Introduction to Pays de la Loire

Pays de la Loire is a verdant, scenic region of western France. Brittany lies to the region’s northwest and Normandy to the north. Centre-Val de Loire borders its eastern flank, whilst to the south you’ll find Nouvelle Aquitaine. The Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay fringe the province’s southwest coast.

Pays de la Loire contrasts 450 km of rugged coastline with the gently undulating Loire Valley. Visitors flock to discover the region’s historic chateau and churches, seaside resorts, and unspoilt countryside.

Getting to Pays de la Loire

By air

Easyjet and Ryanair fly direct to Nantes (NTE) from London Gatwick and Stansted airports. Flight time is 1 hour 25 minutes. Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport to Nantes takes 1 hour 5 minutes.

By train

From the UK, the Eurostar runs from St Pancras International to Paris Gare du Nord in 2 hours 16 minutes. At Paris Nord, take a train to Paris Gare Montparnasse (17 minutes). There you’ll board a high speed TGV service to Nantes (2 hours), stopping at Le Mans and Angers. Total journey time with connections is about 5 hours 40 minutes.

By ferry

Car ferries run daily between Poole in the UK and Cherbourg  (journey time 4 ½ hours). Then you’ve a 213 mile (343 km) drive from Cherbourg to Nantes via the E3/N137, which takes you past Rennes. Without breaks, you’ll need about 3 ½ hours (depending on traffic).

By road

Load your car onto the Shuttle at Folkestone and arrive in Calais in as little as 35 minutes. From there you’ve a 365 mile (587 km) drive to Nantes on the E402/E60. Allow around 5 ½ hours, plus breaks and subject to traffic. You’ll pass Abbeville, Rouen, Le Mans and Anger, all good bets for a lunch stop or an overnight stay.

NB: Use a GPS, or make sure you’ve enough data on your phone for Google maps!

Remember, highways/motorways in France are busy and slow-going during holiday periods, particularly throughout August. Take this into account when planning your route.

Getting around Pays de la Loire

Regional TER trains link Nantes, Angers and Le Mans with smaller hubs and tourist hotspots.

Driving is the easiest way to explore the region at your own pace. Roads are well maintained and generally quiet outside of major towns. If you’re flying into the region, Nantes and Angers offer plenty of car hire options.

Cycling is a great way to traverse Pays de la Loire’s gentle hills and plains. Over 2,800 km (1,740 miles) of bike trails crisscross the province. The 800 km Loire à Vélo is a scenic long-distance bike route past vineyards, ancient monuments and sleepy villages.

How big is Pays de la Loire

Pays de la Loire covers 12,387 square miles (32,082 square km). Its terrain spans gentle valleys, wetlands and coastal plains. The Loire river meanders through the region, from Montsoreau in the east to St Nazaire on the west coast. 

Departments

Pays de la Loire comprises five departments. These are Maine-et-Loire, Mayenne, Sarthe, Vendée and Loire-Atlantique. Nantes is the regional capital.

Coastal Vendee and Loire-Atlantique draw hordes of summer holidaymakers, whilst Maine-et-Loire is known as Valley of the Kings, thanks to its Loire valley chateaux. Agriculture is a predominant industry in Mayenne and Sarthe.

Cities in Pays de la Loire

Nantes 

Until 1532 Nantes was the capital of Brittany, and its 15th century Château des Ducs de Bretagne is a must-see. The fortress’ moat and forbidding granite walls conceal an elegant residential palace, built from white stone. A museum depicting Nantes’ history is housed in the castle. 

Art lovers, head to the city’s Musee d’Artes. The gallery features works from the 13th century onwards, with pieces by Rodin, Rubens and Monet. 

Browse the elegant window displays of Passage Pommeraye, a beautiful shopping arcade built in 1843. 

Le Mans 

Le Mans has been synonymous with motor racing since its first rally in 1923. June 2023 marks the centenary of 24 Heures du Mans, the city’s prestigious 24 hour sports car grand prix.

