A Tapestry for the Ages
At almost 150,000 residents, Angers is in many ways the cultural heart of the Pays-de-la-Loire. This is the historic capital of Anjou, famous for its Plantagenet heritage. Think Henry II (who was born in Le Mans) and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Needless to say, Angers is a historic center. So of course it also features a central fortress, or chateau. While this structure is worth a visit in its own right, it’s what’s in the castle that is most interesting. Just as in Sèvres, Explore le Tour featured something that may not otherwise catch the eye. In this case, a tapestry is the center of attention. In fact, over the past millennia, Angers has become internationally known for its specialty in tapestry-making. For this reason, the Chateau d’Angers also exhibits some of the finest tapestries. Among these is one that demands its own specially-made room. This is the Apocalypse Tapestry. And this is one epic tapestry that must be seen to believe. At 133 meters (436 feet) long and 6 meters (20 feet) tall, this tapestry is enormous! Woven in the late 1300s, it is the second oldest tapestry still in existence.
The Best Sporting Town in France, Hands Down
Cholet, France. Ever heard of it? Neither have I. But to the French, this city of over 50,000 inhabitants is known for its sports fanaticism. The city is the only town over 20,000 people to have won L’Equipe’s “Challenge de la Ville la Plus Sportive de France” three times … 1972, 2007, and 2014. This award measures a city’s overall sports involvement from a professional, public, and policy standpoint. Cholet is known for its professional basketball, hockey, and football clubs but also features a wide variety of other clubs for its residents to enjoy, including rugby, American football, judo, and skateboarding, to name a few. For cycling specifically, the city has constructed a BMX track honoring world champion and Cholet native Franck Chevreton as well as the Bernard Hinault Cycling Pole, a facility that combines five cycling associations and provides a safe place to train. Cholet also hosts the UCI Cholet-Pays-de-Loire race in March. Related to the Tour de France, Cholet has seen the peloton finish twice before. In both instances, the stage was overshadowed by doping. In 1998, Festina team doctors were arrested on the Tour’s arrival in Cholet. Stuart O’Grady won that 252 kilometer stage. In 2008, the year after winning its second L’Equipe title, the town hosted the Tour’s ITT. This time, Stefan Schumacher won the 29 kilometer race, 18 seconds ahead of Kim Kirchen. Schumacher took the Yellow Jersey but his results were voided following a positive doping test. Otherwise, this was a fast stage, seeing average speeds over 50 km./hour, aided by a strong tailwind at the end.
The Home of French Handkerchiefs
Just on the outskirts of Cholet is a lasting remnant of the city’s long-standing textile industry. Now surrounded by single-family homes, this surprisingly small brick factory with a single smokestack centered behind the main structure is strikingly beautiful and classic in its early industrial style. It was a former whitening factory built in 1881 but today houses the city’s well done Museum of Textile and Fashion. Ambitiously, the museum explains the evolution of weaving through loom demonstrations, the process of production, and even a history of children’s fashion. Perhaps most importantly, the Musée du Textile et de la Mode contains the last workshop to manufacture the famed red and white handkerchiefs that put Cholet on the map. Cholet started making handkerchiefs in the early 18th century and became a local rallying point for the royalists during the French Revolution in 1793. Nearly one hundred years later, Theodore Botrel composed a song titled, “The Red Handkerchief of Cholet,” immortalizing the Vendeen soldiers and creating the legacy of the Mouchoir Rouge. As the industry languished, the last manufacturer made 40,0000 dozens of handkerchiefs per year until 2003. Now, the museum takes up this legacy. With live demonstrations, children-focused exhibits, and a garden that illustrates the origin of fibers and dye, this is a great kid-friendly place to explore the interwoven history of Cholet.
Chateau de Craon
The Pays-de-la-Loire is world famous for its glorious chateaux. In fact, there are some 213 chateaux throughout five departments that make-up the Loire Valley. So let’s take a look at one of the first to be seen by the peloton in the town of Craon. This Chateau de Craon, however, is special. Just on the outskirts of town, it functions as a museum AND hotel. The chateau was built in 1770 of local limestone called tufa. Over its 245-year history, only 3 owners have laid claim to the property. In 1990, it became a luxury hotel that maintained its pristine Louis XVI interior, baroque exterior, and extensive gardens (47 hectares or 116 acres). Built just prior to the French Revolution and in a similar early neo-classical style and feel to some of the smaller Versailles residences, this is your opportunity to live like royalty.
A Napoleonic Coup
Historically, Fontenay-le-Comte has been the seat of the Vendee. In fact, when the Vendee became a Department during the French Revolution, Fontenay became its leader. Only one problem, “Comte” in French has too much aristocratic connotations and the republican assembly renamed the town Fonetnay-le-Peuple, for the people. The town, however, was a hot spot for royalist and republican fervor known across the Department as the Vendée War with the north generally being pro-monarchy and the south being republican in sympathy. In total, some 200,000 died in this localized conflict alone as both sides fought for control of the department. Fontenay-le-Comte illustrates the widespread violence and general civil war that waged throughout France in the last decade of the 18th century. It was not just a terror that befell Paris, but an intense struggle that gripped even the most unsuspecting of places. After a short control by the royalists, the republicans took the town for good in 1793. This erratic, and anti-royalist sentiment, however, made Fontenay too radical for the newly crowned Napoleon. Only a decade after the Vendée War, Bonaparte moved the Vendée capital fifty kilometers to the northwest, to a new town he could control, called Roche-sur-Yon … the finish of Stage 2.
