Italian style finds an unlikely home in a small town in the Loire-Atlantique, as Peter Stewart discovers
Pockets of dawn light broke through the cracks of a medieval château, bathing the cluster of terracotta-clad rooftops in soft, peachy hues; the sweet sounds of birdsong began to pervade the air; and the soothing flow of water glided gently over a crumbling weir. That was the inspiring scene that greeted me as I stepped on to my hotel balcony on the first morning of a stay in tranquil Clisson.
This charming valley town 35 kilometres south-east of Nantes in Loire-Atlantique is often overlooked by tourists – albeit unintentionally – who are heading from the Channel ferry ports to the sandy beaches of the Vendée coast, but they are missing a treat.
The town is an unusual mixture of French and Italian architecture, which is a direct result of its turbulent past. The region was the scene of an uprising against the French Revolution, and republican forces destroyed much of Clisson during the conflict. Salvation came in the early 19th century when the Cacault brothers, wealthy art patrons from Nantes, and their friend, the sculptor François-Frédéric Lemot, started to rebuild the town in the Italianate style that they had seen on their travels south. Today this Italian jewel in France’s crown is a popular weekend destination for Nantais inhabitants seeking an escape from the pressures of urban life.
Curious to discover more about this hidden gem, my companions and I began our tour on the Pont de la Vallée, a large stone bridge spanning the River Sèvre Nantaise. The distinctive Italian atmosphere was immediately apparent; the many terracotta roofs, small arched windows and stucco-clad walls would not have been out of place in a hilltop town in Tuscany.
Looming straight ahead on a granite promontory was the château. Although now in ruins, it remains mightily impressive; its sheer size a reflection of the powerful figures who occupied it through the centuries. The château was built in the 13th century by the Lords of Clisson and later belonged to François II, Duke of Brittany, who strengthened the fortifications. Burnt down during the republican attacks, the castle was bought as a conservation project by Lemot and is one of the few typically French structures in the town.
From the fortress, we followed a network of narrow cobbled streets, passing rows of quaint stone houses, each adorned with baskets of ruby-red geraniums, until we reached the entrance to the Église Notre-Dame. Originally constructed by Breton soldier Olivier IV de Clisson in the 15th century, the church was rebuilt in 1887 by Nantais architect René-Michel Ménard, in keeping with the Italianate style of its surroundings. We took a few minutes to reflect on the church’s beautiful structure, with its towering, terracotta-tile-studded campanile and large, umbrella-shaped apse.
Fatigued by our uphill climb, we paused for mid-afternoon sustenance at the crêperie, Le Chat Botté, a local institution. Our stomachs grumbled in anticipation at the sight of crêpes being lovingly prepared with an array of melt-in-the-mouth fillings. The speciality – une galette Milady – consisted of foie gras, pain d’épice and fig jam, but none of us was brave enough to sample it. Instead, we devoured plates of chocolate-filled crêpes glazed with sugar and orange zest, topped off with a scoop of smooth salted-caramel ice cream.
Fully re-energised, we continued our visit. The streets began to narrow even further as they snaked up the hill, but occasionally a vantage point had been created. We stole a nervous glance below and were rewarded with a beautiful canvas of earthy red interspersed with splashes of forest green. We ambled a little further and reached the town’s centre, site of Les Halles. This long, oak and chestnut-framed structure, dating from medieval times, still hosts a thriving weekly fruit and vegetable market. At either end of the market place lie two narrow streets, each one full of trendy boutiques and wine shops showcasing the best varieties of the local muscadet.
On the edge of the historic centre is the Église de Saint-Jacques, a treasure which we stumbled upon on our descent back towards the river through a cluster of winding streets. This former Benedictine priory is now a resting place for pilgrims on the Chemins de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle to Spain. It was here that inhabitants announced their list of grievances during the French Revolution. Long since restored, the church has a charming medieval garden and also hosts concerts and exhibitions.
As we moved down the cobbled streets, townspeople scuttled quickly past us, evidently used to the muscle-straining climbs and descents. Others stood delighting in doorstep conversations, their thresholds now bathed in the soft, apricot hues of the early-evening sun.
