Pays de la Loire is an administrative region named after France’s longest river, the Loire. Beginning at the rugged Atlantic coast at Saint-Nazaire, it stretches over 1000km (621 miles) through much of central France. The region is home to part of the Loire Valley, a region of some of France’s most opulent and incredible châteaux, fine wines, rolling green landscapes and Gothic cathedrals overlooking medieval towns.
Along with Centre-Val de Loire, the region was a haven for the Kings, Queens, and nobility of medieval France, who erected some of the grandest castles anywhere in France. The region also has a strong Breton influence from the neighbouring Brittany region. The region is largely agricultural, and is home to some of the country’s biggest producers of dairy farming, as well as beef, pork and poultry.
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Cities in Pays de la Loire
The population of Pays de la Loire is mostly centred around its capital, Nantes, with 973,000 people (2017) of the region’s total population of 3.5 million (2020) living in the metropolitan area. Smaller cities such as Angers and Le Mans contain much of the rest of the population, with farmland and wineries in-between.
France’s 6th largest city, and the capital of the Pays de la Loire region, Nantes is a city of cobblestone streets, riverside restaurants, and the historic castle of the Dukes of Brittany. Located on the Loire river, about 50km from the Atlantic, Nantes has a strong Breton identity. Although culturally part of the Brittany Peninsula, it is not part of the Brittany administrative region.
Nantes was the seat of power for the Dukes of Brittany, a medieval Duchy that controlled the peninsula from 939 to 1547. The Dukes resided in the Château des ducs de Bretagne from the 13th to 16th centuries. Today, visitors can explore the ramparts and visit the Nantes History Museum inside. The Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Nantes is Nantes’ impressive Gothic cathedral, which was started in 1434 and wasn’t complete until 1893!
One of Nantes’ most curious sights is its giant mechanical elephant, Le Grand Éléphant. Designed by artist François Delaroziere, the 12-metre (40-foot) tall elephant carries 55 people on its back, and completes tours of Île de Nantes. Other fun attractions include the Passage Pommeraye, a classy shopping arcade from 1843 (complete with clad ceilings, sculptures, iron railings and marble columns); Le Jardin de Plants, a botanical gardens filled with whimsical plant-themed sculptures, the Printing Press Museum, and the Jules Verne Museum.
The city of Angers was the home city of the royal Plantagenet family, who held the English throne from 1154 to 1485. Their castle, le Château d’Angers, was built in the 13th century on top of previous foundations. Its central keep and courtyard are ringed by a colossal outer wall 3 metres (9.8ft) thick, with 17 massive round towers 18 metres (59 ft) tall studding the perimeter.
The Cathédrale Saint-Maurice d’Angers, the city’s largest cathedral, is a popular sight for its reconstructed mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles. In the old town is another of Angers’ most interesting buildings, La Maison d’Adam. With its diamond patterns made from wooden beams, this 6-storey wooden house was built in 1491, and is known for its wonderful wooden carvings along the exterior. When exploring the city, visitors must see La Doutre, the pretty old town of medieval houses and covered passageways. For history and art lovers, the château is home to the Apocalypse Tapestry, a 6-part tapestry (cumulatively measuring 6 x 24 metres (20 x 80 feet)) from 1382 that depicts the Book of Revelations story of the Apocalypse.
For many people, the city of Le Mans is famous for one thing – the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans race, the oldest endurance motor race in the world, and one of the most exciting and prestigious. However, the city is a beautiful and impressive destination in its own right, and is the capital of the Sarthe department. It has a colourful history, starting as a Roman settlement, and changing hands between the English and French over the course of the Hundred Years War. The city was the birthplace of Henry II Plantagenet, King of England in 1133, and the city’s old town is now called Cité Plantagenêt (or Vieux Mans).
The racetrack at Le Mans is just on the outskirts of the city, and easy to reach. For racing fans, there is also the Musee des 24 Heures du Mans motorsport museum, with over 140 vehicles to see. In the city itself, there is the incredible Le Mans Cathedral, a Gothic-Roman cathedral first consecrated when the Pope Urban II preached about the First Crusade in 1096. During La Nuit des Chimères, a light show during summer, the cathedral is illuminated in wonderful designs.
For history buffs, there is an impressive 500-metre (1640-foot) section of Roman wall still standing. The Cité Plantagenêt old town is the best place to see medieval architecture, with beautiful streets of painted half-timbered houses.
In the heart of the Loire Valley, located between the Loire and the Thouet rivers is the city of Saumur. It was built up around its magnificent castle, le Château de Saumur, to protect saintly relics and it’s abbey around 956CE. The original castle was destroyed in 1068, and the current castle was built in the early 12th century. The castle was damaged by German artillery during the 1940 Battle of Saumur, and has since been restored.
The city is renowned for its École de Cavalerie military training school. Historically it trained cavalry units (such as those students who fought in the Battle of Saumur), and now trains armoured divisions. It is also home to the French National Riding School, and the Cadre Noire, a group of expert riding instructors who take part in competitions.
There are several speciality museums in Saumur; le Musée des Blindés, a tank museum with almost 900 armoured vehicles; le Musée de Cavalerie de Saumur, a cavalry museum that traces the history of French cavalry; le Musée du Moteur, looking at combustion engines; and the curious Musée du Champignon, the underground mushroom museum. Yes, Saumur is France’s mushroom capital, producing 70% of the country’s mushrooms! For something different, check out Pierre et Lumière, an underground museum of exquisitely sculpted stone models of towns and castles.
Situated along the river Mayenne is the town of Laval. The foundation of the city is le Château de Laval, an 11th century defensive castle built by the powerful Laval family. Today, visitors can check out the castle grounds and the art museum which is housed inside.
