an establishment where horses or other domesticated animals are kept for breeding”
With the Tour de France being about speed, stamina, and honor, it’s only fitting that we take a moment to celebrate a place that lives by these same traits but in a different and unexpected way. Saint-Lô’s unassuming nature captured my attention. The city is anything but ordinary. It won’t be recommended in any of the popular travel books like Michelin or Lonely Planet, but it is Saint-Lô that characterizes the region best. Why? Surely because it is the “Capital of the Horse”. Such a claim anywhere else could be dismissed as a rustic oddity. But here the horse is king because World War II left Saint-Lô in almost complete ruin. So the town’s tangible past was left in ruins, leaving the horse as one of the strongest connections to this important city’s millennia-old history.
During the Tour de France itself, this pastoral connection is something of a lens through which a visitor can escape the crowds of the coast and taste the authentic history, culture, and natural landscape of the Manche’s bocage, or countryide. As Explore le Tour has learned while discovering Stage 1 and Stage 2, the Cotentin Penninsula historically has been a highly agricultural region even on the coast. Farming, livestock herding, and food production were significant trades that found outlets in the major ports on the peninsula like Cherbourg. For this reason, the breeding of strong horses was paramount.
As a region, Normandy is renowned for its connection horse breeding. It is home to over 650 clubs and associations dedicated to breeding, riding, and competition. Saint-Lô is very much at the center of this culture. One of the city’s main attractions is its royal stud farm, the Haras National. Napoleon began this group of twenty farms throughout France in 1806 as locations to offer expert advice and breeding services. At its current location, founded in 1886, Saint-Lô grew to become one of the largest stud farms in France at 7.5 hectares and 422 stallions by 1912. Partly destroyed in 1944, it still retains the beautiful xx architecture although on a much smaller scale at 3.5 hectares. Today, it is open to the public from April to November and specializes in the draft breed Norman Cob, and sport stallion Stelle francais.
The Haras is 1.25 kilometers east of the downtown cathedral that was partially destroyed and left as a monument to the destruction of World War II. Through the destroyed town, the route suddenly changes and on the north side of the road is a seemingly out-of-place stone wall with simple yet characteristic windows with segmentally arched brick lintels. Soon, more prominent Neo Renaissance structures emerge before finally coming to a grand gate. Flags flying and an iron fence topped with gold reveal that this is the National Haras. Straight through the gate, is a massive parade ground 200 by 85 meters and surrounded by four identical stables. The entire complex is 7.5 hectares (18.5 acres) and this first exclusive glimpse is telling. An hour and a half tour reveals all – history, purpose, architecture, and more. It becomes quickly evident that this is something that is taken quite seriously. For me, the architecture is just as beautiful. The buildings are a light beige color with maroon doors and tall black roofs, allowing each element to majestically stand out. Prominent arches contain the doors and windows and patterns of interspersed brick along the building edges and openings work to give the building a fantastic peppermint taste. Standing in the middle of the Cour du Haras National is belittling. Even more amazing is to watch these graceful animals strut through the grounds.
But breeding here is only the start, literally. The Haras National is only part of the larger Pôle Hippique complex focused on equine sports. We all know of horse racing and show jumping. But have you ever heard of horseball? It is something else entirely! Horseball is a mix of polo and basketball. Yes, the object is to shoot a ball through a hoop at either end of a field. On a pitch that measures 65 by 25 meters, a total of eight players (and horses of course) makes this dynamic more intense. The ball is passed around and when it falls to the floor, competing players lean dangerously out of their saddle to grab the rings that line the ball. While someone like me watches a horseball match with a mixture of amusement and awe, spectators from Saint-Lô are intense. The town has hosted several historical competitions and will again feature the pro-elite championships in February.
As a newbie to horses, I am not about to try horseball for myself. But I am willing to attempt something much slower paced and Normandie has just the trails. In fact, Normandie has some of the best horseback riding in all of France and two trails start right in Saint-Lô. Situated high on the Amorican Massif at 130 meters in elevation, visitrs can follow the peloton’s picturesque ride out of town on La Route des Abbayes. From Saint-Lô, the route follows the wonderfully lush Vire River Valley of rolling hills. This geography contrasts the flats of the nearby coastline that you will be amazed it’s Normandie. For 155 kilometers overall, follow small towns that reflect the Vire with names like La Mancellière-sur-Vire, Sainte-Suzanne-sur-Vire, Condé-sur-Vire, and Torigni-sur-Vire ten kilometers to the south. The point here is not to sightsee but to let your horse be your guide on a carefree tour of the Amorican Massif’s natural beauty. Isn’t that the general idea in Saint-Lô as well? Slow down and experience the quieter side of France by means of our equine friends.