Fresnay Sur Sarthe (Pays de la Loire), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

Fresnay sur Sarthe is a charming little town of some 3,000 inhabitants which straddles the River Sarthe in an area known as the Mancelles Alpes (which, despite the grandiose name, are little more than a series of pretty green grassy valleys). We were heading north to Alencon and, just after Le Mans, we decided to stop for a spot of lunch and to stretch our legs. Fresnay sur Sarthe looked like the perfect spot.

Having parked the Van, we ambled across the bridge over the River Sarthe and up to the medieval centre of the town. It sits on a rocky outcrop above the river alongside the ruins of a small 14th century castle.

The Fresnay sur Sarthe town bridge with what remains of the old castle walls.

There is little left of the old castle but it’s grounds have been transformed into a very pretty public garden which offers pleasant views over the lower part of the town.

Since at least the time of William the Conqueror the castle has been the scene of many battles and, certainly, the castle (and the town) changed hands between the English and the French numerous times during both the 100 Years War and the 30 Years War but, it was during France’s Religious Wars in 1562, that it was almost totally destroyed by the Huegenots.

The River Sarthe from the castle walls.

A small square adjacent to the castle, the Place de Bassum with it’s traditional stone market hall and an unusual fountain featuring a lion and an ash tree with three crowns, is the accepted centre of the town. We ate a light brunch outside one of the cafe bars in the centre and then simply soaked up the sun for a while over a couple of glasses of coffee.

Left: The approach to the medieval centre of Fresnay from the lower town. Centre: Place de Bassum with it’s unusual fountain. Right: A closer view of the fountain.

The castle entrance and the view down towards the bridge from the castle walls.

Whilst wandering Place de Bessum, we couldn’t help but notice various motor racing paraphernalia, particularly black and white chequered flags, displayed in almost every shop window. Moreover, there was an open air art exhibition in the castle grounds which again featured motor racing – some rather good paintings. And then, most impressive of all, nearly all of the streets fanning out from Place de Bessum were bedecked with literally hundreds of black and white umbrellas. Curioser and curioser! With a little help from Google we discovered that the town was one of many in the immediate area which, on 10 and 11 June, would be celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Le Mans 24 Hour Sports Car Endurance Race – Just two weeks hence. Now that would be something to witness but… we have a wedding to attend in the UK.

Almost every street surrounding Place de Bessum looked like these (and it was nothing to do with Newcastle United qualifying for the European Champions League for the first time in their history).

It was almost time to get back on the road. We’d missed the weekly farmers market up on the square near the Church of Notre Dame but there was still time to wander that remaining part of the town. I’ll leave you with just a few more photos…

Two rather poor photos of the 12th century Notre Dame (the narrow lanes and alleys precluded any decent photos) and a photo of a very nervous Beanie who has never before seen such a large amount of strange smelling ice. This ice was dumped by the fishmonger at the farmers weekly market.

… and back down to the lower town and the River Sarthe.

We’d have liked to stay on. The town appeared full of character and there were at least two nice looking restaurants. A half decent looking municipal campsite too.

obiter dicta: I’ve mentioned already that I am well behind with this blog. It is now 11 July and we visited Fresnay sur Sarthe on 27 May. Sorry about that but there is so much going on at the moment back in the UK. I will soon catch up but, meanwhile, in case you are interested, Ferrari won the 2023 Le Mans race for the first time since 1964 and with a British driver at the wheel – James Calado. The favourites, Toyota, were a close second.

Saumur (Western Loire), France June 2021 (Tour 4)

Saumur is an ancient town of some 27,000 people on the Loire River in Western France in the area historically known as Anjou. It’s a pretty town, overlooked by the very prominent Chateau de Saumur, and built almost entirely of an attractive cream coloured stone (Tuffeau) which was mined here throughout the Middle Ages. The miles of caves resulting from that mining have since been converted for wine storage (the renowned Saumur wines and especially Cremant de Loire) and mushrooms (80% of France’s button mushrooms are grown in these caves).

We arrived fairly late in the day and, after parking up at the Flower Camp Site which sits on the L’Ile d’Offard in the middle of the Loire River, walked across the Pont Cessart for a quick look at the old town and something to eat. We found somewhere on the Place de Saint Pierre and spent a delightful evening eating French tapas and drinking Cremant de Loire.