With so much of the day spent covering the town on foot, it was time to sit down and relax over dinner. Clinging to the riverbank is the Restaurant de la Vallée, which serves elegantly presented local dishes. We concluded our meal on the terrace against a backdrop of a dazzling sunset, an image that would be etched on my mind as I prepared to return home to the frenzied pace of city life.
CLISSON AT A GLANCE
Stay the night at… the three-star Villa Saint-Antoine (tel: (Fr) 2 40 85 46 46, www.hotel-villa-saint-antoine.com). Housed in a former textile mill, the hotel has well-appointed contemporary rooms, many of which have spectacular views over the historic centre of Clisson. Doubles from €150.
Stop for a snack at… the Le Chat Botté crêperie (tel: (Fr) 2 40 54 29 10) and enjoy a tasty crêpe (from €10), filled with anything from chocolate to snails!
Eat lunch at… the Restaurant de la Vallée (tel: (Fr) 2 40 54 36 23, www.restaurant-delavallee.com), which has beautiful views over the River Sèvre Nantaise. Dishes all use locally sourced ingredients. The cod dish and the assiette gourmande dessert were irresistible. Menu €26.
WHAT TO SEE
Enjoy the peace and quiet of the Domaine de la Garenne Lemot (tel: (Fr) 2 40 54 75 85), to the south-east of Clisson’s historic centre. This riverside estate, created by François-Frédéric Lemot, combines the beauty of nature with Italian architectural styles to produce a perfect place for quiet reflection. Guided tours are available.
Explore the town’s tranquil waters by kayak. The Base de Canoë kayak in Getigné (tel: (Fr) 2 40 54 04 82, www.getignecanoekayak.fr), on the eastern edge of Clisson, allows visitors to hire kayaks for as little as an hour to see the flora and fauna of the Sèvre Nantaise Valley. A highlight is the stop at the Moulin à Foulon at Cugand, a working mill that has been operating since medieval times.
Discover Clisson’s heritage on a guided tour (tel: (Fr) 2 40 54 02 95, www.levignobledenantes-tourisme.com). An evening tour takes place on Saturdays and must be booked in advance.
GETTING THERE: The nearest airport is Nantes (35km); the nearest railway station is Clisson, on the northern edge of the town; Clisson is approximately three hours from the northern ferry ports.
TOURIST INFORMATION: Vignoble de Nantes tourist office, Clisson branch, tel: (Fr) 2 40 54 02 95, www.levignobledenantes-tourisme.com; Loire-Atlantique tourist board, tel: (Fr) 2 40 20 44 54, www.ohlaloireatlantique.com
IN THE AREA
Nantes, the capital of the Pays de la Loire region, lies 35 kilometres north-west of Clisson. The city is famous for its giant marionettes and Les Machines de l’Île (tel: (Fr) 2 51 17 49 89, www.lesmachines-nantes.fr), a series of mechanical installations housed in the former shipyards. Also, visit the Château des Ducs de Bretagne (tel: (Fr) 8 11 46 46 44, www.chateau-nantes.fr) for a fascinating insight into Nantes’s Breton past.
If trekking around a city doesn’t appeal, then head for the village of Vertou, just outside Nantes. From here you can cruise along the River Sèvre Nantaise aboard an English pleasure boat dating from 1936. Let François Lelièvre narrate the history of this beguiling area as you sail gently past crumbling châteaux and vine-clad slopes (Tel: (Fr) 2 40 13 25 33, www.erdreintime.weonea.com).
Alternatively, visit the Domaine Château du Coing de Saint-Fiacre (tel: (Fr) 2 40 54 85 24, www.chateau-du-coing.com), a stone’s throw from Clisson. This 16th-century estate is renowned for its high-quality muscadet wines, particularly the crus communaux, which include Monnières Saint-Fiacre and Gorges. Top off your wine tasting with a visit to the Musée du Vignoble Nantais in Le Pallet (Tel: (Fr) 2 40 80 90 13, www.vignoble-nantais.eu), where a collection of more than 500 objects captures the viticultural process, from vine to bottle.