Most people know the Loire Valley but what about a tour of the Loir (without an ‘e’) valley. The Loir river meanders along, north of, and almost parallel to its famous cousin. It calls itself a ‘Secret bien gardé’ . This well hidden secret rewards those who find it for its small towns, 140 châteaux, stately gardens and, in our case, a surprising find involving trains.
And for history buffs, the Loir Valley is full of English history – at least that part that involved us bashing the French during the Hundred Years War. The conflict in the Loir Valley was important and for the invaders, pretty desperate.
The French had entered an alliance with the Scots 200 years before against the traditional enemy they shared – the English. Towards the end of the Hundred years War the Scots stepped up to the mark here in the Loir valley. The English were soundly beaten.
Our Loir Valley Trip
Unless you know this hidden part of France, you’re unlikely to have heard of La Flèche in the western part of the Loir Valley. It’s one of those towns you stumble across and wonder why you haven’t come across it before. Once important with a Jesuit college, grand buildings and royal associations, today it’s just a pretty riverside town. It’s surrounded by marshland and woods which are ideal for walkers. If you’re a nature lover, don’t miss the Bercé. This is one of the great oak forests of France, which is currently providing oak trees to be used in the reconstruction of the roof of Notre-Dame de Paris.
We spent two days here, just time for visits to 3 châteaux (one with a spectacular garden), an apothecary straight out of Harry Potter, and old trains.
The visit was just long enough to whet our appetite for this region and leave us planning a return.
Where we stayed
We stayed in Le Relais du Loir, a modern hotel on the banks of the river. It has good sized, comfortable rooms, a terrace on two levels for drinks and snacks, and useful touches like ironing boards in the corridor. No restaurants were open in the town in mid-August on a Monday, so the charming owner, Bryan Beyer, rustled up a superb place of charcuterie, cheese and bread. Otherwise you can order a pizza from his ‘hole in the wall’ on the outer wall of the hotel. He makes the dough during the day, then fills each pizza according to your order. It takes around 20 minutes. Many of the guests were doing just that and eating their pizzas on the terrace. You can order beer and wine from the bar. Breakfast was excellent.
Le Relais du Loir
40 Promenade Maréchal Foch
72200 La Flèche
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 94 00 60
Prices Rates are from €70 for a double but more in the high season
The Relais de Loir looks over the river with a delightful view to one side.
We didn’t have enough time to explore the Zoo which is just outside the town. Perhaps next time we’ll overnight in one of the very chic Safari Lodges slap bang in the middle of the Zoo. The experience is not cheap but where else do floor-to-ceiling windows let you stare face to face with African lions, Sumatran tigers, grizzly bears and sea lions who are equally curious about their new roommates?
What we saw
A Riverside Château – Château de Bazouges-sur-Loir
This family-owned and run château was the first place we visited. We had driven down from Dieppe through Rouen and Le Mans and arrived around 5pm. It was one of those glorious late August afternoons. The air had a slight sharpness to it and the light sparkled with that bright last-of-the-season look. Autumn was on its way.
We were lucky: this was a private visit arranged by the Vallée du Loir tourist office and the family showed us around. On a normal visit you’ll follow the same tour and see the same rooms and garden, but you’ll probably only spot the family from afar. For the stories that they recounted (which are great fun) go to my article on the château (see below).
The château stands on the banks of the river Loir with a view that sweeps down past the seigneurial mill, built by the lord for his villagers and tenants, to the village. A small park and gardens stretch away from the château at the back, the paths shaded by tall trees.
The château jumps through the centuries, starting with the formidable defences and rooms of the Middle Ages. You walk through a hefty doorway in the 3-foot thick walls and the stone gives way to the panelling, delicate furniture and pale colours of the 18th century. I half expected to hear a harpsicord playing.
Then you’re into the early 20th century when the family bought the château and painters and writers from Paris replaced the 18th-century grandees.
The Château de Bazouges is delightful, full of character and with the feel of a real family home, which it is. Well worth a visit.
The next day was straight back to the Middle Ages and a dip into the Hundred Years War where the English were routed by that deadly combination of French and Scottish troops. It was 1421 and the war that had dragged on for nearly a century was about to come to its conclusion.
Château de Baugé
Visit the Château de Baugé first for the story of the Battle of Vieil-Baugé in 1421. It’s been organised with families in mind so it’s done with a light touch.
