Remember to stop and admire the view
Exploring off the beaten track around Le Mans
Article by Sam Clark
After spending several thrilling, car-charged days in Le Mans (see Part 1 of this article) we headed out to Le Loir to slow down a little and relax.
Le Loir is a picturesque region in the Sarthe, North West France. It’s overlooked by many tourists who tend to head to its bigger sibling, La Loire, just 40km further south. And because of this it’s generally much quieter and feels more off the beaten track. But, I think because of the ebb-and-flow of the huge numbers of race fans that periodically descend on the area, the locals are used to guests from around the world and we received a warm welcome from everyone we met. The local tourist board slogan is ‘Un Secret Bien Gardé’ (A Well Kept Secret) and exploring for just a few days we found it really is full of hidden treasures.
Hotel de France, a racing landmark
Leaving Le Mans south past the Circuit De Sarthe we didn’t get far before stopping for lunch in the Hotel de France. This racing landmark we made famous in the 50’s and 60’s by John Wyner, the successful British racing team manager and owner. Wyner wanted to keep his drivers focused on driving and away from the destructions of the track so set up camp at the hotel for Aston Martin and then the iconic Golf team. The walls are adorned with photographs of drivers and cars lined up in the small square in front of the hotel from where they used to actually drive out to the racetrack. The menu is made all the more special when you think of the racing greats who have dinned at these tables. There is a wonderful photograph of Derek Bell leading a conga through the bar back in his racing days and he and Jacky Ickx are still regular guests for race weekends.
Wine has been made in Le Loir valley since the 16th century. Maps from the time of Louis XIV detail vineyards on the same land that they are located today. So, as many travelers have done before us, we filled up the car with bottles! Just a short drive from Hotel de France is Domanie de Cézin, a charming vineyard run by the Fresneau family for nearly a hundred years. Amandine Fresneau, one of the fourth generation of the family now entrusted with the care of the land, showed us around the cave. The vineyard now produces a range of delicious white, rose and red wines including Pineau d’Anis, a light wine but surprisingly full of rich character and spicy notes. Pineau d’Anis is almost exclusively grown in the Le Loir valley and demand from local customers and restaurants leaves it fairly rare outside the valley. It’s particularly good with a sunny bbq and its well worth stocking up the car boot while you can.
Le Lude is a charming little town and we stayed in the center at 5 Grande Rue, an elegant guesthouse run by British couple, Simon and Susan Wachter. You are never far from some sort of motor racing connection in this region and a cabinet in the dinning room desplays a inticing collection of souvenirs from Simon’s previous career. He spent a long time in motor sport as the parts and logistics manager for Honda Formula 1 then managed the Mercedes V8 engines for Brawn GP. Completing his race CV with a couple of years at Le Mans managing Katech engines until he and Susan decided to settle down and renovated this old nobleman’s house into a relaxing oasis. Before the paint was dry their first booking was Team Ducati for the Moto GP and they have been returning every year since. Susan keeps guests fueled with classic dishes and we can heartily recommend her delicious beef bourguignon. We also noticed a few comforts from home had sneaked in, at breakfast a jar of marmite sat next to the homemade yoghurt and jams made from fruit grown in the garden. It was guilty pleasure on a fresh baguette!
You can catch sight of the splendid Château du Lude from the windows of 5 Grande Rue so after breakfast we walked down the road to tick one of the many chateau spread throughout Vallée du Loir off our must-see list. This impressive chateau has been home to the same family over 260 years. Many rooms are open to the public and just over the velvet ropes keeping the tourists from flopping down on the furniture, you can see family photographs displayed amongst the old oil masters and spot modern magazines, books and cd’s tucked by sofas in front of large fireplaces, giving a wonderful incite of how the family still enjoy living in this grand house today.
