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Sifex France Guide to Sarthe

As is so often the case, this department takes its name from the River which eventually joins the Loire at Angers. Best known for the twenty four hour race at Le Mans, the department has much to offer besides this latter day attraction. The Alpes Mancelles continue from the Mayenne into the north of this department, part of the Parc Naturel Régionale de Normandie et Maine. Le Mans has some of the best preserved Roman walls in Europe and in the old town, a magnificent Cathedral with a menhir in front of it as well as many 15/16th century houses lining its narrow cobbled streets. Louis XI is reputed to have stayed in the 15th century Hôtel d’Argouges whilst a sundial on the side of the 16th century Hôtel Aubert de Clairaulnay was placed there by Chappe, the inventor of Semaphor. It comes as no surprise that amongst the museums is the Musée de l’Automobile with a wonderful collection of classic and modern cars.

Asnières-sur-Vègre is a charming village with old houses and water mills, a 12th century bridge and wonderful 12/15th century wall paintings in the little church. Local delicacies include rillettes, poulets de Loué and petits sables de Sablé, a sweet biscuit named after the town. Sablé with its rather forbidding Benedictine Abbaye de Solesmes reflected in the river, renowned for the Gregorian chants of its monks, is also a good spot for taking a cruise along the Sarthe and at Malicorne-sur-Sarthe, famous for its decorated pottery and with its pretty 18th century Château on the banks of the river, the little harbour, bordered by former water mills, has small motorboats for hire.

There are many superb Châteaux to visit in the Sarthe. Not far from Fleche the beautiful 15-18th century Château de Bazouges-sur-le-Loir on the banks of the Loir has Italianate gardens. The 15th-18th century Château de Montmirail was once the scene of a tentative reconciliation between Henry II and Thomas a Becket. North of Le Mans, the Donjon de Ballon is the keep of the oldest fortress defending the Maine, dating from the 12-15th centuries with its Renaissance botanic garden and collection of old roses and a panoramic view of the forests of Maine Normandie. To the east of the department the Château de Courtanvaux, an imposing Gothic and Renaissance edifice has a tree-lined drive, an impressive gateway and moat, formal gardens and a vast estate with ornamental pool which one can explore.

The valley of the River Loir is perfect for sight seeing and sampling the local produce including the wines of Jasnières and Coteaux-du-Loir at Lhomme with its wine museum and Marçon with its man made lake for watersports. At La Flèche the impressive ‘Prytanée National Militaire’is the French military academy created by Napoléon in 1808 in a Jesuit College founded by Henri IV in 1604. The bustling Place Henri IV has a statue of the king at its centre and the Château des Carmes, an art gallery but once the town hall, is reflected in the waters of the Loir. At Vaas the Moulin de Rotrou, a working flourmill has a breadmaking museum and the church has some paintings dating from the 17th century. At Le Lude, the Château which dates from the Middle Ages to the 17th Century, has a spectacular son-et-lumiere with fireworks during the season whilst the Château at Poncé-sur-Loir has a magnificent carved Renaissance staircase, listed Italian garden and dovecote and in the outbuildings, the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires. The poet, Pierre de Ronsard was born in a renaissance Manor at La Possonière just south of the River Loir. 

© 2003-2006 Sarah Francis

Sifex France Guide to the Departments in Western Loire

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