I LOVE France. I love the language, I love the style, I love the beautiful countryside and elegant cities. It’s a huge country with so much to see and I explore a tiny piece more with each visit. This time I spent a few nights in the Mayenne department of the Pays de la Loire region with some wonderful fellow writers. We learnt to cook in a château, wandered through a bizarre artist’s wonderland, boated down the Mayenne river and learnt to appreciate the slow pace of life and travel that the Mayenne has to offer.
Slow Travel in the Mayenne, Pays de la Loire
About the Mayenne
This northwestern, land-locked department has everything you could want from a French adventure. Laval is the main town within Mayenne, and will cast its spell on you within minutes. At night the lights from the buildings are reflected in the water of the river Mayenne which makes for a very photogenic (and romantic) scene. Despite it being very popular with expats from the UK, the Mayenne and its many fairytale towns still feel local, authentic and uncrowded. Slow tourism is a BIG thing in the Mayenne, visitors are encouraged to take the time to truly explore and get a feel for the area. And with all the wonderful cider, wine and cheese, who wouldn’t want to stay just a little bit longer? I know I could have definitely stayed longer than 3 nights!
Things to do in the Mayenne
Boat Ride Down the Mayenne River
There is no better way to explore the Mayenne department than via the river of the same name. We took a cruise down the Mayenne river with Anjou Navigation. The brave souls even let us drive the boat, which was a lot less terrifying than I was expecting. There is also a cycle path (around 85km of cycle path I believe) along the banks of the river if that’s something you’re into. The river itself has locks, which was a complete novelty to me. I’ve run across them as a child but I’d never actually been IN a boat in the lock waiting for the water level to rise.
It was October so the Autumn colours were out in all their glory. Trees bent down from the banks, their branches reaching out to dip themselves in the water of the river. A cat sat in a wooden dingy eyeing us curiously, possibly skeptical of my driving. We passed by water mills, churches, beautiful old stone houses and tiny towns. Pretty much every inch of the way looked like it could be an oil painting.
If this sounds like something you’d enjoy, make sure to check out the Anjou Navigation website for itinerary suggestions, river maps and all the info you could possibly need. The boats are fully kitted out with sleeping areas, kitchen and toilets. The river is also FULL of fish and it’s possible to get a fishing license for the duration of your trip if that’s what you’re into!
Explore Laval Town
Laval is the capital town of the Mayenne department. Like I said before, it is absolutely beautiful. I recommend spending a day wandering around the town, taking in the medieval centre and exploring what local hangouts the side streets have to offer. If you’re hungry you HAVE to check out “Creperie Ty Billig”. The staff are delightful and the food is SO good that you will be ordering dessert no matter how full you are after the glorious mains. There are plenty of veggie options too (not always the case in France). I had a goats cheese, spinach and roast almond crepe and it was possibly the best crepe I’ve ever had in my life.
If you prefer to buy your own local produce then make sure to check out the market (Tuesdays and Saturdays only) in the carpark near the Trinity Cathedral and the “Chateau Neuf”. For a nice stroll and a stellar view of the town head to the “Jardin de la Perrine”. We stayed in Hotel/Spa Perier du Bignon just minutes away from where the local market is held. Unfortunately we only spent one night there but the rooms were spacious with large modern bathrooms and showers that were hard to say goodbye to. I always judge a hotel room by its bathroom. If you have a look at their website you’ll see that the hotel is in a striking 18th century building with a huge cobbled driveway and an air of exclusivity. I expected a James Bond style figure to step out of an Aston Martin with a drop dead gorgeous woman on his arm and ask for his usual room.
