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Pays de la Loire / Sarthe

The Sarthe is a largely rural department in the north of the Pays-de la-Loire region. It is named after the River Sarthe which joins the Loire at Angers. Most of the population lives in the urban area around Le Mans with the remainder of the department being mostly agricultural in character.

Being located within easy reach of the capital, The Sarthe enjoys good transport links with other parts of France and the UK. There are TGV routes to Sable-sur-Sarthe and Le Mans (just 54 minutes from Paris). The A11 and A28 autoroutes make both south west France and the UK ports easily accessible.

Climate-wise, there is, naturally not a huge difference with that of the UK. However, winters tend to be milder and the area experiences less rainfall than both Brittany and Normandy. The south of Sarthe is able to support wine production thanks to its brighter conditions.

The Sarthe provides the perfect ‘get away from it all’ destination with a huge range of open air activities and sports. With its extensive areas of forest, the department offers 5000 kms of sign-posted footpaths and 4000 kms of rivers and streams. If you want to hire a boat and cruise the Sarthe and Mayenne, head for Quai National in Sable-sur-Sarthe.

You will also find several top class golf courses including the one at Sable-Solesme, considered one of the best in Western Europe. In addition, animal and leisure parks cater for all members of the family. La Fleche Zoo has an unusual collection of animals, some of which are rarely seen elsewhere.

The area’s history and culture are waiting to be discovered with a plethora of wonderful churches, castles and abbeys: the Abbaye de L’Epau founded in 1229 and the Abbaye Saint Pierre de Solesmes are two notable examples. The numerous towns and villages offer a combination of beautiful architectural features with informative museums.

Probably best known as the home of the famous 24 hour endurance sports car race, the city of Le Mans has many other interesting attractions to entice the visitor. The ancient city dates back to the time of the Gauls and its Gallo-Roman walls are the best preserved in Europe.

It has an amazing old town: the Cite Plantagenet. Within its walls you will find cobbled alleyways lined with 15th and 16th houses. The Cathedral St Julien in the Place St Michel is famous for its notable collection of stained glass, parts of which remain intact in spite of their great age.

Outside the cathedral, in the south-west corner, you will notice a prehistoric menhir about 4.5 metres in height. This unusual looking piece of sand-stone was placed there having been moved from its original location in 1778.

It would be impossible to talk about Le Mans without referring to the event which made it internationally famous. Dating back to 1923, the 24 Hour Race is held annually in June not far from the town. Its universal appeal was further heightened by the classic film, ‘Le Mans’ starring Steve McQueen which features footage of a real race.

As an ‘endurance’ race, the focus is as much on the reliability of the cars as on speed. The Circuit de la Sarthe, over which the race is run, consists of both permanent track and public roads so be warned, you may find temporary closures. Also, don’t be surprised to find yourself driving on part of the actual circuit!

As you would expect, Le Mans celebrates its motoring tradition. It does so with the Musee de l’auto-mobile which houses an extensive collection of modern and classic cars. Situated near to the circuit entrance, the museum was reopened in 2009 following extensive refurbishment. The different sections enable the visitor to trace of the history of the 24 Hour Race. You will also find useful facilities including a gift shop and cafeteria.

Other locations in the Sarthe well worth a visit include the stunning Chateau du Lude. A fine example of early French Renaissance architecture, it features gardens running down to the banks of the Loire. Another beautiful garden is the Jardin du Petit Bordeaux in Saint-Biez-En- Belin. An ideal destination for lovers of botany – you can even take seedlings home with you!

The pottery museum at Malicorne has proved popular with visitors. The small town is famous for its decorative earthenware known as ‘Bourg Joly’ and at the Living Heritage Workshop you can not only learn about the history of the craft but even have a go yourself! Open all year round but admission times vary according to the season.

While in the town you might also like to visit the Chateau de Malicorne. Re-built after the French Revolution in neo-classical style, it is open during the summer and guided tours are on offer.

In common with all parts of France, the Sarthe has its gastronomic specialities. There are some good local wines; in particular the white wine called ‘Jasnieres’ is worth a try. You are almost certain to come across a popular dish known as ‘rillettes’ which is made from moist cuts of pork, shredded to form a kind of coarse pate. This is particularly gorgeous when spread on freshly baked crusty bread.

For a real gourmet experience, you could try the Chateau de la Barre in the small, remote hamlet of Conflans-sur-Anille.

It’s not hard to see why The Sarthe can offer a pace of life to suit every taste!

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