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Mayenne, northwest France: ten brilliant things to do

Once an overlooked neighbour of the eternally popular Loire, the Mayenne region in northwest France is fast coming into its own. Why? Think the France of your childhood holidays: old men in berets gossiping in the markets; maize and sunflower fields dotted with châteaux; delicious lunches in unpretentious cafés. It boasts historic and cultural sites that rival anything in the Loire or Dordogne but its off-the-map status means you get a fraction of the crowds. Just don’t expect it to stay that way for long. With improved rail access and tourist routes you need to get in quick if you want to say you found it first. While you’re there, here’s how get the most out of this magnificent region. We recommend getting on your bike!

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.

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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.

5. Go to town

Three of the Mayenne’s main towns – LavalChâteau 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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