The department of Mayenne is in the Pays de la Loire and its capital is Laval. It’s the sort of town where you immediately feel you can relax and chill out, a little bit sleepy, a lot friendly. There are excellent restaurants serving fabulous local produce, one of the best markets in France, chateaux galore and incredible art museums.
Mayenne takes a pinch of influence from its neighbours the Loire Valley, Normandy and Brittany and then it adds a little je ne sais quoi of its own. For instance, it has its own microclimate which means its warmer than Normandy. Like the Loire Valley, it’s lush and green, has fabulous vineyards and loads of Chateaux. And like Brittany, the local produce is delicious.
Laval city of Art and History
Laval is in the centre of Mayenne. It’s the sort of small city where you can walk everywhere quite easily. It’s a designated “town of art and history” and very pretty. There’s plenty to see and do in the town as well as round and about.
The fabulous Laval Market
On market days (Tuesday and Saturday), the queue for fresh cooked bread at La Maison Du Pain in Place de la Trémoille where the market is based, just keeps growing. The locals know that it’s worth the wait. Great steaming vats of paella, roasted chickens and huge bowls of buttery new potatoes stop you in your tracks. Jet black shiny mussels are bagged up by vendors at a rate of knots, shaded from the sun under blue and white striped awning, the salty scent of the sea fills the air. Plump Oysters from Cancale are fast emptied from baskets on stalls as savvy locals buy weekend delicacies fresh from the sea.
Locals will tell you, go to L’Escargotiere for all things snail. Don’t miss the artisan made cider stall where you’ll also find the most delicious beer jam to drizzle over a slither of Camembert on a thin slice of baguette – it makes for a mouth-watering starter or canapé. Almost every stall has a bowl, jug or jam jar of flowers, it’s makes it feel very festive. At the bread stall, the baker told me that the stall holders are all artisans and very proud of their produce and the flowers reflect their joy and pride in what they do.
At one end of Place de la Trémoille a church looms, bells toll on the hour. Its mellow stone walls a brilliant backdrop for the market. At the other end is the chateau of the Lords of Laval, its bright white exterior glistens in the sunshine. In the side streets are cobbled wiggly roads and half-timbered houses, quirky shops and cosy cafés and bistros.
It’s a memorable market and I think to myself that I’d go back to Laval for that alone… but there’s much more to love here.
Where to eat out in Laval
Locals Love: Les Trois Petits Cochons (11 Rue Échelle Marteau). A not expensive restaurant with a good menu, great atmosphere, and it gets extra points for having a piano which anyone is welcome to play.
Wine and dine: l’Esprit Cuisine (8 rue Mazagran: lespritcuisine.fr). Refined dining but not formal with great French cooking which has an international twist.
Chill out: Le Vin’yle (which means vinyl as in record disc). The small bar has a lovely vintage vibe with a good selection of local beers and wines (5 Rue Solférino).
What to see and do in Laval
Museum of Naïve Art and Singular Arts
The naïve painter Henri Rousseau was born in Laval and you can see some of his works in the Chateau de Laval alongside many of the world’s leading artists in this field. Naive art may not be to everybody’s taste, but there’s a lot about it to make you smile, think, discuss with whoever you’re with – just what were these artists thinking? This is one of the largest collections in France and absolutely fabulous.
Boat ride: Take a cruise on the River Mayenne and enjoy the scenery from a pedalo, electric boat or motor boat.
If you want to go on a longer journey and spend several days on the water visiting the many beautiful riverside towns, you can hire boats from Anjou Navigation. The simple pleasure of floating along this gentle river, taking in the sights, stopping off to shop for local products in pretty towns en route or to enjoy the charms of a riverside café, is second to none.
Bike Ride: Follow the Velo Francette through spectacular countryside on a designated cycle route in Mayenne. Of course you can go much further, it runs for 630km in total. It stretches from Ouistreham in Brittany to La Rochelle, taking in iconic landmarks from the D-day landing beaches, through the Loire Valley, through vineyards and along the most beautiful country lanes.
Jardin de la Perine on top of the hill of Laval gives a fantastic view over the city and castle, a great place for a selfie says local Michel Talvard. On the edge of this pretty park is the former home of Alain Gerbauot, the first man to cross the Atlantic alone, and there’s a small museum in his honour. French parterre style rose gardens soothe the soul and the English garden style woods offer a charming place to rest.
Enjoy wandering the streets of the town: It’s not a big place, you can easily walk everywhere here. A great place to admire the views is across the river to the Quai Gambetta, at night, the lights twinkle and reflections sparkle. Roam the streets around Place de la Trémoille where the market takes place, and you’ll find dinky creperies, art shops, fromageries and boutiques in the winding, hilly lanes. Don’t forget to buy some of the local cheeses while you’re here – the famous Port-Salut is made at Entrammes, just outside Laval. Other Mayenne-made cheese include: Chamois d’or, Chaussée aux Moines, Vieux Pané, Saint Paulin, Rouy, Babybel, Bons Mayennais and Président.
Lactopole: the world’s biggest dairy museum
Yes, it may sound a tad unusual, but, Mayenne with its glorious countryside, is a leading dairy production area and, if you drink milk, butter and cheese you may well find Laval’s Lactopole Dairy museum a fascinating visit, I certainly did.
Did you know that the average cow produces around 9000 litres of milk a year? Or that the rind of Camembert is good for digestion? Or that yoghurt as we know it, was introduced to France by Russian immigrants in the early 20th century and that in those days you had to buy it at a pharmacy because it was considered medicinal? This is a big museum with around 4000 artifacts – from milk churns to cheese lids. And, did you know that collecting cheese lids in France is a thing, like some people collect thimbles. Cheese lid collectors are called tyrosémiophiles.
There are displays of milk bottles and butter pats, and explanations galore about French cheeses and their origins – there’s even a bibliotheque de fromage (cheese library). The displays are in French, but you can book a tour with an English guide or ask for an English language booklet.
Around and about
Close to Laval, visit the weird and wonderful Robert Tatin Museum
An hour by car is lovely La Fleche, a colourful buzzing little town on the banks of the Loir River, with a zoo, great water sports and fabulous Sunday morning market
The wine route of Le Loir (that’s right, no e) with its authentic caves and not well-known but delicious wines.
The Chateau de Lude, still lived in, this immense castle is a fascinating glimpse into the past.
Get to Laval by train from Paris Montparnasse in a little over an hour. It makes for a great day trip or weekend break as well as a longer holiday.