Angers 

Capital of the province of Anjou up until the French Revolution, the university city of Angers straddles the Maine River, its six bridges linking the two banks. The city centre brims with vibrant bars and cafes, frequented by its student population.

Saumur

Nestled beside the Loire, Saumur’s pale stone buildings and thousand year old turreted chateau make an elegant spectacle. From the chateau’s belvedere you’ve a splendid view across the river and over the town’s grey slate rooftops. Saumur’s equine links are long established; it’s home to the Cadre Noir, the French National Riding School’s elite squad of instructors. 

A potted history of Pays de la Loire

Iron age Cenomani and Carnute Gallic tribes occupied the region from around 500 BC.

In 52 BC Julius Caesar’s Roman army ousted the Gauls and built settlements including Le Mans, Angers and Nantes.

Around 5 AD, Frankish King Clovis I overthrew the Romans.

Until the 800s, Merovingian Franks controlled the region.

In 913 Vikings sacked Nantes in an attempt to overthrow the Franks. 

In 937 Nantes became part of the Duchy of Brittany.

In 1154, England ruled the province under King Henry II, husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The Hundred Years War (1337-1453) brought fierce fighting to the area.

During the 16th century Renaissance, French nobility built lavish Italianate chateaux across the Loire Valley.

In 1598 Henry IV signed the Edict of Nantes, which granted civil rights to French Protestants, the Huguenots. This ended the French Wars of Religion.

Following the French Revolution, the Vendee War erupted. Between 1793 and 1796 royalist rebels, angry at enforced conscription and meagre living conditions, fought against the new Republican regime. Thousands of rebels were executed. 

In 1804 Napoleon built Roche sur Yon as a base, to maintain peace in the region.

During WWII in June 1940, 2,000 cavalry cadets defended Saumur from advancing German troops, in a defiant two day standoff.

Culture in Pays de la Loire

Chateau d’Angers 

Visit Angers’ imposing 13th century chateau, once home to the powerful Plantagenets, who ruled England for 300 years. The castle’s huge circular towers formerly served as a dungeon and prison to unfortunate guests. Walk along the castle ramparts for spectacular views across the town. Fun fact: the chateau produces honey from its own beehives, and also provides refuge for 23 protected bird species!

Les Machines de L’ile, Nantes 

A unique museum of mechanical contraptions, showcased in a vast glasshouse. Star billing goes to the 12 m tall elephant which paces the site snorting steam (book in advance for a ride). Look out for giant hummingbirds, and a three floor seaworld carousel which features giant squid, crabs and manta rays.Visit the museum workshops, where you can observe new creations in progress.

Saumur Tank Museum 

Military enthusiasts, make a detour to the Musee des Blindes, just outside Saumur. The museum showcases one of the biggest collections of armoured vehicles on the planet, including over 800 tanks from WWI to the present day.

Historic Le Mans

Turn back the centuries with a walk along the cobbled streets of Cite Plantagenet, Le Mans historic quarter. Here, medieval colombage (half timber) houses lean next to grand Renaissance mansions. Admire St Julien de Mans Cathedral, a striking edifice of gothic and romanesque architecture. Don’t miss the wonderful regency Chapel of the Visitation, in Place de la Republique. 

Weather in Pays de la Loire 

Pays de la Loire’s combination of inland terrain and coastline experiences diverse weather. Coastal areas see drizzly, mild winters and long hot summers that last from May into September, often teamed with gusty winds. Temperatures on the coast are overall slightly warmer, as interior areas receive more extremes of warm and cold. Maine et Loire is one of France’s driest areas, whereas higher level areas of the Vendee and Mayenne get more rainfall. Overall, Pays de la Loire is drier and warmer than neighbouring Brittany.

Spring (March to May)

As March arrives, rainfall eases off and the region begins to warm up. There’s still a chance of inland frost early in the season. Highs average at 16oC/61oF dropping to lows of 7oC/45oF. .

Summer (June to August)

Holiday season brings blue skies, sunshine and average highs of 24oC/75oF. Lows are around 13oC/55oF. Temperatures in July and August frequently climb to 28oC/82oF. Summer rainfall is light and infrequent.

