130 years and learn the art of cocktail making and visit the fascinating volunteer-run Musée Régional de L”Air located just a few steps across from the Angers Airport terminal.
Aviation has a long history in the Anjou region, a fact lovingly documented with photographs, documents and an amazing collection of more than 40 restored and replica aeroplanes, including a to scale model of the glider that was built in the late 1800s by local inventor Chanute – a flying machine that inspired the Wright brothers’ design. You can also inspect the actual plane in which René Gasnier made the first powered flight in Anjou, in 1908.
Where to stay and where to eat in Angers
The Hotel D’Anjou (www.hoteldanjour.fr), a three-star member of the Best Western chain, offers comfortable accommodations in an elegant 19th Century building close by the pretty Jardin du Mail, right at the heart of the city.
Le Mail is a friendly contemporary brasserie overlooking the flowerbeds, water basins, streams and birds of the Jardin du Mail.
Decorated in 15th Century François 1er style the Hotel D’Anjou’s La Salamandre restaurant offers a refined slant on traditional French regional cooking.
Starring local produce and wines in its inventive high quality cuisine, Le Relais (www. Lerelaisangers.fr) is one of Angers’ leading gourmet restaurants.
A classic round-the-clock French brasserie, the plush Brasserie du Theatre (www.brasserie-du-thetatre.com) offers tables out on the square for café society people watching exercises. Inside it’s the extensive menu of national and regional specialities that catches the eye. Fish and seafood figure prominently – the plateau fruits du mer is a truly gargantuan melange of shellfish.
Discover more about what to do and see from the Angers Tourist Office website
by Roger St Pierre, Member of British Guild of Travel Writers