The Loire Valley drive from Saumur to Saint-Nazaire is the final part of our journey from (nearly) source to sea of the great river. In the section from Saumur to Angers you’re still in the Valley of the Kings with some magnificent châteaux to visit. Then you enter a part of France that looks west out to the Atlantic and beyond and it feels quite different.
Loire Valley Drive Routes
Fast Route: Saumur to Saint-Nazaire is 209 kms/130 miles taking around 2 hrs 15 mins. The A11 autoroute has tolls of €15.
Scenic Route: 247 kms/153.50 miles taking 4 hrs 30 mins.
Saumur to the Château de Brézé
Drive: Take the D93 for 11.5 kms/7 miles taking 15 mins to the Château de Brézé.
The Château is a real oddity with a long history stretching back to the 11th century. Most remarkably it’s remained through the centuries in the family of the Lords of Brézé. The family managed a judicial mix of inheritance and marriage (including a particularly advantageous one to an ancestor of Colbert, Louis XIV’s powerful Minister in the 17th century).
Today you see the impressive Renaissance and later neo-Gothic château and its rich interiors. But more interesting is the building under the château. Once a troglodyte dwelling, the owners built a house above ground but kept the underground galleries (3 kms/2 miles). Bedrooms, food storage rooms, a bakery and stables were used as a defence during the 11th-century Viking raids, and at all times to escape the harshest of winters and the dreaded plague.
In the mid 1440s Gilles of Maillé-Brézé built a new Renaissance-style château. He added fortifications and dug out the moat but left the underground structure intact. The dry moat around the walls of the castle is extraordinary, with just two entrances to the château beneath the château.
The BBC made a documentary about the underground section, calling it a ‘medieval Doomsday bunker’.
On to another oddity – The Château de Brissac
Drive: Take the D761 for 45 kms/28 miles taking around 40 mins.
The Château de Brissac has been in the same family since 1502. When you visit you might meet the owner, the Marquis Charles-André de Brissac who lives here with his wife and four children. If you do you’ll hear some great stories about the family.
Brissac is the tallest château in France, a lofty seven storeys, described by the owner as the ‘Giant of the Loire Valley’. It’s splendidly decorated as you’d expect but with its portraits and photographs has the feel of a family home – albeit a pretty posh one.
There’s a lavish small theatre created by Jeanne Say, Marchioness of Brissac for the family’s Belle Epoque Parisian friends. She entertained them with her own performances (she was a notable singer) and from 1890 to 1916 with her annual opera festival.
Make sure you go down to the kitchen which is worth a visit and also houses a very good shop. The Château hosts an annual Christmas fair so if you’re in the region, check it out.
Château de Brissac to Angers
Drive: D748 and D87 for 20 kms/12.5 miles, 20 mins into Angers.
The ancient capital of Anjou is a delightful town with a formidable Château surrounded by a wall that boasts seventeen circular towers. The main attraction is the extraordinary Tapestry of the Apocalypse. The 14th-century masterpiece shows the story of the Day of Judgement. Walk around the panels on the walls of the dimly lit gallery and you’re looking at the stuff of medieval nightmares. It’s one of the greatest tapestries of France. Then look at the 20th-century equivalent; it’s equally powerful with its atomic bomb nightmares.
On from Angers
This part of the Loire Valley drive from Angers to Saint-Nazaire takes you out of the Valley of the Kings with its magnificent châteaux where the monarchs of France lived, loved and lost.
There were different priorities in this western part of France. Paris and the central Loire Valley were far away, though connected via the river. It was Brittany, wild, independent until the 16th century, and looking towards the ocean rather than rural France, that dominated the region.
And there’s one more classic château to visit.
Château de Serrant
Drive: Take the D523 and D723 for 18.5 kms/11.5 miles and around 20 mins towards Saint-Georges-sur-Loire. Just before the town you’ll come to the Château de Serrant.
Started in the 16th century and finished two centuries later, the Château stands in a large park. It’s stately inside, decorated with furniture of the style set to impress. You can visit most of the rooms, the park and kitchens on your own.
If you want to venture into the impressive library with its 12,000 books, the Empire room for Napoleon and the grand Duchess’s room, you have to take the guided tour.
The A11 autoroute is the quickest road to Nantes. It’s 84 kms/51 miles and takes around an hour. But it does have tolls of around €9.
OR…If you can’t bear to leave the Loire after such a long journey, take the D752 and the D723 for 40 kms/25 miles taking around 45 mins to Ancenis. Here the Bretagne-Anjou suspension bridge crosses the Loire, dividing the two departments Maine-et-Loire and Loire Atlantique. Old quays and warehouses line the banks of the once busy river port where the bridge, the ‘key to Brittany’ as it was called, controlled the river traffic into Nantes.
Drive: From Ancenis stay on the D723 before taking the A811 into Nantes. It’s 45 kms/28 miles taking around 45 mins.
Nantes is one of my favorite cities and I’m not alone in my admiration of it.
When you get to Nantes, there’s a feeling of the ocean. Nantes is an estuary city, looking west towards the Atlantic. It’s also a fabulous city which has reinvented itself over the last 15 years or so.
Nantes was once the capital of an independent Brittany, owing its later 18th century fame and fortune to the Atlantic trade to America, exporting Africans into slavery from here.
There’s plenty to see here including the 15th-century Château des Ducs, and most notably Les Machines de L’Ȋle, an innovative, vast company that makes huge machines in the shapes of carousels, elephants, and most recently the Dragon of Calais.
You might want to finish your trip here and stay in Nantes. if you do, you have the wonderful Atlantic coast to explore. The Vendée department is glorious, well worth a long stay. Take trips out to its islands; if you’re a sailor, Les Sables d’Olonne which hosts the Vendée Globe solo round the world race is the place to make for. The next Vendée Globe race is in 2024.
Loire Valley Drive from Saumur to the end at Saint-Nazaire
Drive: Take the D723, the D77 and D277 for 67 kms/26 miles taking around 1 hr 15 mins.
The road skirts the southern part of the estuary so get a map of that part from the tourist office to look at the artworks along the river. They are quite startling and are all part of the annual Voyage à Nantes annual festival. It runs July 3 to September 12, 2021.
Right at the top of the estuary mouth you’ll see the last of the Nantes sculptures. The Serpent d’Océan lies stranded on the beach north of Saint Brevins-les-Pins.
Here you cross the mighty suspension bridge into Saint-Nazaire.
St-Nazaire is an industrial city with one of the largest shipyards in the world. Try to visit the Chantiers de l’Atlantique; its sheer scale is impressive.
So we come to the end of a long journey with this Loire Valley drive from Saumur to Saint-Nazaire.
The Valley of the Kings in the central part of the Loire is undoubtedly the most impressive and is the most visited. But I hope you might have been encouraged to visit the wilder parts of the Loire in this series of articles.
Loire Valley Towns and Cities with attractions, places to stay and how to get to each one
Loire Valley Drive in Sections
Loire à Velo Route – Where to stay, how to book and attractions to see on this great cycle route
Budget Hotel Chains give you some good options on cheap (and good) accommodation in all parts of France