The Cottages of the Brière
Just north of the beachside resort of La Baule-Escoublac, is Guérande and the gateway into the pristine Parc Naturel Régional de Brière. This 548 square kilometer park (211 square miles) lies just to the northwest of the Loire River outlet. As a result, this is a wetland estuary that is home to unique landscapes, natural habitat, and a surprising architectural heritage. It is important to know that a French Regional Park is a voluntary designation by a community who seeks to protect a shared natural and cultural heritage. In the Brière, the latter is equally important as the former. The park weaves through some twenty municipalities, displaying a distinctive type of small, thatched-roof residential cottages that may have some questioning the country of origin. Perhaps these types of abodes are more well-known in the English country-side like the Cotswolds. Yet the Brière has some 3,000 such structures. A perfect place to see this history interpreted is the Village of Kerhinet, right off the Tour’s route. Here, traditional crafts are maintained in the original settings of a craftsman’s house, inn, and workshops. The cottages are either exposed stone or covered in white plaster with steep, thick thatched roofs and limited colorful doors and windows. For a more natural communal view of these buildings, head just a little further east, around the preserved marais to experienced some of the original isles. The l’île de Fédrun is of particular note, where several hundred historic homes remain literally in an island among the marshland. It’s no beach, but this quiet setting will have you forgetting about modern troubles all the same.
Haras de la Vendée
Since the 2016 Tour de France’s featuring of Saint-Lô in the Manche, I have been infatuated with the grandeur and architecture of Les Haras Nationaux. Twenty-one cities host these national stud farms. As an institution, Les Haras Nationaux began in 1665 under Louis XIV with a dedicated purpose of raising strong stallions and improve breeding, primarily for military benefits. It took almost another 200 years for a stud to arrive at La-Roche-sur-Yon. Finally in 1846, the Haras de la Vendée opened, albeit in a much less imperialistic France than during the monarchy or Napoleonic era. About fifty years earlier than the Haras National de Saint-Lô, La-Roche-sur-Yon exhibits a similar Neoclassical style of architecture. Its buildings, from stables to the director’s house, exhibit the desire to return to a more simplistic style. In fact, the most striking aspect of the Haras buildings are the prominent quoins on the corners, whether of larger white stone or the seemingly characteristic and timeless red brick accents. The architectural style is complemented by the streamlined military layout with the Director’s House at the center, fcing two elongated stable buildings. This haras does not enjoy the parade space that is common at other locations, nor is it in as good condition. Regardless, the clean lines and pristine environment is evocative of times past and remains a worthy site to seek out. The Haras today is mainly a place of cultural importance in the Vendée as well as a means for uniting different aspects of the horse industry throughout the department. It provides demonstrations, equestrian shows, and carriage rides for locals and visitors alike.
If few have ever heard of Cholet, they are not likely to know the Mauges region it lies within. This is known to French historians as the heart of the Vendee counter-revolutionary activity during the Revolution. Even today, the Mauges face an identity crisis as they feel more affinity to the Vendee Department than Maine-et-Loire. This is because the Mauges is a border region at the edge of the Amorican Massif, an ancient mountain range (now small) that unofficially divides east (Paris) from west (Anjou and Brittany). The area appears to be ripe with agricultural potential, but upon closer examination, the land is not among the best for crops in France. This is partly why the region has such a strong history of livestock and small manufacturing. In this way, it is a vestige of traditional France. If you get a chance to explore the little known Mauges, be sure to look out for tell-tale signs of cultural landscape.
Vendéens are radical about their revolutionary history. It seems that everywhere you look, this past is celebrated in the most unsuspecting ways. This is perhaps best illustrated just outside the tiny town of Les Herbiers. Perched on a hill along the Route de Cholet, not even three kilometers north of town is a site called Le Mont des Alouettes. In the 1500s, eight windmills occupied this spot, the most in a vicinity that boasted twenty windmills in total. Yet due to a commanding view over the rest of the landscape, 120 meters above town, the mont was a strategic location during the Vendée Wars and all but two were destroyed during this period. With the impact of technological advances, dereliction, and then fire, the windmills cease operation in the early 1900s and remained vacant until the city purchased them in 1956 for preservation. Today, these are local landmarks, beautiful to behold and exquisite in motion. They are the subject of local Vendée painter Raphael Toussaint, whose Currier & Ives type scenes portray the mills and their agrarian environment in a romantic and immensely colorful light. Even the 2011 Tour de France finished atop the mont on Stage 1, with Phillippe Gilbert taking the Yellow Jersey. Heading to Cholet, take this route and explore some of the history off the beaten path.
