Best explored on foot, Laval has a maze of narrow alleys in its old town leading down to the Perrine Gardens on the Mayenne River. The water has always been an important part of its history; hop on board one of the bateaux-lavoirs, which are old floating laundromats! Also visit the château, built on a rocky spur in the 11th century and rebuilt in the 16th. Inside is one of the world’s finest museums of folk art and a reproduction of local artist Douanier Rousseau’s studio. If you leave town via the towpath, you soon reach the peaceful Basilica of Notre-Dame d’Avesnières. The town itself hums with activity: cosy cafés and enticing boutiques await on the Rue du Pont de Mayenne.
Fontenay-le-Comte is arguably one of the prettiest towns in Vendée and listed as one of France’s ‘best detours’, no matter where you’re heading. It was once a fishing port, but as the sea receded and the land wasdrained for agriculture, the town became stranded on the River Vendée. The heart of the town is a conservation area with buildings dating from the 15th and 16th centuries and the remnants of a medieval castle. The town centre has winding streets passing magnificent mansions, fountains and a square. Its Château of Terre-Neuve is the perfect setting for a collection of period costumes and furniture, while the Château Fontenay is home to the town’s public treasury. The Notre-Dame cathedral has some stunning stained glass windows and a towering steeple that can be seen from miles away.
Clisson is a pretty town surrounded by vineyards just 30 minutes south-east of Nantes, at the conflux of two rivers: the Sèvre Nantaise and the Moine. It’s a touch of Tuscany in Pays de la Loire, shaped by three great French artists who helped reconstruct the town on their return from Italy after the Vendéen war. The Cacault brothers, Pierre and François, and François-Frédéric Lemot introduced Italian-style architecture into the valley – and the villas and gardens, churches, temples and ancient statues are reminiscent of Tuscan and Roman landscapes. The Garenne Lemot Park was created by sculptor Lemot and is a testament to times gone by, with two Italianate buildings surrounded by 26 acres of gardens and parkland. Milling and paper production made up Clisson’s industrial past and a cluster of mills decorates its riverbanks; there’s also a château in the centre of town. Clisson is known for its metal music festival, Hellfest, which takes place mid-June.
This is Vendée’s capital, chosen by Napoleon in 1804 and crowned by his statue at its heart. The town centre is laid out in the shape of a pentagon and contains the Haras de Vendée, the national stud farm where you can learn all about equestrian arts and watch stunning spectacles showcasing horse and rider performing together. The neo-classical church of Saint-Louis is impressive, there’s a beautiful Italian theatre that resembles a magnificent Roman villa and you can visit the oldest house of the town, dating from 1566. North of the town centre, the reservoir at the Moulin-Papon dam is a pleasant place for walks.