Autumn (September to November)

As the nights shorten, temperatures start to slide. Expect average highs of 16oC/61oF, dropping to typical lows of 8oC/46oF in November. Rain showers are on the increase, particularly during October.

Winter (December to February)

Winter chills bring lows of 3oC/37oF and average highs of 9oC/48oF. December is often the wettest month of the year. February is usually the chilliest period, when the mercury may drop to 0oC/32oF in inland areas.

Best time to visit Pays de la Loire 

For settled weather, late May to mid September is your best time to visit this region. Temperatures are at their warmest, and rainfall at its lowest. If you don’t like crowds, give coastal areas a miss during July and August, when throngs of tourists inevitably descend. And remember, even in high summer the Atlantic ocean is a tad bracing!

Don’t miss

Discover nature in the Marais Poitevin

Known as France’s ‘Green Venice’, Marais Poitevin is a tranquil Parc Naturel of wetlands, woods and canals near Fontenay le Comte in the southern Vendee. If you love outdoor pursuits, the area offers cycling, hiking, canal boat trips and bird watching. Anglers can fish for sea bream, plaice and sea bass at Faute sur Mer.

The tree lined canal system is manmade, and stretches over 28,000 hectares. A designated protected zone, the wetlands support diverse flora and fauna, including the marsh harrier and greylag goose. Enjoy a guided excursion aboard a traditional flat bottomed barque, or rent a canoe to explore these idyllic waterways. 

Apocalypse Tapestry, Angers

The Chateau d’Angers is home to the largest woven work in medieval history. The stunning, challenging tapestry of the apocalypse (based on the Bible’s book of Revelations), measures over 100m long. It was commissioned by Louis I, Duke of Anjou in 1375 at the height of the Hundred Years War, and symbolises the plague and ongoing conflict that devastated Europe during that period. The scale of the work and the intricate detail are breathtaking. Remarkably, the tapestry survived being cut up and used for floor mats(!) during the French Revolution.

Atlantic beaches

Pays de la Loire boasts 125 miles (200 km) of sandy beaches along the Vendee and Loire Atlantique coast. Popular resorts include chic La Baule, a five mile stretch of soft pale sand backed by restaurants, boutiques and spa resorts. Family friendly La Tranche sur Mer and Sables d’Olonne offers broad golden sands and safe swimming. Seeking a low key option? Head for Pornic, a charming 19th century fishing town at the heart of the Cote de Jade.

Pays de la Loire islands

Ile de Yeu

A 35 minute ferry ride from Fromentine port brings you to Ile de Yeu, a rugged gem of tiny coves and fine sand beaches. At only 10km long and 4km wide, this car free isle is perfect for exploring ‘en velo’. Rent a bike in Port Joinville, the lively capital. Vist the Vieux Chateau, the 14th century feudal castle which repelled invaders down the centuries. Head to la Pointe du But on the island’s southwest coast, to catch an amazing sunset.

Noirmoutier

At low tide, cycle or drive across the 2 ½ mile long Passage du Gois, the ancient causeway which links Noirmoutier to the mainland. The island’s a joy of rustic villages, sand dunes and nature reserves. Swim off pristine Plage des Dames, fringed by scented eucalyptus and pine woodlands. Rent a bike to explore Noirmoutier’s 80 km of cycle trails, or hop aboard the tourist train that runs between April and October.

Markets

La Fleche, Place de la Liberation, Sarthe. 8am to 1pm Sunday and Wednesday. Fresh seafood, vegetables, fruit, flowers, gardening tools, and clothing.

Lla Ferté-Bernard,  Avenue du General de Gaulle, 72400 La Ferté-Bernard, Sarthe. 9am to 7pm, Fridays. Weekly farmers market selling organic beef, poultry, snails, oysters, breads, charcuterie, fruit and veg.   

Laval, Place de la Tremoille, 53000 Laval. Tuesday and Saturday, 8am to 1pm. Bread and pastries, local cider, fruit and veg, freshly caught seafood, rotisserie chickens.

