Nestled in Normandy’s deep south, the Perche Regional Nature Park offers tranquil forests, bijou communities, and some seriously impressive horsepower. Gillian Thornton steps down a gear.
Pottering around the Perche
Ask me to describe my perfect destination for a spot of rest and relaxation and I’ll usually plump for rolling countryside, historic villages, and cosy restaurants. Add in a few independent shops or markets for some gentle retail therapy and you’ve almost ticked all my boxes. Only thing missing would be some kind of animal content, preferably with an activity attached.
So as I jolt happily down a woodland track in a horse-drawn open carriage, I have to say that the Perche Regional Natural Park (PNR) offers everything I need for the perfect chill-out break. Located in the south-east corner of Normandy, the Perche is just 140km from Paris, making it a popular weekend destination for city dwellers as well as for cross-Channel visitors.
Most of the park lies within the department of Orne, spilling over into the Centre region east of Nogent-le-Rotrou, and its protected status covers both natural scenery and built landscape, heritage sites and rural traditions. Amongst those traditions is the Percheron heavy horse, believed to date back to the 11th century when Rotrou, Count of the Perche, brought Arabian stallions back from the First Crusade and crossed them with local heavy horses.
Usually grey, but occasionally black, Percherons are good-natured, gentle, and ideally suited to working the forests and small hedge-lined fields or bocage of southern Normandy. Once a common sight on farms throughout the area, their numbers declined sharply as agriculture became increasingly mechanised between the wars. But now, thanks to a group of dedicated enthusiasts, breeding is steadily on the up.
Since the early 1990s, Percheron stallions imported from America have been bred with French mares to produce two main types – a draught horse used for farming and hauling timber, and a lighter animal used for riding, driving and competitions. As someone who has ridden all my life but rarely experienced carriage driving, I booked a two-hour excursion from the Ferme de l’Absoudière in Cordon for a taste of traditional horsepower. And what power! Seated up beside the driver, I watch two sets of powerful hindquarters sway rhythmically to the sound of jangling harness as we trot down country lanes and forest tracks. It’s a magical if slightly bumpy way to travel!
The best of rural Normandy
But horsepower is just one way to explore the Perche. There’s a wealth of inspiration at the Maison du Parc, administrative centre and visitor facility for the Regional Nature Park which stands in the grounds of the Manoir du Courboyer, a 15th century turreted manor house a short drive from Cordon at Nocé. Meet other local livestock breeds, buy artisan products, and sample regional farm produce such as cider, honey and cheese.
This rural corner of Normandy is bisected by the GR22 and GR35, two Grande Randonnée long distance hiking trails, as well as the Chemin de Chartres leading to Mont-Saint-Michel. Or try the 220km Tour des Collines du Perche which splits neatly into eight segments for walkers and four for cycle tourists. Too energetic? Then follow one of nine tranquil driving routes that include Forests and Abbeys, Chateaux and Lakes, and Valleys and Mills.
The Perche may be a rural area of farmland and forest, but it also boasts a long industrial heritage. The woods provided charcoal, the rivers powered mills and foundries, and the ground yielded raw materials of iron and clay. Watch out for the label Savoir-faire du Parc Naturel Régional du Perche to identify crafts people still using local materials.
Nothing in the Perche proves to be much more than an hour from my base at the delightful Hôtel du Tribunal at Mortagne-au-Perche, a buzzing market town of just 4,500 inhabitants that was once the administrative centre for the Counts of Perche. Today the medieval rampart walls have mostly gone but the historic streets are still dotted with fine buildings, not to mention 27 sundials. Follow the numbered panels on the Circuit du Patrimoine and prepare for some surprises.
The modern medical facility, for instance, has retained the exquisite cloister of a 16th century convent. Take in the wooden roof timbers shaped like an upturned boat before heading inside the vast painted chapel. Enjoy the panoramic countryside views from the public gardens behind the Town Hall and maybe sample the town’s signature foodie treat – black pudding. Every producer has his own secret recipe. The Saturday morning market is also loaded with local foodie temptation, an atmospheric way to absorb the area’s gastronomic traditions.
A land of giant trees
The Perche forests are full of impressive giant trees – particularly oak and beech – but equally arresting are the lofty twin towers of the Chappelle de Montligeon, built between 1896 and 1911 by parish priest Abbé Buguet. His aim was to deliver souls left in purgatory and promote social justice and whilst the basilica is today a place of pilgrimage, it is also a business centre based on the printing works that he founded. Pop inside to admire the stained-glass windows.
Local commerce is largely small scale. Expect small, artisan businesses such as antique dealers and galleries, bookshops, woodworkers, and furniture restorers, not to mention family-run restaurants and tea rooms. Outside Mortagne-au-Perche, I find Chez Nous Campagne, where Cécile Schmitt combines a boutique selling interior décor items with a tearoom and gîte business, all in one tempting package.
And there is more retail temptation in Bellême, former capital of the Perche, and in nearby La Perrière. Both have been labelled Petites Cités de Caractère by the Orne department along with Longny-au-Perche. Gifts to take home? Try La Savonnerie de La Chappelle in Bellême for soaps, candles, and a whole lot more, and don’t miss Chocolaterie Bataille, where artisan chocolate-maker Christophe Henninger creates seasonal chocolates for every occasion. In La Perrière, browse for local produce, antiques, and dried flowers at Monteloup, a stylish boutique with three chambre d’hôte bedrooms upstairs run by antique dealer Jérôme and expert florist Gil.
Largest town in the Perche is Nogent-le-Rotrou, just over the regional border in the department of Eure-et-Loir. Classified amongst Michelin’s 100 Plus Beaux Détours de France, this historic community of fewer than 10,000 people stands in the Huisne valley, dominated by Saint-Jean Castle which was once home to – you guessed it – the Counts of Perche. Stroll through the reconstructed medieval and Renaissance gardens around the castle and Bellême’s Belle Epoque public gardens, just two of many floral plots that welcome visitors throughout the Perche.
Head east from Nogent to visit Thiron-Gardais, home to Thiron Abbey. Founded in the 12th century, the buildings were largely destroyed after the Revolution but the abbey itself still acts as the parish church and access to the thematic gardens is free. Or head west, back towards Bellême to visit the Ecomusée du Perche within the ancient walls of the 11th century priory of Sainte-Gauburge at Saint-Cyr-la-Rosière.
Whichever way you turn, the Perche is a delight for anyone who wants to step down a gear and relax amongst tranquil countryside and atmospheric villages. A breath of fresh air whichever way you look at it!
By Gillian Thornton, one of the UK’s leading travel writers.
This article was first published in The Good Life France Magazine
All rights reserved. This article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten (including translated) or redistributed without written permission.