Cooking Class in Chateau de la Mazure
You can’t get more French than cooking something delicious in an old, stately chateau. Chateau de la Mazure is a lived in, well used chateau where you can actually sit on the chairs, touch the ornaments and eat at the tables. Basically it’s not a museum, it’s a real working home, which is what I really enjoyed about the place. And as you can see, it’s absolutely stunning. Thibault, the man of the house, welcomed us at the door and showed us around. He runs the property along with his mother, Aude. The castle has a very green and sustainable policy which can be seen in the gardens in particular. They grow as much as they can. In fact, while I was there the gardener had won a bet to see if he could grown a pumpkin up a chain-link fence. It was quite impressive!
At the chateau they run courses for learning French or English which include cultural immersion and activities. Students stay in the chateau during the course and the rooms are full of luxurious materials, textures and colours. Unfortunately we were only there for a few hours so didn’t get the full experience, but the time we did spend there was fantastic. After our tour of the grounds we were led to the kitchen to start our cooking lesson. As we each took turns to do our part in ingredient prep the group had to recite various phrases/tongue twisters in French to help our pronunciation. It seemed silly at first, but by the end of the recipe we were all sounding a lot more local. When everything was done it was time to have a glass of wine as we watched the sunset before dinner. Then dinner was served and we devoured our delicious creations. I particularly enjoyed our starters of filo pastry filled with Camembert and seasonal vegetables. I’m a vegetarian and it was absolutely no problem once I explained that vegetarians don’t actually eat fish (that’s a pescatarian!).
I’ve done something like this before in a different part of France and it was an incredible experience. I’d highly recommend it as an authentic way to learn french and immerse yourself in the local culture.
Robert Tatin Museum
Robert Tatin was an extremely interesting man. He somehow managed to fit several lives into one. He was a traveller, an architect, a painter, a sculptor, a fashion designer, a carpenter, a father, and so much more. His life was spectacularly interesting. When you visit the museum you’ll watch a video all about it. And if you think his life is interesting, wait until you get a glimpse of his mind. Mr. Tatin, with his wife, bought a small house in 1962 and from there he built what is now the museum today. Giant statues line the pathway to the meditation garden (guarded by a crazed dragonesque monster) and Tatin’s house. He had no one set style, he experimented with everything and anything. A lot of his paintings reminded me of what an acid trip might look like if put on paper, or canvas. This place is utterly bizarre and completely enthralling. Every single person in my group fell in love with Robert Tatin and his musuem. I felt like Alice after she had fallen down the rabbit hole. What was this otherworldly place and how come I had never heard of or seen anything like it in my life?! I highly recommend a visit to this musuem, it will blow your mind.
Sainte Suzanne is one of the most beautiful towns in France. It was named France’s favourite town in 2014 and is also one of the “Les Plus Beaux Villages” in France. I am not even building it up, if you ever see it with your own eyes you will understand. The focal feature is an 11th century château. The town was quiet, cobbled and absolutely perfect when we visited. Bookshops with tables of books set up outside showed no sign of worry about theft. We saw a child and his father riding horses through the streets of the town. It was the kind of town where Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” prancing around, singing about her provincial life, wouldn’t be out of place. If you’re visiting make sure to wear comfortable shoes and clothes that you’d be happy to hike in. There’s an incredible walk up the neighbouring hill which rewards you with an incredible view of the castle and town. It’s a bit steep in places but not too long of a walk. We were not pre-warned about this walk. I did it in boots (not the hiking kind) a short skirt and tights, haha. It was ridiculous. But it was well worth it in the end. The view is pictured above.
How to Get to the Mayenne
Laval is relatively easy to reach via train. I flew into CDG and got the train/metro into central Paris. Then I got a direct train from Montparnasse station to Laval. They depart nearly every hour so it’s pretty handy. However, there is a train that leaves from CDG and goes directly to Laval but it doesn’t depart regularly. You’d need to be sure of the times and book it in advance. I’m pretty sure there’s only one per day. French trains are great. They’re super comfortable, very clear about the names of the stops and first class tickets don’t usually cost too much extra.
So with all 1800 words of THAT, I’m going to wrap it up. If you want a taste of the french life, and to really savour it, then take a slow trip through the Mayenne.