After the working week’s pressures and bustle, it was a perfect way to spend a Sunday morning – pedalling gently along the traffic-free dedicated cycle route that runs along the tranquil banks of the broad Loire, France’s longest river.
The Anjou region – the fabled ‘Garden of France’ is now much easier to get to. By transiting from Belfast City via London City you can now bypass the nightmare of Heathrow and catch a direct connecting flight to the delightful Anjou capital of Angers thanks to a new twice weekly service from BA – with Tuesday and Saturday morning departures facilitating a four-day long weekend..
Wherever you wander in Angers and its environs the ghosts of a shared Anglo-French past will follow your footsteps for the English kings were once also the Dukes of both Normandy and neighbouring Anjou.
For a city so immersed in royal visits and affairs of state, it’s no surprise that, besides a mighty castle, Angers has a vibrant and richly endowed museum district ( www.museesville.dangers.fr). Must-sees include the Maison Bleue and the Galerie David D’Angers with its vast collection of monumental sculptures by the renowned local artist craftsman, as well as the imposing Collegiale St-Martin church, which itself dates back to the pre 1000 AD Carolingian period and is built over now excavated older buildings from the end of the Roman Empire.
Besides the fortress, which holds the spectacular Apocalypse tapestry, highlights of a stroll round the mediaeval old town include the riotously half-timbered Adam’s House and the cathedral.
Angers is rightly proud of its recently installed tramway system, a short ride on which will take you out to the Terra Botanica ( www.terrabotanica.fr) – an inspired new theme park dedicated to fostering a better understanding of the life of plants – as well as providing a fun day out for all ages. Given Anjou’s role as France’s premier horticultural region, it’s a perfect site and, now in its third season, is deservedly attracting huge crowds with its educational and pleasant and relaxing day out appeal.
A little further afield, the massive seven-storey Chateau Brissac ( www.chateaudebrissac.fr) is the country’s tallest castle, built in 1502 and still occupied by the Ducs of Brissac. It stands in the midst of 500 acres of beautiful parkland.
To appreciate the gently undulating countryside at its best, I’d recommend taking that bike ride. You’ll find a choice of well-maintained machines at Loire à Vélo ( www.vert-event-angers.fr). Follow the Natura2000 riverside trail signs and then take a short detour for a wine tasting at the Domaine du Closel ( www.savennieres-closel.com) where Viscountess Evelyne de Jesse Pontbriand reigns as the fourth generation of women vintners at this delightful property.
Round out your time in Angers with a guided tour of the Espace Cointreau distillery where the delicious Cointreau liqueur has been made for the past 130 years ( www.remy-cointreau.com) and learn the art of cocktail making.
Here’s a good tip: tear yourself away from the Espace Cointreau bar and arrange to arrive early at the Aéroport d’Angers-Marcé for your return flight and that will give you time to visit the fascinating volunteer-run Musée Régional de L”Air ( www.musee-aviation-angers), located just a few steps across from the terminal.
Aviation has a long history in the Anjou region, a fact lovingly documented with photographs, documents and an amazing collection of more than 40 restored and replica aeroplanes, including a to scale model of the glider that was built in the late 1800s by local inventor Chanute – a flying machine that inspired the Wright brothers’ design. You can also inspect the actual plane in which René Gasnier made the first powered flight in Anjou, in 1908.
Where to stay
* The Hotel D’Anjou ( www.hoteldanjour.fr), a three-star member of the Best Western chain, offers comfortable accommodations in an elegant 19th Century building close by the pretty Jardin du Mail, right at the heart of the city.
Where to eat
* Le Mail ( email@example.com) is a friendly contemporary brasserie overlooking the flower beds, water basins, streams and birds of the Jardin du Mail.
* Decorated in 15th Century François 1er style the Hotel D’Anjou’s La Salamandre restaurant ( www.hotelanjou.fr) offers a refined slant on traditional French regional cooking.
* Starring local produce and wines in its inventive high quality cuisine, Le Relais ( www.Lerelaisangers.fr) Is one of Angers’ leading gourmet restaurants.
* A classic round-the-clock French brasserie, the plush Brasserie du Theatre ( www.brasserie-du-theatre.com) offers tables out on the square for café society people watching exercises. Inside it’s the extensive menu of national and regional specialities that catches the eye. Fish and seafood figure prominently – the plateau fruits du mer is a truly gargantuan melange of shellfish.