Sarthe Places To Visit On Holiday
World-famous for the 24 Hour motor race which has taken over Le Mans each year in June since 1923, the town has so much to offer the tourist at any time of year. (See Activities and Things to do for more on the event).
The smaller Bugatti Circuit has racing all year including go-karts and motorcycles. Discover the history of car racing at the Musee de l’Automobile along with a superb collection of cars and a simulated high-speed track.
You may be surprised to know that Le Mans also has close connections with early air travel. Pioneer aviator Wilbur Wright came here in 1908 to set a then world record flight distance of 90 miles. A 40 foot high memorial to him and his brother Orville stands in the city's Place des Jacobins.
Don’t miss out on a visit to the city’s historic old quarter. Wander the labyrinth of narrow streets on a hill overlooking the River Sarthe to see fine medieval and Renaissance houses and fourth century Gallo-Roman walls. Vieux Mans’ winding cobbles have appeared in films like ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’.
Appreciate the soaring Gothic columns, fabulous stained glass windows and ornately carved Romanesque doorway of Cathedrale St-Julien. Geoffroi Plantagenet of Anjou married Matilda, daughter of English Henry I, here in 1129. Their son - also Henry - was born in Le Mans and later founded England’s Plantagenet dynasty.
Visit the Fine Arts Museum, and remains of Roman baths beside the river. Make a trip into the peaceful countryside 4km from town to visit Abbeye de l’Epau, built by Richard the Lionheart’s widow in 1229.
Situated between Normandy and the Loire Valley, the journey to Le Mans is only just over 2 hours by motorway from Caen’s ferry port of Ouistreham.
The market town of La Fleche on the River Loire is a town of flowers in summer. Enjoy eye-catching displays on a stroll past the ancient buildings and gardens of the rue Lyonnaise. Watch sunlight play on fountains as you sip a coffee in the main square under the gaze of Henry IV’s statue.
In the seventeenth century, Henry gave his chateau at La Fleche as the site for a Jesuit college where famous philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes became a student. It is said Henry’s heart rests here in the eleventh century Notre Dame des Vertus Chapel, rebuilt by the Jesuits.
By the early 1800s, Napoleon had transformed the chateau into a military training college for officers - the National Military Prytanee. Students are still groomed at the college for military and other exams.
Enjoy the gardens of La Fleche’s former Carmelite Chateau. There’s a large Wednesday market and riverside Moulin de la Bruere is the last mill in France still making block ice for cooling (open April-Sept). Lake La Monnerie offers plenty of outdoor activities, including sailing, cycling and horse riding and has a beach with supervised bathing in summer.
One of France’s top zoos at Parc Zoologique de La Fleche is definitely worth a visit. The park is ideal for a family day out with cafes and attractive riverside setting. Over 1,200 animals from all over the world can be observed in their natural surroundings from polar bears underwater to elephants in the African savannah.
See tigers, Chinese pandas and more. The zoo is known for its amazing shows with sea-lions, parrots, and falconry displays on horseback. Open daily all year. See www.zoo-la-fleche.com
or tel: (00 33) 2 43 48 19 19 for seasonal times.
Set amongst the Perche Sarthois hills, the town of La Ferte-Bernard was created in 995 by building a fortification where branches of the River Huisne meet its tributary La Meme. A pattern of canals crossing the town has earned it the name of ‘Little Venice of the West’.
Take a boat trip around the waterways for a unique look at La Ferte-Bernard’s fine Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Learn the town’s history with a summer guided tour by little tourist train. The train also visits the local lake where fishing, sailing, canoeing and cycling are popular.
La Ferte-Bernard grew as a trading centre for cloth and grain under the Guise family in the fifteenth century and much of the fine medieval and military buildings of its historic centre date from this period. Be sure to include in your itinerary the magnificent St-Julian Gate, the old cloth and grain market and St-Lyphard Chapel (now an exhibition centre).
It is said Notre Dame des Marais (Marshes) is the most beautiful church in Sarthe. Its fine organ, treasury, alabaster carvings and beautiful stained glass windows displaying the finest art of Medieval and Renaissance glassmakers are all exceptional.
Malicorne sur Sarthe
Situated between Le Mans and Angers on a broad loop of the River Sarthe, Malicorne is best known for its pottery. The high quality of local clay has made ceramic arts a tradition in Malicorne since the twelfth century.
Jean Loyseau set up the city's first tin-glazed earthenware workshop in 1747 at the Plat d'Etain hotel, and even today the Malicorne "faïence" produces fine, hand-painted earthenware using traditional methods. The local Tourist Office can arrange visits, tel: (00 33) 2 43 94 74 45. Learn more of Malicorne’s ceramic history at the museum gallery of Espace Faience (open daily April - Sept and closed Tues at other times).
The town’s moated twelfth century chateau was originally built as a fortress to protect routes to the historic region of Maine. It has seen many changes over the years and is now a historic monument. Open Wed and Sun in July and August. The eleventh century church of Saint-Sylvestre contains a remarkable Baroque altarpiece and fifteenth century tomb.
The River Sarthe features strongly in Malicorne’s landscape of weirs and watermills. Explore from here by rented boat, canoe and kayak or walk, cycle and fish along its banks.
The massive walls of Solesmes Abbey beside the River Sarthe were created from the eleventh century Benedictine Priory of St-Pierre which fell into decline during the seventeenth century.
Priest Prosper Gueranger acquired the abandoned abbey and re-founded the French Benedictine order in 1883 after the French Revolution. The Abbot and brothers undertook to research and revive the ancient prayer melodies of the Gregorian chant - a form of unaccompanied church music. Today the chants of beautiful Solesmes Abbey are well known all over the world.
Two huge groups of sixteenth century statues, known as The Saints of Solesmes, decorate the transept of the church. The reason for carving these impressive bands of life-size figures with such wonderfully expressive faces has never been fully explained.
The abbey church is open each day although the book shop and exhibition are not available during services. Visitors are welcome at sung services at 10am (High Mass), 1pm (Sext), 5pm (Vespers) and 8.30pm (Compline).
The ancient bridge spanning the River Vegre, high roofed houses and old mill give this pretty and peaceful village, founded in the fifth century, a well-deserved place in the list of ‘small cities of character’ in Sarthe.
Frescoes painted in Gothic style around the nave and choir of Asnieres’ Romanesque church make this little town a special place. The still vivid murals date from the eleventh to sixteenth centuries and show scenes from the Bible including hell, baptism and crucifixion intended to educate the congregation. Stroll beside the river at your leisure or take an organised guided tour to see the sights.