Built as a hunting lodge for Good King René of Anjou, there’s little left of the original interior. But the French have done a great job building excellent theatre-like sets from wood on the château’s three levels. Models, mock-ups and screens in the walls tell the story of the world of the 15th-century nobility, from the all-important hunt to the generous hospitality of the Good King.
There’s also an excellent well-stocked shop for a spot of Middle Ages style costumes, model soldiers and knights, books and jams of many tastes.
Hôtel-Dieu – An Old Hospital
A few minutes’ walk takes you to the imposing Hôtel-Dieu. Built in the mid 17th century, the hospital was run by the Sisters of St Joseph who cared for the sick and the homeless. It continued to function through the French Revolution and in 1904 added an operating room. I don’t like to dwell on what they did before with the injured.
During world War I injured soldiers from the front were brought here. The hospital continued its work up to 2001, completing 350 years of nursing care.
It’s a fascinating place, showing the medicine and nursing of the past. Here in Baugé it was pretty advanced in its approach (the importance of hygiene recognised centuries before Florence Nightingale). You see one of the two main wards, plus all the other rooms needed to keep this venerable institution going. Leave time to look at the kitchen, dining room, Chapter room and all-important chapel which the sick could see through open windows.
The Medieval Apothecary at Baugé
The Apothecary is a revelation. It’s a small room where beautiful porcelain jars, wooden boxes and special containers are stacked floor to ceiling.
Balm for wounds or sores, ointments for headaches and painful joints, tinctures made from concentrated herbal extracts like bark, berries, leaves and roots were made here. Imagine, if you can, a balm made from bishopwort, garlic, wormwood, helenium and cropleek. The ingredients were pounded them boiled, then strained through a cloth and smeared on the affected body part.
A 19th-century apothecary in the Hôtel-Dieu contrasts the age when apothecaries were following Greek and Roman practices with the later time when science was taking over. Medicines used new ingredients, not the old medicinal plants and body parts of weird animals.
Buy your ticket and wait for your turn with an English-speaking guide to see the Apothecary.
The Logis Hôtel, Ô Prestige in the centre of town set us up for the afternoon after an excellent 3-course lunch at €34.
The Château du Lude
From Baugé it’s a hop, skip and a jump, or rather a 23 minute drive (24 kms/15 mile) drive to the Château du Lude. The Château has a fascinating history and the present owners’ family stretches back 240 years.
It’s an impressive building overlooking the peaceful Loir river though the grand old lady has a feeling of faded grandeur. You walk through four centuries of architecture, from the medieval fortifications through the 18th century up to today.
Try to visit on a bright summer afternoon when the gardens, which are the major reason for the visit, are full of flowers and bushes in full bloom. Or book for one of their special garden days in June, July and October when there are cooking demonstrations in the impressive kitchens.
There was one attraction left to visit.
Industrial Architecture – The Rotonde Ferroviaire
The Rotonde Ferroviaire (railway roundhouse) at Montabon was built in 1890. Its purpose was to service the steam trains on the main Paris to Bordeaux route. The 2,500 m² building and 17 m turntable could service up to 85 locomotives at any one time. Tucked down a side road behind a wire fence, you get no idea of its importance in the past.
I didn’t think it would be of great interest (my partner Alastair McKenzie is the expert on such things with his site mechtraveller.com). But walking into the huge space, its magnificent roof now restored with a heritage grant of €480,000 and walking around the old locomotives that now sit marooned in the old spaces, I found this piece of industrial architecture fascinating.
There are locomotives to see both inside and outside by the turntable, a former Orient Express dining and sleeping carriage on loan and an exhibition of old tools, 19th and 20th century signs, pictures and a video. And yes there is a model train.
It’s the enthusiasm of the volunteers which turns this extraordinary piece of railway heritage into a living space. While we were there, an English family who had bought a house nearby were talking to the volunteers. The family didn’t speak much French and the volunteers’ English was rudimentary, but they all got by.
There’s funding coming and the plans are ambitious. I thoroughly recommend a visit.
All the relevant information (and far better photographs) on the MechTraveller site.
How to get there
We took the DFDS ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe. It’s around a 321 km/200 mile drive to La Flèche taking around 3 hrs 5 mins.
More about Ferries to France from the UK.
We were on a self-driving press trip organised by the Vallée du Loir tourist office who helped with accommodation, meals and visits. The trip also took in Le Mans, slightly to the north east of the Château de Bazouges.
Also check out the Region’s Atlantic Loire Valley Tourism website
If you want to see the Loir’s famous cousin, here’s a guide to the complete Loire Valley Tour
Read more about travel to France at the time of Covid-19 regulations