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Pays de la Loire - a regional guide

An inside guide to the lower Loire valley

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An introduction to the Pays de la Loire

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SaumurSaumur - château, vineyards and the Loire.
     The Pays de la Loire region is a recent creation, not one of France's historic regions. Indeed, the regional capital, Nantes, was once the capital of Brittany - to which it no longer belongs. In historic terms, Pays de la Loire covers parts of the old provinces of Brittany, Anjou, Maine and Poitou. .
    The Pays de la Loire covers the area to the south of Brittany and Normandy, along the lower stretches of the river Loire, the longest river in France.
     The region is composed of five departments, two of them coastal – the Loire Atlantique (44) and the Vendée (85) – and three of them inland, the Mayenne (53), the Sarthe (72) and the Maine et Loire (49). 
Map of Pays de la Loire Loire Atlantique

Loire Atlantique

Nantes (44), the regional capital is the sixth largest city in France, with 270,000 inhabitants in the urban borough of Nantes, and an estimated 800,000 inhabitants in the urban area as of 2008. It is located on the Loire, 50 km inland, and is the largest economic hub in the north west of France. In the eighteenth century, Nantes (like Bristol) was a flourishing seaport, indeed the most important seaport in France; the city acquired great wealth at that time, wealth which is reflected to this day in its urban heritage. Today, most of the shipping activity has moved to the mouth of the Loire, to the port of Saint Nazaire, which is also one of the major ship-building cities in Europe. It was in the Saint Nazaire dockyards that the new flagship of the Cunard line, the world's largest passenger ship, the Queen Mary 2, was built. A clear birds-eye view of the shipyards can be had from the Pont de Saint Nazaire, the high road bridge that spans the Loire estuary. (Originally a toll bridge, this bridge is now free to cross).
    On the coast of the Loire Atlantique department lie two of France's historic seaside resorts, La Baule and Le Croisic. The area round Le Croisic is also famous for its salt pans, and "sel de Guérande"  is one of the best-known types of salt in France. The town of Guérande is a delightful small ancient walled city, just inland from the salt marshes.


Gites in Loire valley     South of the Loire Atlantique department lies an area known as Vendée. The modern department (85)  is much smaller than the historic area that once carried this name. Vendée is famous in the history of France as one of the old bastions of Protestantism; after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and the end of religious tolerance, tens of thousands of Vendéen protestants fled from this part of France, and went to live in England, or America. Thus many people in England can trace some of their ancestry back to this part of France.
    After the French Revolution, Vendée was a centre for the royalist counter-revolution.
    The department is largely flat in the northern coastal area, low-lying and gently undulating inland. The capital, the city of La Roche sur Yon, is a small rural city in the middle of the department. The coast is built up round the seaside resorts, notably the fine beaches at les Sables d'Olonne, Saint Gilles Croix-de-Vie and St. Jean de Monts, but elsewhere there are  stretches of empty coastline. In parts, a band of pine forests, planted on land that was once sand dunes, protects the flat farmland behind from the Atlantic winds and the sand - and protects it against flooding when Atlantic storms batter the coastline.

Maine et Loire

    Further inland, the department of Maine et Loire (49) covers a territory to the north and south of the Loire.This is the heart of the region known as Anjou, and its capital Angers is one of the great historic cities in the Loire valley. Anjou was the fief of the Angevins, better known as the Plantagenets, who, starting with Henry II, ruled England for three centuries. The great castle of the counts of Anjou, in Angers, is one of the biggest medieval fortresses in Europe. Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their son Richard the Lionheart are buried at the Abbey of Fontevraud, between Saumur and Chinon.

Sarthe & Mayenne

    The two remaining departments of this region,  Sarthe (72) and Mayenne (53) form the rest of the old provinces of Anjou and Maine, and border on Normandy. Rural departments, and strongly agricultural, they both have more in common with Normandy than they do with Vendée. Half the population of the department of the Sarthe lives in the urban area round the capital, Le Mans, famous for its annual motor race. Apart from that, the Sarthe is deeply rural. La Flèche, an attractive small town on the river Loir (without an -e !) boasts one of the best and oldest zoos in France, coverning some 30 acres. Laval, capital of the Mayenne, is a small city with a historic centre. The city is located on the banks of the river Mayenne, which crosses the department from north to south, a navigable waterway with opportunities for boat hire, and 85 km of towpath idel for cyclists and hikers. The department of the Mayenne also boasts the highest point in the northwest quarter of France, the summit of the Mont des Avaloirs, at 417 metres, about 1350 ft.