A Salty Start for 2018
If unique is what the Tour de France was looking for, they certainly found it once again when they announced the Grand Depart of the 2018 Tour in L’île de Noirmoutier. Just like in 2016 when the Tour started by crossing the causeway into the Manche Department, the peloton will again cross the ocean over the Passage du Gois. Unitl 1971, this was the only way to get to L’Ile. While there’s much to do on this tiny island of only 49 square kilometers, it is the salt history that is fascinating. While the Benedictine monks initially “farmed” salt in the marshes off the coast in the 5th century, the Vikings finally captured the island in 835. This was the first of many Viking outposts in the Loire region. Aside from mining salt, like is done in much of Alpine Europe, the second best method of mining salt is through marshland evaporation of ocean water. Too cold and wet, the Viking’s homeland in Scandanavia was ill-suited for salt production and salt was a critical commodity in the ancient world. At Noirmoutier, ponds were filled and drained to allow ideal conditions for evaporation in as little as 48 hours. Today, this ancient method of harvesting the salt ponds by hand continues. Across the island, 100 farmers operate about 3,000 ponds, or œillets, each producing 1 ton of salt annually. In the prime of summer, the fleur de sel is the most desired salt evokes a subtle violet flavor that is sought-after by chefs to season all kinds of other local products like potatoes and of course fish. What a delightful way to start our 2018 adventure.
Pontmain’s Marian Apparition
France has a special relationship with the Virgin Mary. Notre-Dame. In fact, France is home to 113 shrines dedicated to Mary, more than any other country (although at 53 Malta has an admirable bond with Mary as well). It was in this sleepy village in January 1871 that Mary appeared to the children of the village in a barn in the center of town. Mary offered hope to the children and the people of the village, thereby being known as Our Lady of Hope. Pontmain is one of five apparition sites within France and the last to occur. It is also among three to be along the route in this year’s Tour de France. The others being in Lourdes and Paris. A church to honor Mary was built immediately after the event and a larger basilica was constructed in 1908, just 90 meters from the barn. The story of the Pontmain apparition is both interesting and inspirational.
A Castle and Two Michelin Stars
There are few places where history melds with all the senses for a truly unique experience. The Logis de la Chabotterie is one such place. Located several kilometers from the nearest small town, Saint-Sulpice-le-Verdon, the chateau sits on sprawling grounds where peacefulness tempers life’s chaos. Here, the chateau has all the luxury amenities of a full blown resort; a hotel, boulangerie, boutique, spa, hotel, and of course the Michelin 2-star restaurant, all under the creative direction of Chef Thierry Drapeau. Native to nearby Nantes, Chef Drapeau is a Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef, an association dedicated to promoting cultural and culinary diversity. Chef Drapeau honed his skills across France as he moved around from Michelin Star to Michelin Star restaurant. He finally opened his own establishment in coastal Vendée at the age of thirty. Logis de la Chabotterie opened in 2004 and received Michelin accolades after just six months in operation. Then came one Michelin Star in 2006 and the second in 2011. At Saint-Sulpice-le-Verdon, Chef Drapeau proudly serves local specialties “inspired by the wonders that Vendée offers us, seafood, poultry, meat, foie gras, fish, …” and which he grew up loving as a boy. The chateau itself is an ideal place to feel the Vendée spirit. This relatively small manor house was constructed in the 15th century and exhibits a subdued but stately and elegant façade. With gardens played an important part in the Revolution’s Vendée War.
Chateau de Saumur
Further down the Loire River from Angers is the small but picturesque and historic town of Saumur. The town is a well-known stop for wine lovers on the Loire Valley wine trail, but this cannot be overshadowed by the imposing Chateau de Saumur. The castle looms high over the adjacent town and farmlands, itself perfectly illustrating the feudal relationship between serfs and lords. A fortress originally occupied the site in the 10th century as a stronghold at the strategic confluence of the Loire and Thouet Rivers. The current structure was built in late 14th Century in a manor house, French Chateau style despite being a fully fortified castle and being more tall than broad and sprawling. With the omnipresent Chateau in your purview, be sure to include Saumur in your tour of the Loire and walk back in time to experience what life was like when the population was both beholden to and dependent on the lord and lady of the castle.
The small and largely undiscovered Fiefs-Vendéens Brem AOC is a subset of the greater and more well-known Loire Valley and one of three Fiefs-Vendee varietals that combined only amount to 490 hectares (1,210 acres) of vineyards. Like most French wines, the history of Vendeen wine dates back at least to the Romans, but as the name indicates, the wine flourished in the feudal period of the Middle Ages and centered around Abbeys and fiefs. Here in the western maritime portions of the highly variable Loire wine region, the wines are known for their dry, non-aromatic whites. With fish being a staple food in this area, it’s no wonder that a white wine dominates production. The Brem carries a light apple flavor. Here, the grapes are predominantly Chenin and Grolleau. Even the red and rosé’s are light. Along the route, in Vertou, try Domaine Saint Nicolas. It’s a more modern-looking and organic winery, but one that can be found internationally and in the U.S. and at good value. With oceanside settings and refreshing wines, this is an AOC to show-off one’s knowledge of world-class wines.