Winter’s cold brings a special romance to the Loire Valley. Tourists are scarce. Often you are alone. The river wraps its banks in mist. Above the fog, smoking chimneys and glistening rooftops appear through a rose-gold dawn. Melancholy silhouettes of castles and churches melt and fade away and medieval knights and courtly ladies are conjured from the shadows. Soft grey veils of rain can suddenly open on to a shocking blue sky. Sun-light flashes off the water, picking out every detail. Shadows deepen then evening fades in to a purple haze as the mists rise again.
Where Romans and ancient Gauls once stood
From a rare rocky promontory on the south bank of the Loire below Saumur, there is a commanding view of the river. Fields, neat ranks of trees, occasional villages and low wooded hills stretch off in to the distance. The ancient Gauls and then the Romans used this lookout to guard the valley. The sun rises and sets over the river and this is the perfect spot to enjoy its changing moods. A Benedictine Priory with a parish dedicated to Saint Pierre was established here between 10th-12th Century. The monks fled with the invasion of the Normans but the Priory remained.
Although the region was devastated during the Wars of Religion 1562-98, the priory survived and was rebuilt in the Renaissance style in 1571. Since then Le Prieuré has successfully moved with the times and is now a hotel. Early morning mist swirls around the tower, seen through stained-glass windows of bearded knights in armour and ladies with doves in their hair. The first rays of sun catch a lichen-covered statue of a woman gazing in to the distance through the trees.
Monks, mines and medieval villages
We are above the village of Chênhutte-les-Tuffeaux on the rue des Ducs d’Anjou (D751) Below, the 11th Century tower of the beautiful little catholic church of Notre-Dame-de-la- Prée-des-Tuffaux catches the first light of morning – the local white stone, like the river, reflects the colour of the day. The door is open. Inside it is lovingly kept – still in use, welcoming and full of flowers. The local stone – tufa – is in the name of church and village and is one of the main reasons for the prosperity of the region.
Miners tunnelled for many kilometres under the hills here to provide the clean-cut blocks of luminescent limestone at the heart of the region’s elegant architecture. The population of Chênhutte-les-Tuffeaux swelled with miners and sailors but with the demise of the river as a main source of transport, the village settled down to become the sleepy riverside hamlet of today.
The mines, however, have undergone a major transformation, proving the ideal environment for growing all kinds of mushrooms. The region produces most of France’s champignons de Paris, the familiar white closed-cup variety commonly used in French cuisine. The constant cool temperature and dark also proved ideal for producing the famous sparkling wine of Saumur by the méthode traditionelle – fermentation in the bottle.
The D751 runs right by the waterside here at Chênhutte-les-Tuffeaux. It’s a pleasant 6km drive upriver to Saumur. Trèves and Cunault, two medieval villages twinned with Chênehutte and steeped in history, are roughly the same distance downriver towards Gennes. From Gennes a quiet lane leads a further 6km downriver through gentle countryside to St.-Rémy-la Varenne. All this is in the beautiful Regional Natural Park – Loire-Anjou-Touraine and all easily accessible along just a twenty kilometre stretch of the river.
The River Loire
Morning dawns bright and clear – perfect for a trip down-river. The beautiful village of Trèves resonates with the history of Anjou where catholic and protestant dynasties have battled down the centuries for the French and English crown. I have it to myself. The tiny, atmospheric 11th Century Church of Saint Aubin, rescued from ruin mid 19th Century by Monseigneur Maupoint of Chênehutte, is bare inside save for an ancient font and the tomb from 1443 of Robert Le Maçon, Baron of Trèves, Chancellor of France and friend of Jeanne d-Arc.
The keep of Trèves castle, where Maçon garrisoned Jean Nicolas ‘Terreur des Anglais’, towers above the church. Over the imposing Romanesque entrance to the medieval Priory of Notre Dame in Cunault, the sculpture of Jesus is headless and limbless and Mary has lost her hands – more evidence of religious conflict. Like Le Prieuré at Chênehuute, Le Château de Cunault is now a hotel.
