This label ‘Petites Cités de Caractère’ is given to a small number of villages and towns in France with remarkable architectural and natural heritage – and there are quite a few in Pays de la Loire. One ‘must-see’ is Le Croisic on the Loire-Atlantique coast, a quaint fishing port that tells a story of sea trade in days gone by when ship owners, captains and wealthy merchants built elegant town houses. Nowadays you can enjoy a boat trip or a bracing walk along the pier. In Sarthe, revisit medieval times in the pretty towns of Asnières-sur-Vègre and Fresnay-sur-Sarthe. Much of the original architecture remains from the 10th and 15th centuries and also from the 17th-19th centuries, when the town boomed thanks to its hemp industry. Set up high, the gardens offer snapshots of past centuries with views of mills, hills and the fortified town.
Sainte-Suzanne in Mayenne is an idyllic oasis set in rolling countryside. Its 11th-century castle houses an intimate and interactive museum and the architectural heritage is complemented by over 100km of nature trails just waiting to be discovered. In Vendée, check-out Nieul-sur-l’Autise where Eleanor of Aquitaine was born. Famous for its abbey which is a masterpiece of Romanesque art, the village is situated on the edge of the beautiful Marais Poitevin. Also find time to visit Maison de la Meunerie, a working water mill and traditional miller’s house – then stop by the Château du Vignaud for a stroll around the grounds.
Montreuil-Bellay in Maine-et-Loire sits at the confluence of the former Anjou, Touraine and Poitou provinces. Its fortified castle is surrounded by elegant gardens against a backdrop of wheat fields and vineyards; don’t miss the ramparts, imposing gates, church and priory. Vendée’s Vouvant is one of France’s Plus Beaux Villages (most beautiful villages) and its highlight is the Tour Mélusine which, according to legend, was built by the fairy Mélusine in a single night. Just a few steps away is the verdant forest of Mervent, an idyllic escape bordering a lake of more than 300 acres. With this magnificent natural reserve on the doorstep, Vouvant is a heavenly destination for budding artists in search of inspiration and it’s home to numerous studios, with exhibitions celebrating well-known and up-and-coming artists.