One of the main ‘hubs’ for cycling in France, Pays de la Loire boasts over 2,500km of safe and signposted cycle routes for exploring its lovely landscapes on two wheels. The routes wind their way past vineyards and châteaux, through stunning villages and beautiful landscapes... it’s a wonderfully relaxing way to spend your holiday, as well as offering a feast for the senses. Here’s just a snapshot of the routes on offer in Pays de la Loire…
A north-south bike trail linking Brittany to the Basque Country, open since 2012. The Vélodyssée offers a staggering 1,200km of signposted cycling and you can pedal your way through 10 of France’s coastal departments, breathing in the sea air with the Atlantic by your side. In Pays de la Loire, the route follows the towpath along the Nantes-Brest Canal. After Nantes it joints a section of the Loire à Vélo trail before connecting with the cycle paths on the Côte de Jade and then on the Vendée coast. Free-wheeling fun for everyone!
A continuous cycle track starting at Cuffy in Cher and finishing at Saint-Brevin-les-Pins on the Loire-Atlantique coast. This route combines all the food, wine, nature and heritage of the area on one journey and is today a true holiday ‘must-do’. It’s safe and well-marked (ideal for children as well as adults) and takes you through the heart of the Loire Valley, revealing all its treasures – châteaux, gourmet restaurants and vineyards – with magnificent unrestricted views of the landscapes that make up this UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are more than 800km to explore without too many hills, so the journey is comfortable whatever your level of expertise.
This 615km-long cycle route links Ouistreham with La Rochelle via Pays de la Loire. It’s fully signposted and takes in natural heritage and historical sites, often hugging a riverbank as it traverses seven departments.Starting in the hilly landscape of Normandy, it continues along the Mayenne towpaths. The little-known landscape around the River Mayenne is strikingly beautiful and well worth exploring by bike, especially if you’re looking for a flat route. Distances are signposted between points of interest (such as châteaux, villages and old watermills) and towns along the way include Mayenne,Laval and Château-Gontier. The Vélo Francette then continues past the châteaux of the Loire Valley and the Poitou-Charentes marshes, before finally reaching the Bay of Biscay.
Sea and river activities
The River Loire is one of Pays de la Loire’s major visitor draws and the region’s tourism revolves largely around this majestic waterway. Feel the cool river waters with a multitude of waterborne activities. Keep the pace slow and lazy on a cruise on board a toue sablière (a traditional flat-bottomed boat), or be independent in a canoe or kayak, watching the local wildlife and marvelling at the châteaux and mills on the riverbanks. Those keen on fishing will also be in their element on the Loire river and its tributaries, with pike and perch in particular abundance. For an adrenaline rush, head out to sea and master the waves with a surfboard or sailing boat. No need to join a club or be an expert – there are opportunities for everyone.
One of Pays de la Loire’s loveliest and most peaceful waterways is the Marais Poitevin in southern Vendée. It is hard to believe that the ‘canals’ in this marshland are man-made, as they form a seemingly random maze of waterways snaking though the landscape. Take a trip on a flat-bottomed boat – an experienced navigator will steer you through a natural umbrella of trees filtering the sunlight, creating pools of light and shade on the water and revealing birds and other wildlife sheltering on the banks. Your guide will tell you about the history of the monks who created this marshland marvel as you pass the impressive ruins of the Abbey of Maillezais. There are plenty of landing stages located in pretty villages throughout the 92,500 acres of wetland, but the journey is so soporific that you’re likely to stay on the boat and just doze off…
It may be a challenge to take an accurate swing with your club when the views are as breathtaking as they are along Pays de la Loire’s coast. Golf courses are naturally popular in this area – and there are plenty to choose from. The region’s temperate climate is perfect for this quintessential ‘great outdoors’sport. Some of the courses follow the Loire, the Sarthe, the Mayenne and the Yon river, others nestle in rolling hills and still others sit just outside major cities.
La Baule’s famous course extends to over 220 hectares along the edge of the Brière regional park, while the 6,000m Pornic course combines wooded areas with wide open spaces.You can play along the river banks at Laval, in the Mayenne valley or on an island in the middle of the Loire at the Île d’Or course in La Varenne (just pay attention to your swing to avoid getting a soaking while lining up your next shot!). For the ultimate golfing experience, try playing a round at the Sablé-Solesmes course, considered one of Pays de la Loire’s most beautiful. Some ranges are set in the grounds of châteaux so you can feel like royalty whilst practising your swing; a perfect example is La Domaine de la Perrière at Avrillé, 10 minutes from Angers. Those who like shade can play golf beneath the trees at the Montjoie course in the heart of the Baugé forest.
Need to perfect your technique? The Golf International Barrière La Baule academy is the leading French golfing training and instruction centre, designed by Jack Nicklaus and open all year round. It’s also great for those who are new to the game.
Pays de la Loire is an excellent destination if all you wish to do is get away from it all and be pampered. Pack up your troubles and check in your bags at any of the region’s six coastal thalassotherapy spas at La Baule, Pornichet, Pornic, Saint-Jean-de-Monts and Les Sables-d’Olonne. You can choose from a menu of invigorating treatments, tailored to your own needs and preferences… what about trying a seaweed wrap since you’re by the sea? Take as long as you need to recharge your batteries, interspersed with plenty of bracing walks on the beach.
The famous ‘Toiles de Mayenne’ fabrics have been woven in the Mayenne department for over 200 years since 1806 and include curtains, bed throws, cushions and more. Striped fabrics are a particular speciality… and very French of course!
Known as the ville des mouchoirs (town of handkerchiefs), Cholet’s history has evolved with the textile industry and it has several museums worth a visit. A handsome old brick laundry now houses the Musée du Textile et de la Mode, while the Musée des Métiers de la Chaussure (shoe trade museum) features over 1,000 models of footwear. As for Cholet’s Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, it reminds us of the wars that Vendée has endured. Cholet is also popular for its factory outlets selling marked-down designer wear, notably Marques Avenue, a large shopping complex housing more than 80 well-known brands. Glisseo, a vast venue for anyone who enjoys water sports and attractions, is another must-see downtown.
It was in 1747 that the first earthenware factory was founded in Malicorne by potter Jean Loiseau, thanks to the area’s abundance of clay as well as its river ports, making transportation north to Le Mans or south to Angers and Nantes possible by flat-bottomed boat. If you’re interested in ceramics, the Faiencerie Malicorne in Sarthe (open since 1924) is the place to witness clay taking shape before your very eyes – and to invest in some beautiful unique pieces if your luggage space allows, from beautiful plates and jugs to lamp bases and figurines. The clay is extracted from a quarry on the outskirts of Malicorne and must undergo a long process of preparation before it can be used in the workshop – it’s stored in a cellar for a minimum of two years, crucial for its eventual shaping. Guided tours of the faiencerie are available without reservation Tuesday to Saturday (except bank holidays) from 1 April to 30 September.
Flea market bric-a-brac
Pick up mismatched vintage French objects to bring home in the village of Montsoreau, whose lively flea markets are held on the second Sunday of the month at the foot of the chateau. Stalls are set up on the banks of the Loire and some 75 specialists sell everything from antiques and bric-a-brac to old lace and furniture. You never know what you might find!