Angers in the Loire Valley
by Marlene Fanta Shyer
(April 14, 2005) What our many French neighbors in Larchmont love about our friendly village is not hard to understand. What we love about them is also obvious: right here in the village we have their bistros, wine, cheese, pastry shops--even a school. So, if you want even more of the Gallic experience, why not a vacation in France?
If you've been to Paris, why not the Loire Valley this time, with its spectacular landscapes, its chateaux, its history? Angers is one city of many to visit, and my particular favorite.
Originally called The Black City because of the dark slate mined and widely used here, Angers (ahn-jhay) is considered the gateway to the Loire. This pretty spot, with its gardens and large artificial lake, is easy to reach: the TGV, or high speed train, leaves Paris from a terminal directly in the Charles de Gaulle Airport and zips into town in two hours and fifteen minutes.
Aside from its central location, its major claim to immortality is the Fortress Castle. This overlooks the city from a rocky promontory, covers half a square mile and with its moat and bridge brings to three-dimensional life every sword-and-cannon battle you've ever read about in school. Principally built in the thirteenth century, the local counts originally created a stronghold here in the ninth century to protect themselves against the Normans. Only two side walls from this era remain, but following the expulsion of the Plantagenets, Saint-Louis added 17 towers. In the fourteenth century, local dukes erected new buildings inside the fortress, including the Royal Lodge, the chapel and the inner castle.
The eye-popping treasure within its walls is a tapestry approximately 340 feet long, woven on a loom 700 years ago. This "Apocalypse" represents scenes from the Bible and took twenty-five people eight years to complete. Over the years farmers unwittingly used lost panels from this masterpiece as if they were simple fabric scraps. Until rounded up locally by curators and restored for display, tapestry pieces were found covering shrubbery in winter, at the rear of a barn to protect a horse, or fulfilling some other prosaic function.
Castles, of course, are the big draw in the Loire region and they're almost as common here as turns in the road. A dazzler to visit is the fifteenth century Chateau de Brissac, at seven stories tall, the tallest in France. It is owned by the 18th descendant of the original duke. This current Marquis de Brissac speaks elegant English, serves as a chatty host and will happily rent out one or all of the castle's four guest rooms. And what rooms! Picture twenty-foot ceilings, paneling, fireplaces, carvings, four-posters covered with damask and Oriental carpets underfoot in the bathrooms. Famous feet have walked on these or danced in one of the ballrooms. (Photographs of Sophia Loren and Gerard Depardieu are a big tip-off; among other celebrities, both stayed here.) Parties can be arranged in one of the castle's banquet rooms, there is a theatre on the premises and a surrounding park complete with centuries-old trees.
I found plenty of life outside the castles, too. The plant at which Cointreau is made and bottled is nearby. Here's where dried orange peels get turned into the drinks that give a nice glow, thanks to the addition of alcohol and sugar syrup. The formula is a dead secret but guided tours of the plant reveal almost everything else. The liqueur is there to taste as part of the entertainment, and I brought home a bottle as well.
Perhaps lunch calls for further glass-raising. This is wine country after all, so an appropriate place to eat might be Le Bouchon. This casual restaurant offers a choice of five hundred wines and, yes, interesting dishes too. Try La Chiffonnade de Rillauds à la Graine de Moutarde, the house specialty, translated as "breast of pork in mustard".
I walked off lunch shopping. On Rue Toussaint I found "antiquités," as for example at Jolivet, which features exotic pieces, or Antica specializing in furniture. In others there were old French books, bibelots, silver, porcelain. Since the area is a popular tourist destination most everyone speaks English. The restaurant menus do need some translation, so do bring your French phrase book and learn to say, d'accord, which means, "it's okay with me."
If your budget permits, stay at the Château de Noireau in nearby
Briollay. This former vegetable farm, now refurbished into a Relais et
Châteaux resort, gives special meaning to the
word Perfection. With fireplaces everywhere including in the huge guest
rooms, a tennis court and swimming pool, gardens to meander in and service
that's a dream, you owe it to yourself at least to take one meal in its
pale gold dining room. It was one I'll never forget, served under silver
In Angers, you won't be at a loss about what to write on the postcards to your French neighbors in Larchmont. The Tourist Office on Place Kennedy in town will give you more ideas on how to enjoy the fountains, the gardens, the Cathedral. And within another hour's driving time, the rest of the Loire Valley waits.
Marlene Fanta Shyer writes for adults and children - and sometimes about Larchmont, where she lived for many years. Reach her through http://www.marleneshyer.com. More info on traveling in France at The French Government Tourist Office: www.franceguide.com Or, France On Call: 410.286.8310