Named after the former Maine province and the Loire River, Maine-et-Loire is located in the west of France and part of the Pays de la Loire region. The department is very popular with tourists due to its medieval heritage, excellent climate and fabulous food and drink.
Maine-et-Loire is one of the larger departments in the country, with a population of roughly 750,000 inhabitants across a land area of 7,166km2. The largest city is the prefecture of Angers, with other important communes being:
Originally titled Mayenne-et-Loire (in reference to the Mayenne river which intersects the department) and one of the 83 original departments established in March 1790, there is archaeological evidence suggesting human activity as far back as 400,000 BC.
However, the recorded history of the territory is connected to its former status as part of the Anjou province. Indeed, such was the department's centrality to Anjou that Angers became the provincial capital and played an important role in the House of Plantagenet. Despite its capture by the French monarchy in the 12th century, Maine-et-Loire today exhibits much of its medieval past and, as a result, is one of the most picturesque departments in the country, bringing in flocks of tourists each year and driving up property prices.
Maine-et-Loire enjoys a predominantly continental climate, but with a heavy influence from the Atlantic coast. As such, expect mild winters and fairly warm, humid summers without much rain after May. The largest city, Angers is representative of average quarterly temperatures:
Average temperature in Angers
The main attractions of Maine-et-Loire are the 60 or so châteaux in the department. Chief among these is the Château d'Angers. Situated on a ridge overlooking the city, the Château dates back to the Roman era, although its current incarnation dates back to the 13th century, when it was controlled by the Counts of Anjou. Now standing as a Historical Monument, the Château has nevertheless continually been used as a defensive structure and is still utilised by the French army. For tourists, as well as the fantastic façade, the Château hosts a museum with the largest collection of medieval tapestries in the world, including the famous 14th century 'Apocalypse Tapestry'.
Also of major importance is the Château de Montreuil-Bellay in Saumur. Built in 11th century by one-time Count of Anjou Foulques Nerra, the Château was used as a court residence by King Philip Augustus in 1208 and Louis VIII in 1224. Today the Château stands in Renaissance-style after a massive redevelopment between the 13th and 15th centuries.
While not on the same level as the aforementioned, the Château de Brissac in Brissac is worth a mention due to its long history, stretching back to the 11th century. Another Historical Monument, it is also famous as the host of the Val de Loire annual festival.
Beyond the châteaux, there are a number of excellent religious buildings in the department. A perfect example is Fontevraud Abbey in Fontevraud-l'Abbaye. Built between 1110 and 1119, the Abbey was founded for the Order of Fontevrault and contains the tombs of Henry II (king of England), Eleanor of Aquitaine (his wife), Richard I (aka the Lionheart, their son) and many other beautiful features.
Also remarkable are Angers' 12th century Cathedral of Saint-Maurice with its fine rose windows and Saumur's Church of Notre-Dame de Nantilly, standing in Romanesque-style and housing another fine tapestry collection. One further symbol of the department is the Maison d'Adam in Angers, the oldest building in the city and a perfect illustration of the wealth of cultural heritage on show for visitors.
Saumur's historic connection to the military is nowhere better reflected than in the École Nationale d'Equitation, the host of many horse shows, some of which include the world famous Cadre Noir display team. However, obvious family attractions can be found in the shape of theme parks like Doué-la-Fontaine Zoo, Bisonland in Les Cerqueux-sous-Passavant (an American-Indian type park), La Possonnière Kangaroo Park and Domaine de la Petite Couère in Nyoiseau.
Museums, galleries and culture
Angers contains the greatest number of museums in Maine-et-Loire. The best of these are the municipal museum in the 16th century Logis Barrault Mansion, which contains a number of paintings and sculptures (including the work of David d'Angers, a 19th century native master sculptor), and the Archaeological Museum in the 12th century Hospital of St. Jean, home to the fabulous 12th century 'Chant du Mode' tapestry. Angers also boasts a decent Musée des Beaux-Arts, with a collection of works from the 13th century onwards, including pieces by the 17th century Italian painter Lorenzo Lippi.
Outside of Angers, the royal apartments in Saumur's aforementioned Château are taken up by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, predominantly containing examples of china and tapestries. Slightly more esoteric in its appeal is the Musée du Cheval in the Château's attic, looking at the traditions of horseriding and horses in the city. If that's not enough, try Cholet's Museum of Art and History, which is especially strong on military history.
Maine-et-Loire enjoys a number of festivals and events each year such as Premier Plans in Angers, a European film festival held in January.
The department is packed with local craftworks from commune to commune, but the best high-street shopping is definitely in Angers.
There are a few long-distance routes which will appeal to hikers, contact the tourist office in the Place Kennedy in Angers for more details. The Loire-Anjou-Touraine regional park is also a good place to visit on that front.
However, Maine-et-Loire's extremely pretty parks and gardens are its trademark. Angers is an obvious starting point, being home to some 20 parks and gardens across 630 hectares. Doué-la-Fontaine, considered the 'rose capital' of France, is another must-see area in this regard, and the annual 'Festival of the Rose' in July contains over 800 varieties.
Of the many other parks and gardens, the Oriental Garden in Maulévrier and the gardens of the Anjou and Montreuil-Bellay châteaux are well worth checking out.
Maine-et-Loire has some 8 courses within its borders, including Golf Club d'Angers in Brissac-Quincé, Golf d'Angers-Capucins in Angers, Golf de Bauge-Pontigné in Bauge and Golf de Saumur.
The department is an extremely prosperous wine region due to the Loire Valley, with the vineyards of Saumur stretching some 20,000 hectares alongside the department's rivers. Savennières is another fruitful area, producing fine white wine. There is a 170 kilometre 'route touristique de vignoble' which takes you past the vineyards, not to mention a Vine and Wine Museum in Saint Lambert du Lattay.
The range of wines in the department includes whites like Coteaux du Layon from the Chenin grape, reds like Saumur-Champigny and rosé like Rosé d'Anjou, both from the Cabernet grape.
Food and drink
Due to the nearby Atlantic coast and the Loire river, you can expect plenty of freshwater fish and shellfish in the cuisine of Maine-et-Loire. There are also some fine regional cheeses such as Crémet d'Anjou and excellent desserts like tarte tartin (an upside-down tart, usually with caramelised apple).
If you happen to travel to Doué-la-Fontaine, Grézillé or Saumur, you can also choose something a bit special in the shape of cave-dwelling restaurants.
Ease of access
Getting to Maine-et-Loire from outside France is not too much of a problem, thanks to Angers-Loire Airport, connected to British cities like Southampton and Edinburgh through Flybe. Alternatively, Nantes is just 40 miles away, where you can find Nantes Atlantique Airport, connected to London-Stansted by Ryanair.
The department is well connected by train, and the high-speed TGV line means you can travel from Angers to Paris in approximately 90 minutes.
Value for money
If you're planning a visit, you will find a decent selection of accommodation, from hotels to gites, bed and breakfasts and campsites. However, it can be quite expensive in some areas, with the average price for a double room in a 3-star hotel in Angers being around 90 Euros.
Well-connected to the rest of France, boasting excellent wine and exhibiting a wonderful medieval heritage, Maine-et-Loire is an unconventional but very appealing choice for a taste of France. With the property market expanding over the past few years, now is definitely the time to come and visit.