The following essay – Beyond Le Mans – was originally published in Living France magazine, as part of a larger feature about the department of Sarthe and Le Mans.
It was time to move on, and just outside Le Mans, a short drive away, I find the Cistercian abbey of Épau. Here lie the remains of Queen Berengaria, wife of Plantagenet Richard I, the Lionheart. Following his death, she withdrew to Le Mans, where she was warmly welcomed, and in 1229 founded the abbey. It is a remarkably tranquil spot, in fact I could have stayed there all day. The building, having succumbed to agricultural use for a time, was restored towards the end of the last century and is today well-maintained, but devoid of content; not that this detail detracts from the setting. Only the original cloister and western façade are missing, but this remains one of the best abbeys in France, and a supremely peaceful location.
While in that neck of the woods, I venture a little further to the Arche de la Nature. Set in pine woodlands, this is an excellent place for walks, and, at its heart, a ‘prairie’ farm with some interesting rare breeds of animal, including the magnificent Percheron horses which draw a caliche around the woodland tracks on a plodding journey that will appeal to children from 8 years old to 80. Back at the farm, an estaminet, or outdoor café, serves excellent lunchtime food accompanied by an artisanal beer brewed in the English manner – whatever that is. But it is very refreshing.
Moving east I reach La Ferté Bernard. This is a terrible place, where the culinary temptations of Le Dauphin Restaurant contemptuously sweep aside my stalwart determination to restrain my diet and so return my well-developed lower chest to something resembling the six pack of my youth. That I fail miserably is not entirely my fault! Rillette de Thon, filet de Sébaste aux pois chice et citron confit, cône de l’anis vert et crème pêche de vigue would weaken anyone’s resolve.
Thankfully, this hugely agreeable town has a number of redeeming features, not least the weight of medieval antiquity crammed into a small area. The whole region here is built on marshland (marais), which makes it all the more remarkable. The old houses huddle around the church, built on piles amid the lush fields of the Huisne valley. Here, too, there are many half-timbered houses, and a significant investment in restoration, from the magnificent Porte Saint Julien to the corn exchange (Halle aux Grains). What my guide failed to mention was that La Ferté was owned in 1642 by Cardinal de Richelieu, arguably the world's first prime minister and a great if often harsh servant of the French cause. La Ferté was held by Richelieu's descendants until the Revolution.
In search of chateaux, I head for Montmirail, formerly a defensive stronghold, the original Gallo-Roman fortress being replaced by a feudal outpost and later a medieval castle. Once the capital of the ‘Perche Gouêt’ region, Montmirail, a much-desired location, was besieged by Richard I during the Hundred Years’ War.
Not far away, I located my room for the night, in the Chateau de la Barre, held in the same family, de Vanssay, since 1421, and a real treat. It’s not every day I get to have dinner with a count and countess. Moving on was particularly difficult, the grounds are peaceful and relaxing, but only the prospect of finding my target vineyard at Poncé-sur-le-Loir closed for lunch spurred me on. The wine here tends to be Jasnières, produced from chenin grapes, although they do also produce some Coteaux du Loir.
Here I'm driving along the edge of the département, dipping into a rural way of life that binds communities like St Calais, Bessé-sur-Braye (fine chateau of Courtonvaux nearby), and la Charte-sur-le-Loir. There seems to be an idyllic contentment about these small towns, a refreshing and relaxing ambiance I find repeated in the Forest of Bercé where lunch at the Auberge de l’Hermitière is taken to accompaniment of blackcap, green woodpecker, chiffchaff and the sound of fish leaping from the nearby lake. With more than 280km of waymarked trails, this oak and conifer forest, perhaps once the hunting ground of Plantagenet kings, is perfectly designed by walkers, cyclists and horse riders. I sit for hours mesmerised by the tranquillity of it all. I would be there still if someone hadn’t brought the bill and disturbed my reverie.
Heading north I find myself attracted to Fresnay-sur-Sarthe, what the French describe as a Petite Cité de Caractère, one of eleven towns along the Sarthe formed together for the purpose of furthering their cultural development. And so it is, a small city, of character. Founded originally around its chateau, now long gone, this agreeable town still retains much of its original layout, a mix of cobbled streets, a new market hall, elegant church, and a fine view over the Sarthe river. Here I indulge my passion for people-watching, and perch beneath the shade of an umbrella at Les Alpes Mancelles, viewing the world through pastis-coloured glasses.
Sarthe is proud of its Plantagenet history, and, as I soon realised, it’s as much a part of the French patrimoine as it is of our English heritage. Perhaps that’s why so many English people find Sarthe such an agreeable place to live. It’s just a pity that its main claim to fame has nothing to do with the intrinsic beauty of the region.