1. Walk with the Romans
The strange lines that criss-cross the tiny village of Jublains mark the grid-like streets of the town of Novidium, once a substantial centre for Roman activity in the area. The bathhouse (which lies under the church), amphitheatre, temple and military fort are stunning. The super museum houses a wealth of the impressively delicate artifacts discovered on site.
2. Visit a cave, man.
The narrow gorge at Saulges was a popular destination for prehistoric man as well as their more intimidating competitors in the food chain. Paintings and sabre-toothed skeletons have been found in the network of caves, now open to the public.
3. Get religion – medieval style.
Beautiful medieval frescos adorn almost every church, but they aren’t all for the faint-hearted. In the beautiful village of Asnières sur Vèrge the gory 1000-year-old murals – think ‘sinner soup’ – are a graphic example of how the local were kept in check. Cleanse your soul with a walk through the gorgeous ecological ‘mosaic garden’, just outside of the village, where the roses smell divine.
For churchgoers, the enormous abbey at Solesmes is credited with restoring the Gregorian chant, which is still regularly performed at Mass.
4. On your bike
Chosen with the help of a map and a drawing pin, the region was the first base for a fledgling company called Cycling for Softies. The concept was to marry easy cycling with friendly hotels and good food. That was 1981 and it’s safe to say the idea took off.
Cycling is still a brilliant way to get around. Deserted back roads, infrequent hills and lots of places to stop and explore. There’s now over 100km of traffic-free cycling along old railway lines and towpaths – including a magnificent run along the Mayenne river itself. It’s still one of Cycling for Softies’ most popular routes for families.
Three of the Mayenne’s main towns – Laval, Château Gontier and Mayenne – are on the river, each with over 1000 years of history on casual display. Meander through narrow medieval streets, visit their châteaux, shop in their boutiques and, when you’re done, get a box of rainbow-coloured macaroons to munch by the waterside.
6. Châteaux without the crowds.
The Mayenne boasts more privately owned châteaux than anywhere else in France and there are plenty to visit. Try not to miss the spectacular hilltop ruins at Ste Suzanne – also officially one of France’s prettiest villages. If you’re lucky enough to catch one of their jousting tournaments it’ll be the highlight of your holiday.
We love Lassay-les-Châteaux with its bloodthirsty revolutionary history. The 14th century fortress is brilliantly preserved, including a working drawbridge. It is claimed Victor Hugo once sought shelter there, only to be pointed in the direction of the inn nearby!
7. Advance with the Allies
As evidence of its more recent past, keep an eye on the dates on the little memorials that dot the countryside. You’ll track the village-by-village advance of the American troops as they liberated the area from Nazi occupation in 1944.
8. Now for something completely different
Robert Tatin was an artist and architect who took the concept of home-improvements and blew it out of the water. Over the course of two decades he and his wife transformed their modest home into an extraordinary other world. The style is sort-of Cambodian jungle temple with a bit of Maori Haka thrown in. His house, at Cossé-le-Vivian is now a museum. As well showcasing his life’s work the museum hosts exhibitions from other local artists.
9. Take to the water
The picturesque Mayenne river is ideal for canoeing, pleasure-boating and fishing, with plenty of places to hire them. Outside of the towns you’ll be by yourself, disturbed only by a blue flash of kingfisher or the occasional lazy splash.
10. Sip cider in the sunshine
Tasty, unpretentious, reasonably priced and utterly satisfying, Mayennais food is more Normandy than Loire in its roots. Cider is often the boisson of choice for lunch and goes brilliantly with a savoury gallette. (Try the little créperie in Jublains, on the way to the amphitheatre.)
When packing a picnic look out for rillettes, a local pork paté that melts in the mouth, or try the fresh, crumbly goat’s cheese sold in every market. The world-famous Port Salut cheese was invented by the monks at the abbey at Entrammes. Anything with apples – the regional symbol – is going to be delicious.
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