Leaving Le Lude we headed west, with a slight detour to visit the Hôtel Dieu (Hotel of God) in Baugé to see its fascinating 17th century apothecary. Its one of the most complete apothecaries in France and has been classed a national monument. The original wood paneled room is lined with shelves filled with jars and bottles labeled with bizarre and mysterious contents. Apparently a Mummy’s finger is good for healing cuts. Goodness knows what ailments required a dose powered woodlice or crayfish eyes!
La Flèche is a town with a comfortable, relaxed air. It is home to one of Frances premier military schools, Prytanée National Militaire, founded in 1605 by King Henry IV. We didn’t visit the school but we did discover some more peaceful gems as we wandered around the quiet streets. On a square hidden away around the back of the shops is restaurant, La Table de Laurène. Book or get in early before it fills up with locals. The very reasonably priced menu is filled with tempting local dishes cooked with a French flair. There are some more sophisticated choices, like a super cool goat’s cheese and tomato ice cream starter, but if you are hungry we heartily recommend the very French cheeseburger, awash with Reblochon cheese.
Standing out into the river Loir in La Flèche is Michelin stared restaurant, Le Moulin des Quatre Saisons, run by chef Camille and Karoline Constantin, the sommelier. This beautiful 16th century building with water flowing idly around is an idyllic setting to enjoy a special meal. A great way to work off some of the culinary excess, and make room for more, is to take a bike ride around the surrounding countryside. There are many routes marked with details and bikes to rent in the tourist office. Still rather dangerously full of cheese, we opted for electric bikes which were made down the road in La Roche-sur-Yon by Arcade. They were the most comfortable bikes I have ever been on! We glided along the riverside and through avenues of trees bursting with great pompoms of mistletoe.
In La Flèche we stayed at La Villégiature. A fairly nondescript door on a quiet street just off the main road opens into a charming guesthouse and a warm welcome from owners Martha and Cyrille Clouet. Inside is an engaging mix of contemporary design sitting alongside elegant pieces of antique French furniture, many family heirlooms. Martha is rightly very proud of the guesthouse and her generous hospitality. She passionately believes ‘visitors are for the benefit of the whole town and shouldn’t be taken advantage of’. Apart from a small supplement to cover some extra help, she doesn’t inflate prices over race weekends. If you are fortunate enough to find space for a race or one of the classic events, there is secluded parking for your vintage motor and an outdoor swimming pool to cool off in the walled garden.
Zoo la Flesche
The elephant in the room of this motor obsessed region is large and grey and lives at Zoo la Flesche. If you like zoos, this lovely example is nearly worth the trip alone. And if you are lucky enough to stay in one of their lodges it could be one of your trips of a lifetime! Opened in 1946, it is one of the oldest in France. The animals and keepers have become household names In France and Belgium where they have been the stars of a near daily reality television program, Une Saison au ZOO, since 2014.
If you’re not a great fan of the incarceration aspect of zoos, I have to say I’ve never been to one where the animals looked so active. As part of the welfare and successful breeding program there are no set feeding times to encourage a more natural foraging behavior.
But what is truly special in Zoo la Flesche are the lodges where a select few visitors enjoy the chance to spend the night up close and personal with the animals. 14 beautiful, individually designed safari lodges are discreetly located around the zoo providing luxury accommodation with a unique window onto the wildlife. You can lie in bed at the polar lodge and watch polar bears swimming past the window!
Vallée du Loir/ vallee-du-loir.com
Pays du Mans/ paysdumans.fr
Hôtel de France/ lhoteldefrance.fr
Domanie de Cézin/ fresneau.fr
5 Grande Rue/ 5granderue.com
Château du Lude/ lelude.com/en/
Hotel Dieu, Baugé/ chateau-bauge.fr/en/
La Table de Laurène/ latabledelaurene.com
Le Moulin des Quatre Saisons/ camilleconstantin.com
Arcade Bikes/ arcadecycles.eu
La Villégiature/ alavillegiature.com
Zoo la Flesche/ zoo-la-fleche.com