Sables d’Olonne, Halles Centrales Market, Rue des Halles, 85100, Sables d’Olonne. Tuesday to Sunday, 8am to 1pm. Covered market with over 65 stalls selling cheeses, wines, meats and seafood.

Château-Gontier, Centre Ville, 53200 Château-Gontier, Mayenne. Thursday mornings, 8am to 1pm. A bustling gathering of over 100 traders including cheesemakers, butchers, bakers and a traditional livestock market.

Nantes, Talensac Market,  Rue Talensac, 44000 Nantes, Open 8am to 1pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Nantes’ largest and oldest, (established in 1937) food market. French and international cooked food stalls, plus fresh meat, fruit and vegetables, with fish and seafood a speciality. 

Angers, Marche Lafayette, Place Lafayette, 49000 Angers. Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Jams, cheeses, breads, fruit, Try the cooked snails!

What to eat and drink

Meat lovers, try outdoor reared Maine poultry and Maine Anjou beef. Tuck into the Le Mans staple of porc rillettes on crisp bread – delicious.

Mussels, Bec oysters, sea bream and striped mullet feature regularly on menus, along with zander and pike river fish from the Loire (often served in a beurre blanc sauce).

Anjou delicacies include fried eel, and pate with prunes. If you’re in the Vendee try Prefou, a garlic and butter stuffed bread.

Cheese boards often feature Port Salut, Entrammes and Vieux Pane.

The region’s wines are diverse. Try crisp white Muscadet (Loire-Atlantique) or delicate white Jasnieres from Sarthe. Saumur’s sparkling Brut is internationally renowned. Other notable whites are elegant dry Savennières, and sweet white Coteaux du Layon. Reds include the soft Saumur-Champigny, and Anjou Villages, a fine red from Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

Cointreau orange liqueur hails from Anjou, and Mayenne produces hearty Maine cider.

Where to eat

Nantes, Atlantide 1874, 5 Rue de l’Hermitage, 44100 Nantes.  Michelin starred restaurant in a superb elevated setting overlooking the Loire. The menu features beautifully presented modern French cuisine, with fish dishes a specialty. The extensive wine list showcases regional labels. Booking recommended.

Le Mans, La Cuisine de Madeleine, 30 Rue Gambetta, 72000 Le Mans. Relaxed, intimate restaurant dishing up tasty French cuisine with a great priced menu de jour. Mains include fillet steak and duck parmentier. Leave space for dessert! Open for lunch and dinner, closed Sunday.

Saumur, L’Alchimiste, 6 Rue de Lorraine, 49400 Saumur. Elegant, family run brasserie in central Saumur. The set menu features creations such as gravlax with leek, lavender and lime or duck confit with yuzu. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Where to stay

La Chaume, Sables d’Olonne: This two bed seaside bungalow with a tranquil sunny garden makes a perfect Vendee base. You’re just 900 m from the beach at Sables d’Olonne. Sleeps five.
https://www.vrbo.com/6066085ha?noDates=true&unitId=1827790

Nantes: Rent this modern light apartment in Nantes’ city centre, a short walk from Place du Commerce. Sleeps three guests in one bedroom, with a modern kitchen and bathroom. Quiet residential neighbourhood, close to shops and restaurants.
https://www.vrbo.com/1941773a?noDates=true&unitId=2117603

Saumur: Stay in a spacious, centrally located period residence, in the grounds of a 13th century convent. The characterful house boasts its own indoor swimming pool and a private garden with wonderful views of Saumur’s chateau. Sleeps eight in four bedrooms, with five bathrooms.
https://www.vrbo.com/1377106a?noDates=true&unitId=1546765

Conclusion

Pays de la Loire is a fascinating and diverse region. I hope my guide entices you to pay a visit!  Bonnes vacances!

Maria Bricheno
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Author

Maria Bricheno is a freelance writer, with a focus on independent travel. When not writing or plotting her next trip, she enjoys trail/road running, contemporary fiction, and country walks with her enthusiastic golden retriever. An ardent fan of all things Gallic, Maria spends too much of her leisure time lurking on French property websites.

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