Situated half way between Angers and Le Mans in the Sarthe department, La Fleche is a colourful and buzzing little town that nestles on the banks of the River Loir in the Vallée du Loir (which translates as the Valley of the Dormouse), and no, it’s not a spelling mistake, it’s next to the Loire (with an “e”).
La Fleche means arrow (hence fletcher, in English – an arrow maker) though no one knows why the town is called that. Bathed in the mild climate of Anjou, the city unfolds around the famous Prytanée National Militaire, a former Jesuit college founded by Henry IV in 1604. It was converted to a military school by Napoleon in 1808 and is still functioning as such so you can only take a tour during school holidays. From spring to autumn the town has a festive air, helped by the colourful bunting strung across its streets.
La Flèche offers water sports on the Loir from sailing and fishing to canoeing and swimming as well as at the nearby lakes of La Monnerie which has a long sandy beach, and in summer months offers shade under trees that line the water. It’s a great base for cycling and hiking around and about with walks in the woods and not a lot of traffic.
There is a beautiful zoo of 14 hectares in the middle of the woods on the edge of the town which is a bit different from most zoos in that it offers the chance to stay on site overnight in a lodge in amongst the animals. There’s a choice of accommodation but my favourite was definitely the polar bear lodge where the bears can swim up to the lodge window that’s underwater. Being stared out by a bear is not a common feeling, and gives you quite a thrill.
A three-star campsite in the heart of town stretches along the banks of the Loir and there’s plenty of choice for hotels and B&Bs in and around the area such as the rather lovely chateau B&B La Foutelaie, a short drive from the centre of town.
If you happen to be in La Fleche on a Sunday morning, don’t miss the market. It’s small but perfectly formed, there’s everything you need here to make a fresh and utterly delectable Sunday lunch. Oysters from Mont St Michel, locally produced chicken and sensational fresh vegetables. It’s a buzzing little market (also takes place on a Wednesday morning) and whilst there, admiring the rows of tasty looking produce, I heard a lady tell one of the vegetable sellers that the ceps (mushroom) were regale, which means delicious – high praise indeed!
In the town there are at least half a dozen beautiful boulangeries doing a roaring trade. Pop into Patisserie Guillemard (24 Grande Rue) run by a famous patissier, an artist of a baker who makes enticing chocolate delicacies and amazing cakes. I sat and sipped a scrumptious hot chocolate and nibbled at my cake, a religieuse, in his boulangerie and watched a queue of customers line up out the door and into the street. They left their shopping bags outside so as not to fill up the tiny shop but clearly felt safe it would still be there when they returned which I thought was just wonderful. A woman came in with two children. They took ten minutes to choose as the little boy who was about 4 years old couldn’t make up his mind. His mother urged “do you want a religieuse to share with your sister or an emotion divine to share with your papa?” They discussed the merits of each cake, I was astonished that nobody minded waiting, everyone was patient, nodding as the little boy considered what to do. The little boy chose to share the religieuse with its delicious salted caramel toffee topping and they departed, the boy clutching the beautifully wrapped cake box.
The baker came out with a fresh batch of macarons and bade everyone hello, I couldn’t resist telling him that the religieuse nouvelle is quite possibly the best cake I’ve had this year (and I have had a lot – research you know). He told me that every year he makes 2000kg of macarons. His day starts at 6.30 and he trains his six assistants on the job, they practice and practice, tasting as they go – what a job!
I wandered round the pretty town with its labyrinth of cobble stone streets and peered through the gates of the town’s famous military academy which was closed (term time). A friend told me that only the children of those who work for the government can attend this school which I find odd and rather elitist for a socialist country. I passed an ancient shop front which looked as though it has been closed since the 1950s. Peering through the dusty window I could see old haberdashery cabinets, ribbons spilling from shelves, it was dark but I could tell it was a little treasure trove. By one of those strange coincidences that sometimes happen, at that very moment a car pulled up and the driver disembarked and opened the door of the shop and then asked if he could help. When I told him I thought he shop was lovely he invited me in – it’s that sort of town! The shop belonged to the man’s 92 year old mother, everything was priced in Francs still even though it was serving customers long after the Euro was introduced, though at the moment the shop is closed until further notice.
La Fleche is a historic, beautiful and lively little town where the people are friendly, the cakes are delicious and there’s plenty to see and do.
Find out more: www.vallee-du-loir.com
Around and about:
The Chateau de Lude, an amazing time warp that’s still lived in…
Baugé – the most charming little French town that houses an incredible secret – one of the most well preserved apothecaries in France!
The Forest of Bercé – ancient woodlands that once belonged to the Sun King
The wine route of the Loir – little known, off the beaten track – the most delicious wine that you won’t find anywhere else…