From wines to religious art, Angers has been a cradle of artistry for centuries, as Sylvie Wheatley discovers on a short break to the Loire Valley
Just a few weeks before my arrival in Angers for a long weekend, icebergs had been spotted floating on the nearby River Loire – a rare occasion considering that Anjou – the former province that is roughly equal to the département of Maine-et-Loire – is usually known for its douceur. Indeed the mildness of the weather in this part of western France has defined it as a place where flowers, fruit and vegetables abound.
The town centre was teeming with locals and students going about their business, hopping on and off the newly reintroduced tramway and somehow all converging towards the most suitably named Place du Ralliement. Indeed, thanks to a Haussmann-inspired urban layout, all streets seem to lead to this large, central square where one can shop in the Galeries Lafayette, spin on a traditional carousel, admire the majesty of the 19th-century Grand Théâtre, and sit at numerous café terraces watching street performers while sipping a kir concocted with regional wine and locally-made fruit liqueurs.
However wonderfully contemporary this lifestyle may seem, the most striking apsect of Angers is the celebration of its outstanding heritage. This is a place of history and culture where kings and dukes have left future generations much to marvel at. At the top of the list and at the heart of the city is the castle. Perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the River Maine, this royal fortress and sumptuous ducal residence dates from the 13th century and was established during the regency of Blanche de Castille, the Queen Consort of Louis VIII. Originally designed for military purposes, the fortress with its 17 towers and a kilometre of ramparts sent a clear message to any prospective invader. Later, to allow for new weaponry and to improve their living quarters, the consecutive dukes modernised the palace and added a chapel and galleries, as well as terraces and gardens; one aristocrat – René of Anjou, known as Le Bon Roi René – even kept a menagerie. Marvelling at the weight of history, little did we know that what makes this place truly unique was still to come.
It is 1375. Imagine being Louis I, Duke of Anjou and brother of King Charles V. You are influential, wealthy, interested in art and able to use the best artisans and techniques of the day to impress. What would you commission? The Tapisserie de l’Apocalypse, an exquisite tapestry, 140 metres long by 4.5 metres high. The king’s painter, Jean de Bruges, was given the task of designing the scenes that would tell the story of the Book of Revelation according to Saint John. The tapestry depicts Man’s eternal fight against evil; created during the Hundred Years’ War and woven from vividly coloured wools in the Parisian workshops of Nicolas Bataille, the perfectly reversible tapestry took seven years to complete. That 100 metres of it should have survived the gruelling test of time, insects and Man’s folly – especially during the Revolution when so many pieces of art were desecrated and scattered – is also truly remarkable. Now kept in a specially designed gallery within Angers castle, this medieval masterpiece is the largest of its kind and era anywhere in the world. Its sheer size and beauty are awe-inspiring and one can only imagine how it looked on its completion more than 600 years ago.
Back on the streets of Angers, we strolled among the town’s many fine timbered houses including the 15th-century Maison d’Adam with its cheeky sculpted figures that scale the façade. There is much to do and enjoy here, and as one local, Monsieur Bouchereau, explained to me: “In Angers you can discover the whole city on foot. You never have to walk more than 15 minutes before you reach the next interesting feature.” He was right, after a short walk through picturesque cobbled streets including the Promenade du Bout du Monde which offers great river views, we reached the Galerie David d’Angers on Rue Toussaint. Born in Angers in 1788, the prolific Republican sculptor after whom the museum is named created the pediment of the Panthéon in Paris as well as busts of great men including Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo. This restored 13th-century abbey houses the plaster versions of his great works, imbued with life and vibrancy thanks to the sunlight shining in through the church’s glass roof.
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Next on our historical and cultural odyssey was the Collégiale Saint-Martin, the oldest church in Angers and one of the best-preserved Carolingian sites in Europe. Having benefited from periods of renovation and archaeological scrutiny, it has become an educational yet serene place to visit. We were particularly taken by the 42 statues displayed there, some of which are made from terracotta, local to the area. If you are a fan of religious art, don’t miss the statue of the Virgin readying herself to breastfeed the baby Jesus, as well as the depiction of Saint Anne (believed to be Mary’s mother) clutching a book – both rare portrayals of these females.