The city grew around the château as the family grew in influence. The Laval old town is the best place to wander around the historic half-timbered houses, and admire the city’s landmark 13th-century medieval bridge, Le Pont Vieux. For something a bit more unique, check out the vehicles, tools and models at La Cité du Lait-Lactopôle, a museum dedicated to the world of French milk!
What To See In Pays De La Loire
Outside of the major cities, Pays de la Loire is a region with some of France’s most spectacular châteaux along the Loire Valley. It is also home to a number of interesting sights, ranging from Roman ruins to theme parks.
Châteaux Of The Loire Valley
Together with Centre-Val de Loire, Pays de la Loire is the ultimate destination to visit extravagant and magnificent French castles. While many of the largest and more famous castles lie further upriver in the Middle and Centre Loire, the Loire around Angers has some great examples.
While Le Château d’Angers and Le Château de Saumur are some of the finest castles in the region, there are many more regional castles. Away from the cities, le Château de Brissac is an elegant and beautiful castle, known for being the tallest in France. Le Château de Serrant is notable for its exceptional library of 12,000 books, and a bedroom for Napoleon (although though he only visited for 2 hours!).
The Cave Village Of Rochemenier
The region is home to one of the largest collections of troglodytic sites in Europe. Parts of the Loire Valley consist of tuffeau limestone, a sandy rock deposited by an ancient inland sea, which was quarried to build châteaux and houses. Over time, locals began to carve entire villages out of the stone, with doors and windows in the cave entrances.
Rochemenier is one of the most complete troglodytic towns in the region, with underground houses, a chapel, and even a museum that explains the history of Rochemenier. Other cave sites include Goupillières Troglodyte Valley, Perrières in Doué-la-Fontaine, and the village of Trôo.
Puy du Fou
France’s most exciting historical-themed attraction is Puy du Fou, a spectacular theme park located in Les Epesses in the Vendée department. Despite not having rides, it is one of France’s most popular theme parks, second only to Disneyland.
The park is all about its incredible live shows that recreate historic battles and events, complete with costumes, pyrotechnics, recreated castles and villages, and plenty of sword-wielding warriors. Visitors can watch a Viking longship laying siege to a fortress, musketeers duelling, Roman chariots competing in a huge colosseum, and knights jousting. Besides the shows, visitors can wander around reconstructed medieval villages, eat at themed restaurants, and stay overnight in the parks hotels.
The Roman Ruins Of Jublains
Located in the Mayenne department about 30 minutes drive north from Laval are the Roman ruins of Jublains. It was originally a settlement for the Diablintes, a Gallic tribe, but was conquered by the Romans. Known as Noeodunum (or Noviodunum), the site has the remains of a temple, a tiered amphitheatre, and an impressive fortress with earthen rampart and stone walls. There is a museum on site, the Musée de Jublains, which explains some of the history of the site, with excavated artefacts.
Eating And Drinking In Pays De La Loire
Pays de la Loire is one of the best regions of France to discover fine French wine. Due to its location along the Atlantic coast, the region also boasts incredible seafood, and fine cow’s milk cheeses. The region is home to one of France’s most famous savoury sauces, beurre blanc.
Wine of Pays de la Loire
The Loire Valley is one of the premier wine regions of France, and attracts visitors who enjoy the wonderful combination of wineries and exploring grand châteaux. Wine regions of the Pays de la Loire region include the Lower Loire near Nantes, and the Middle Loire around Angers.
In the Lower Loire (also known as Pays Nantais), the main grape is Melon de Bourgogne, and the region produces Muscadet white wines. It pairs well with seafood from the Atlantic. Around Anjou-Saumur, growers produce fine rosés, and visitors can pick up Crémant de Loire sparkling whites. Chenin Blanc is another major wine variety from the region.
Cuisine of Pays de la Loire
Pays de la Loire has elements of cuisine from the Loire Valley, Brittany, Atlantic seafood, and the Vendée. As one of France’s main agricultural hubs, it is a region of great fresh produce. Seafood includes as Vendée Atlantic oysters, mussels from the Bay of Aguillon, and anchovies from La Turballe. Seafood is often served with the region’s most celebrated sauce, beurre blanc; a thick sauce of butter, white wine, vinegar and shallots.
One of the most iconic meat products from Pays de la Loire is rillettes, originating from the Loire Valley. It is a a conserve of salted and cured pork, slow cooked and shredded, and stored in fat in a jar. It is eaten as a spread on bread. Another speciality is Rillauds d’Anjou from the Anjou province, pieces of pork belly soaked in brine and cooked in lard.
The Vendée department has a gastronomic culture all of its own, with mogettes Vendée (white beans) served with ham a popular dish. Main dishes often include poultry and duck, as well as préfou, a local garlic bread, and brioche de Vendée.
Cheeses of Pays de la Loire
From the Vendée department is Tomme de Chouans, a soft and chewy cow’s milk cheese. It has a characteristic striped yellow rind, and a mild taste. Another cow’s milk cheese is Port Salut, known for its orange rind, semi-soft texture and mild taste. Other cheeses from the region include Saint Paulin, a creamy cheese with a buttery taste. Curé Nantais is a soft and sticky cheese with a smoky flavour. And for a slightly unusual cheese, Embruns aux Algues is a 1-month aged cheese with a strong salty taste, gaining its taste from being mixed with seaweed.
Desserts of Pays de la Loire
From the regional capital of Nantes comes the gâteau Nantais, a cake baked with almond meal, soaked in a sweet rum syrup, and glazed with white icing. Breton desserts are popular in the region as well, especially sablé Breton, a crumbly shortbread biscuit which is ubiquitous in Breton areas. Chausson aux pommes, a local version of the apple turnover, is another regional classic.