The next day was about exploring the town and my first destination was the Chateau de Saumur fortress which dominates so much of the town. It was first built in the 9th century to deter Norman invaders and considerably developed over the next hundreds of years (particularly by the English King, Henry II) but it’s current fairytale shape and style is 15th century and down to Louis I and Louis II of Anjou who wanted rather more of a palace than a fortress. Up close the chateau is not as impressive as when seen from a distance with many of the walls crumbling and in need of repair. The good news is that it is happening. The place was crawling with stonemasons hard at work. I arrived too early in the morning to go into the chateau which is now a museum.

A significant military presence is evident across Saumur. France lost almost all of it’s cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars and a decision was made to rebuild that arm of the military in and around Saumur with the establishment of the Ecole Nationale d’Equitation. The Cavalry Academy is now home to the Cadre Noir, an elite corps of black clad cavalry instructors who have made up the teaching staff at the school since 1828. During the Summer months the Cadre Noir put on a series of ballet like galas to showcase the skills of horses and riders and the riders have often taken gold in eventing, dressage and jumping at the Olympic Games. Unfortunately, Covid put has paid to any such gala this Summer.

With cavalry having long given way to tanks it is perhaps not surprising that Saumur is also home to the Musee des Blindes which is one of the largest tank museums in the world with 800+ armoured vehicles (200 of which are driven in a military tattoo every July). I suspect that too will be cancelled this year.

With Saumur being home to Cremant de Loire (currently Vanya’s favourite tipple) it was inevitable that Vanya and I would want to go on a local wine tour and tasting session. We were spoilt for choice here with so many producers based alongside of each other on the Rue d’Ackerman. We finally settled on the Langlois Chateau and we were not disappointed. Between us we have previously partaken of many wine tours and tasting sessions but none as enjoyable and as informative as the one at the Langlois Chateau. It was a private tour, just the two of us, and; it involved going back into a classroom to learn more about grapes, bloom & sediment and; our walking some of the their 3 kilometres of caves and; well, it was simply brilliant. We learned so much of real interest. And the wine? Vanya now has a new favourite Cremant and we have a case of it in the back of the Van.

I walked more than 15 miles of the town that first day (getting a little lost more than once) and there is so much more I could write about but we need to move on to our next destination so I will quickly write about our last night in Saumur and leave it at that.

We had the good fortune to be in Saumur during the evening that France were playing Switzerland in the first knockout stage of the European Championship Finals. That being so we found a small bar, La Verriere, showing the match out on the main square in the centre of town and ordered an early meal so as to gain the best seats. We had a fantastic evening. France lost but there were sufficient goals (3-3 after extra time and then the match went to penalties) to keep the neutral supporters well entertained and the atmosphere was electric. Oh and the food and wine was great.

It was a late, late but great night

Chahaignes (Pays de la Loire) & Ternay, France – August 2020 (Tour 3)

Today was about making up some lost ground caused by Vanya wanting to get as close to our daughter in Portsmouth as possible without our actually leaving France (see previous blog) and so; we headed back down the Cherbourg Peninsula through St Mere Eglise and Carentan (both scenes of bloody fighting during WWII and of absolutely no interest to Vanya) to first Chahaignes in the Pays de la Loire region of north-west France and second Ternay in the Vienne.

Our reason for travelling to Chahaignes was to take advantage of something we joined before leaving the UK – France Passion. This is a service scheme whereby some 2,000+ farmers, winegrowers and craftsmen/women across France have agreed to provide free 24 hour stopovers on their properties to motor-homers. It is wonderful. For the 30 Euros a year it costs to join France Passion, the motor-homer gets a free spot to park for the night (sometimes well off the beaten track) with an opportunity to meet the locals and try their produce. There’s no obligation to buy but why not use some of the money that might otherwise have spent on camp site fees on really fresh produce that you like?

Each dot on the map identifies farmers, winegrowers, etc who participate in the France Passion scheme

Perhaps not surprisingly, the place we chose to visit first was a winery and so it was that we arrived at the “Domaine de la Raderie” in Chahaignes…

That’s the place we chose for our first France Passion visit…
… and there’s the entrance in the yard
… and in no time we were wine tasting

Although the parking was fine, we elected not to stay the night at the Domaine de la Raderie (too many wasps) but it was not a wasted journey. We left with 6 bottles of a rather nice Chenin Blanc, 3 bottles of Bulles de Raderie (not bad at at all) and a 5 litre box of something else that Vanya liked.

An hour or so later and just before it got dark we arrived in the small town of Ternay and parked up for the night in a free Aire which had seen much better days. No matter, we were the only ones there and it was peaceful. Moreover, we were well poised to try more wine tasting down in the Centre-Val de Loire. Montrichard here we come.