The Loire Valley in France is famous the world over for its wine, its chateaux and its countryside. Yet, the cities of the Loire offer more culture than you can shake a stick at. Here’s a thought-provoking look at what to do in the Loire.
A red diamond sits atop a yellow poste, blazing the word tabac.
A bread baskets lands on a red-chequered tablecloth, heralding the arrival of unruly lettuce and thick purple jam.
This is France, in all her school textbook glory, throwing symbols like memories into the gym skirt recesses of my mind.
Children who grew up in Britain in the 80s and 90s had to learn French: and they did so from a standardised textbook called Tricolore. It featured photos of youth, jumping around in Euro-bright colours, along with characters like Louis La Loupe and poodle-ridden Fifi-Folle.
It also had a fascination with buying a return train ticket from anywhere to La Rochelle but I remember precious little detail when it came to the UNESCO-heavy Loire Valley France.
Yet all the smaller symbols are here. The bread, the jam, the lettuce, the postboxes. The way that baguette tears apart: soft crumbs on the table, harsh abrasion in my mouth.
Such deep-seated memorabilia make my travel into the Loire Valley more family reunion than voyage to a faraway land.
There’s another reason for that feeling, of retracing steps despite it being my first time.
Le Mans’ half-timbered streets starred in Cyrano de Bergerac, The Man in The Iron Mask and even The Three Musketeers. A walk through the cobbled, winding, quiet streets of the old town reveal secrets carved in stone. A sand-steeped key here; a cloistered shield there.
Plus the nearby city of Angers belonged for centuries to England – or was it the other way around?
Angers once formed the capital of the region of Anjou where the fertile land of the Loire Valley produced the Plantagenet dynasty: a regal line responsible for as many as 14 English kings.
Take Richard the Lionheart, for example, a monarch whose fame extends into the 21st century through tales of Robin Hood.
He actually went by the name Richard de Coeur de Lion, spoke little to no English at all and was rumoured to have spent less than six months of his life across the channel in the kingdom of England anyway.
His wife lies buried at the cloistered beauty of the Abbaye de l’Epau (transformed into the modern age through abstract exhibitions and a Victorian-themed circus.)
Back in Angers, the regal history continues through the squat, slate-tinted castle with its astounding Apocalypse tapestry.
Commissioned in the late 1370s, before cinematic screens and posters, this was likely the greatest visual artwork those alive would ever see.
In translucent threads woven onto midnight blue, it depicts the end of the world as told in Revelations and stretches across cavernous interior castle walls.
The detail and colour mesmerises, although I need help to decipher the story: I’m told the devils are English.
Ah, the bickering of a medieval family spat. Present day Angers continues this, petitioning the Queen to “return” the Crown Jewels as compensation for the execution of last “pretender to the throne.”
It is, perhaps, the passage of time that makes this light-hearted: the event in question took place in 1499.
Across town, within the cool, calm stone of a repurposed 12th century hospital, a more recent interpretation of history takes place. Le Chant du Monde by artist Jean Lurcat throws a secular interpretation of the Apocalypse into tapestry form. Here we see the imagined fall-out of a nuclear holocaust, the conquest of space and the threads of the world displayed in giant microscopic form.
But away from the blood, murder and betrayal of historical family life, the Loire has a gentler, slower side: botany and the love of flowers.
The Chateaux d’Angers whets the appetite with its geometric lawns. The Donjon de Ballon expands on the idea by having them encircle a refurbished medieval residence. And the dedicated cycle tracks along the thick green rivers further emphasize this French region’s fertility.
But it’s the Terra Botanica that really puts the pollen among the stamen, so to speak.
“It’s difficult to explain the concept in a single sentence,” says Boris, a young man dressed in an apron and a straw hat who greets me at the entrance to this educational plant amusement park.
He’s not wrong, as we hop on an automated wooden boat that glides beneath magnolia. A Disneyworld Princess type voice explains the story of tulips and the resulting financial crash.
Within the hour, I’ve raced to the centre of the earth on a 4-dimensional Hollywood mine cart, survived a shipwreck en route to South America and waded through the steamy swamps of the dinosaur hinterland before the meteor struck and obliterated life as we knew it.
All surrounded by immaculate flora and fungi.
Somewhere between the ice wall tundra and the arid heat of the cactus room, I wonder about the phrase “Green Disneyworld without the mouse.”
It’s not ideal, but it will have to do for now.
Another place that struggles with descriptions is a renovated farmhouse called La Ferme aux Histoires. Here, children’s author Nadia Gypteau along with her husband have fashioned a literary conservatoire, where old children’s books and toys live alongside a traditional farmhouse café.
A little further into the country, a riverside mill has a second life too. Eric Gérard upgraded his laminating business into a funky art deco shop called La Cidrerie, where patrons can sip old-fashioned cider while watching water tumble over stone.
It’s a fantastic place to sit and watch the world – and water – go by. With quotes from Churchill and de Gaulles on the shelves, and those children’s stories still so fresh in my mind, before too long I return to my schoolgirl thoughts of France.
The Loire Valley, of course, has changed. But it indulges my sense of nostalgia.
The restaurants may serve sushi and wasabi-flavoured snacks, and a 13th century Abbey may now blaze beneath glass with live dance amid the statues.
But there’s one “grand family tradition” that France has yet to change.
The baguette in that basket on that red-chequered cloth. And the way it rips apart.
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