Explore The Loire
Saumur is a good-sized town notable for two things in particular: its excellent sparkling wine (some would say as good as Champagne) and the wealth of aristocratic military associations, based on its status as home to the French Cavalry Academy and its successor, the Armoured Corps Academy.
A large number of manufacturers of the famous Saumur sparkling wine cluster in the suburb of St-Hilaire-St-Florent, and are especially prominent along the main stretch of the riverside road, along rue Ackerman and rue Leopold-Palustre: particularly good cellars include Ackerman-Laurance, Bouvet-Ladubay, Langlois-Château, Gratien & Meyer, Louis de Grenelle and Veuve Amiot; choosing between them is a matter of personal taste, and possibly a question of opening hours, though most are open all day every day throughout the warmer months (generally 10am–6pm, though most close for a couple of hours at lunchtime out of season). Buy a couple of bottles to take away, and you’ll probably be impressed by both the taste and the price difference between this inexpensive wine and champagne.
Saumur’s cavalry heritage is displayed in all its glory at the École Nationale d’Équitation (wcadrenoir.fr), just south of St-Hilaire-St Florent at BP 207, Terrefort. The Riding School provides guided tours during which you can watch training sessions (mornings are best but there are none on the weekend in August) and view the stables. Displays of dressage and anachronistic battle manoeuvres by the crackshot Cadre Noir, the former cavalry trainers, are regular events.Read More
The Abbaye de Fontevraud
The Abbaye de FontevraudAt the heart of the stunning Romanesque complex of the Abbaye de Fontevraud, 13km southeast of Saumur, are the tombs of the Plantagenet royal family, eerily lifelike works of funereal art that powerfully evoke the historical bonds between England and France. A religious community was established in around 1100 as both a nunnery and a monastery with an abbess in charge – an unconventional move, even if the post was filled solely by queens and princesses. The remaining buildings date from the twelfth century and are immense, built as they were to house and separate not only the nuns and monks but also the sick, lepers and repentant prostitutes. There were originally five separate institutions, of which three still stand in graceful Romanesque solidity. In 1804 Napoleon decided to transform the building into a prison which continued till 1963. It was an inspiration for the writer Jean Genet, whose book Miracle of the Rose was partly based on the recollections of a prisoner incarcerated here.
The abbey church is an impressive space, not least for the four tombstone effigies: Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, who died here, their son Richard the Lionheart and daughter-in-law Isabelle of Angoulême, King John’s queen. The strange domed roof, the great cream-coloured columns of the choir and the graceful capitals of the nave add to the atmosphere. Elsewhere in the complex you can explore the magnificent cloisters, the chapterhouse, decorated with sixteenth-century murals, and the vast refectory. All the cooking for the religious community, which would have numbered several hundred, was done in the – now perfectly restored – Romanesque kitchen, an octagonal building as extraordinary from the outside (with its 21 spikey chimneys) as it is from within.