As we crossed the River Maine to go and explore the right bank, a group of rowers sped by, sending ducks flapping and disturbing the clear reflection of the towers of the gothic Cathédrale Saint-Maurice. In the vast nave of the 12th-century l’Hôpital Saint-Jean we encountered another tapestry of size, and one that brought us back to the modern world. Inspired by the original Apocalypse tapestry, artist Jean Lurçat created Le Chant du Monde (Song of the World) between 1957 and 1966 from ten individual panels. Respecting his wishes to have the work displayed close to the Tapisserie de l’Apocalypse, the City of Angers chose this well-preserved building in which the poor and the sick sought refuge for 800 years.
A bountiful region
Add to this wealth of art and culture the many opportunities to sample delicious regional dishes and you’ll find that Angers offers more than enough to fill a long weekend. You could spend a Saturday morning just exploring the town’s markets. Spread over three squares, the stalls were laden with everything from freshly-dug vegetables and locally-made charcuterie to collectible toys and hand-made decorations.
If you feel like venturing out of the city you won’t be disappointed. Aim for the Château de la Perrière, just north of Angers in Avrillé, and enjoy a gastronomic lunch within the 17th-century dining room. Boasting many original features such as fireplaces and painted ceilings, this classified Monument Historique overlooks a beautiful golf course.
If tasting wine is more your thing than attempting to hit a hole-in-one, visit the village of Savennières to discover Domaine du Closel. Handed down from father to daughter this wine-making domaine offers a friendly tour and a spot of dégustation. We were welcomed by Madame Marie-Michelle Bazin de Jessey, the spirited mother of the current owner. Mme. de Jessey said that when at the height of her career she was elected by fellow wine-makers the Présidente du Syndicat Viticole for the local appellation, she felt more honoured than if she had been given the Légion d’Honneur. In that world of men defending traditions as much as their pride, it was a mighty accolade indeed. She also told me that wines are like teenagers: “They can have a difficult period; wait for them to mature,” she advised. We took heed and bought some of her distinguished whites before departing for our next adventure.
Anjou is a leading horticultural region in which fruits have been cross-bred for centuries to create new delicacies such as Comice pears, so where better to site a theme park devoted entirely to plant life? Opened in April 2010 and created with both entertainment and education in mind, Terra Botanica is an exciting day out for children and adults. From April to November visitors can discover 11 hectares of gardens and greenhouses offering large aquatic features and thousands of exceptional trees and bushes. With plenty of interactive games it is amazing how many facts one can learn about pollen while having fun.
No one should leave a French city without buying its specialities, so back in Angers we went looking for Cointreau, the liqueur made from orange peel and sold around the world in its characteristic square bottle. The production site not only opens its doors to visitors; it actively woos them into a world where orange reigns. The tour is a fascinating journey into alchemy, copper vats, marketing ingenuity and passion, and the cocktail-making session is great fun. We raised our glasses to this remarkable city and to the creativity of its people, and said good-bye… but only for now!
By rail: Angers is 1.5 hours from Paris by rail. Tel: 0844 848 4064 www.raileurope.co.uk
By road: Angers is a 2.5 hour drive from Saint-Malo or Caen.
By air: Nantes is just over one hour’s drive from Angers and served by several airlines.
WHERE TO STAY
1 bd Maréchal Foch
Tel: (Fr) 2 41 21 12 11
Pleasant hotel within walking distance to all city attractions.
PLACES TO VISIT
Boulevard des Bretonnières
Tel: (Fr) 2 41 31 50 00
Domaine du Closel
1 Place du Mail
Tel: (Fr) 2 41 72 81 00
Tour the vineyard and buy award-winning white wines.
Route de Cantenay-Épinard
Tel: (Fr) 2 41 25 00 00
Angers Tourist Office
7, Place Kennedy
Tel : (Fr) 2 41 23 50 00