The winter trees are particularly lovely. A persimmon leans over a high estate wall in Gennes, bare branches with hundreds of bright orange fruit glowing in the sunlight. Along la Route du Thoureil, the Loire shines through regimented trunks with bristling globes of mistletoe in the crowns. Fish are jumping. Swans glide by. There are herons and cormorants. In le Thoureil, we are once again right by the water on the Quai des Mariniers, with a far-reaching view up-river. Traditional flat-bottomed boats strain at their moorings mid-stream. This lovely village is a popular place for an afternoon stroll, also pretty Saint-Rémy-la-Varenne, with its C12th priory.
On the way you pass the enormous Benedictine Abbée de Saint-Maur, built on the site of a Gallo-Roman temple, dedicated to the river goddess. From St.-Rémy you can follow a circular footpath ‘la Boucle de la Loire’ which takes you down to the river opposite Saint-Mathurin-sur-Loire and through the open countryside past local landmarks. ‘La Route de la Petite Loire’ also makes a lovely short excursion following a minor tributary of the Loire.
Saumur Castle is an impressive sight. Bristling with slender turrets and spires, like a fairytale palace it oversees the town and river from a heavily fortified knoll. The view of the castle across the Loire from Pont Cessart is hard to beat. A castle was first built here in 10th Century, at the same time as the priory at Chênehutte. Today’s castle dates back to 14th Century. In 15th Century Duke (later King) René of Anjou made it his home. This was the castle’s heyday. Roi René remains a local hero.
During the 16th Century Saumur Castle became the property of King Henry IV of France and Navarre and the town became a protestant stronghold. After the failure of the Royalist rebellion in Anjou against the Revolution, the castle was turned in to an army barracks. Napoleon Bonaparte later converted it in to a state prison. Then it became a munitions store. Listed as an historic monument 1862, it now houses the Museums of Decorative Arts and the Horse.
Saumur is famous for its uniform, sleek 18th Century architecture built from the local tufa. The many restaurants and hotels have a reputation for quality, style and elegance – but also for being over-priced. The full charm of the Loire Valley in winter is best experienced by staying out of town and driving in. There is ample parking in the large riverside car-parks. Saumur town-centre is not large so everything is within reasonable walking distance. Starting with the wonderfully ornate 15th Century town-hall on Place de la République, it’s fun spotting the many ways in which ancient flourishes of fancy and irreverence have persisted alongside outlawed religious beliefs.
Christmas in the Loire
It’s Christmas Eve. On Place Saint Pierre preparations for the festive season are in full swing. Cardinal Richelieu looks on from a sign above a pub. Above the market stalls, wooden carvings of men and women on a medieval timbered house spread their legs or lift their skirts to show those below their private parts. Café de la Place, in a similar rickety old house on the other side of the square, is one the best places to eat in town – central, full of atmosphere and reasonably priced.
Across town, gargoyles have been added to the exterior of 12th Century Notre Dame de Nantilly, Saumur’s oldest church, to remind the congregation that religion should not be fun. Monsters and monks lean out and vomit over those below. The queue at la Boulangerie de Nantilly stretches down the street.
On rue Dacier, wild bearded men carved above the bank strain under the weight of the building, while their voluptuous and somewhat cynical female counterparts above the shops on la rue d’Orléans brazenly bare their breasts in the face of so much earnest respectability. The Christmas market spreads from Place St. Pierre down through the pedestrianised town-centre to the carousel on Place Bilange. Oysters, saucissons with local cèpe mushrooms, dozens of types of goat cheese – you won’t be able to leave without sampling something. The Tourist Information Office is on Place Bilange, near Pont Cessart.
Saumur is known as the Capitale de l’Équitation, home of the dashing horsemen of the Cadre Noir. 1763 Louis XV built a training school here for officers of the French cavalry, the very grand École de Cavalerie. On the war memorial in the park opposite, two centaurs grieve over the dead, sombre, sad and very moving against the soft grey winter skies. The tradition of unrivalled horsemanship continues but today the prestigious school also includes tank training and is known as the ‘Armoured Vehicles and Cavalry School’. There is an enormous tank museum.
Back on the D751 it’s time to stock up on another local essential – Saumur Brut. At les Caves Buvet Ladaubay there is a jovial atmosphere – with staff in party hats and a considerable amount of sampling before locals depart with cases of delicious sparkling wine. The walls are covered with the 330 medals and distinctions won over the last 30 years of production. I am given a courtesy tour of the cellars and wine-making process before I return with my stash to Chênehutte-les-Tuffaux..
By writer and author Jane Gifford