Access: how to reach Pays de la Loire:
By train (TGV) from Paris Gare Montparnasse to Nantes, Angers, Le Mans, Les Sables d'Olonne
Access by car from the UK, via any of the Channel ports, from Roscoff (Brittany) to Calais.
Local airports for Pays de la Loire: Nantes, Poitiers and La Rochelle

Main tourist attractions in Pays de la Loire

  • The river Loire (44  / 49) The wide slow-moving Loire is one of Europe's great rivers. The river, excellent for fishing, is bordered by many attractive small towns, and the flat land is good for cycling.
  • Rivers Maine, Mayenne and Sarthe: (49, 53, 72) riverboat cruising (cabin cruisers), from several boat hire bases.
By department
  • Nantes (44), Regional capital; Nantes is a big city, with a historic centre; it offers plenty of opportunities for shopping and urban tourism. The biggest attraction is the castle of the Dukes of Brittany, which houses the city museums. Nearby the Musée des Arts is one of the best art galleries in western France, with a good collection of European art, including works by  Bernardo Daddi, Perugino, Georges de Latour, Ingres, Delacroix, Courbet, Monet, Marquet, Signac and many more. Other attractions in Nantes include more museums, the late medieval cathedral, in in western French gothic style, and  river boats on the Erdre, a tributary of the Loire.
  • Guérande (44), just inland from the coast, to the north of the Loire, Guérande is a small walled city, with a historic centre. 
  • La Baule (44) - One of the more famous French seaside resorts - famous since the nineteenth century .
  • Planete Sauvage, (44) south west of Nantes. A large wildlife park (over 250 acres) , with safari tours. Over 2,000 animals in semi liberty.
  • Angers (49) Historic city, with one of the biggest and finest medieval castles in France.
  • Ecuillé (49) 15th century Chateau du Plessis-Bourre. A fairytale white stone château standing surrounded by water, this privately owned château has been little altered since it was first built. It has a working drawbridge. Closed Nov-Feb. Rest of year open daily except Mondays.
  • Saumur  (49) National Tank museum - tanks from World War 1 to today. See industrial museums. Historic château
  • Near Segré (49) La Mine Bleue. Take the train 126 metres underground for an authentic slate mine visit. See industrial museums.
  • Fontevraud (49) Part of the Loire valley UNESCO world heritage site. Large 12th century former Benedictine Abbey, with the tombs of  the English kings Richard I (Lionheart), Henry II, and queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.
  • Laval (53). Old city with some interesting and unusual monuments, and the unique Lactopole, a museum of the milk, cheese and dairy industry
  • Mayenne (53) Attractive small town on the banks of the river Mayenne - historic medieval castle, gothic church
  • Le Mans (72) - Famous for its annual 24 hour motor endurance race. Also fine cathedral (11th - 16th centuries). Historic city centre with old cobbled streets.
  • La Flèche (72) : Zoo de la Flèche, one of the five major zoos in France.
  • La Barre des Monts (85) Ecomuseum of the Vendée fens. Open air museum covering 100 acres of preserved fenland, a salt marsh, traditional farms and local breeds
  • Le Puy du Fou theme park (85) Arguably the best historic theme park in the world, famous for its historic reenactments (daily in summer). 
  • Les Sables d'Olonne: (85) One of the most famous seaside resorts on the west coast. the Vendée Globe  round-the-world yacht race starts here. Beaches, harbour, Modern and contemporary art museum.

Puy du Fou historic theme park
Roman chariot racing at the Puy du Fou historic theme park

Old Nantes
The old quarter in Nantes, the regional capital: almost Parisian.

Vendee coast

Les Sables d'Olonne - seaside resort in Vendée.

Going further:  Official Pays de la Loire tourism site

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The Pays de la Loire region  covers the area round the lower Loire, from the Sarthe through Anjou to the Vendée. It is not the main area for visiting the famous "Chateaux de la Loire". They are further upstream.  For these see the Centre–Val-de-Loire region .

Pays de la Loire accommodation

Hotels in Pays de la Loire
Hotels in Nantes 
Hotels in  Angers (49)
 Hotels in the Vendee (85)
 Hotels in  Le Mans (72)

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On the banks of the river Loire
On the banks of the Loire

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