Saumur in the Loire Valley
Saumur lies on a beautiful stretch of the western Loire valley between Tours and Angers before the mighty river flows into the Atlantic at Nantes. It’s a glorious area known for its odd troglodyte dwellings built in the limestone cliffs by our oh-so-distant ancestors.
Saumur is famous above all for two things: its excellent sparkling wine (you can visit many of the producers), and its military associations. Here you’ll find the Armoured Corps Academy and the French Cavalry Academy, housed in two-story gracious 18th-century buildings around a dusty square that is now a car park.
- In the Maine-et-Loire department of the Loire Valley (49)
- Population: 28,654
How Long You Should Stay
Saumur makes a great short 2- or 3-night break from London or Paris. It is easy to get to the attractions in this compact city and Saumur is close to other attractions, including the Abbey of Fontevraud, as well as great Loire chateaux and the Loire cities of Tours and Angers.
What to Do in Saumur
Start by strolling through the medieval streets that run from the river to the Eglise St-Pierre. Set in a delightful square the Gothic church is surrounded by wood-framed buildings that now house cafes and restaurants.
The château of Saumur stands above the city. Its fairytale white towers, delicate stone tracery, and mullion windows were depicted in Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the 11th century illuminated manuscript that is reproduced everywhere. It is a book of hours, a collection of prayers for the canonical hours, created between 1412 and 1416 by the Limbourg brothers for John Duke of Berry.
Today the château is best viewed from the outside. Built in the second half of the 14th century by Louis I, Duc d’Anjou it was once a magnificent structure. Today much is closed for restoration though there is a museum of decorative and fine arts which you can visit.
Most of the wineries making the wine are in the suburb of St-Hilaire-St-Florent and you will need either a car or a taxi to get there.
Visit Veuve Amiot for a free visit, which starts with a film and continues with a tour around the cellars with old equipment to show you how wine was once made by the workers whose pictures hang on the dank walls. Finish with a tasting then buy some of the delicious bubbly to take home.
Activities for Horse Lovers
Walking around Saumur you’ll soon see its military roots in the open parade grounds surrounded by 19th-century barracks and the huge school for training horses.
The National Riding School (Le Cadre Noir) is just outside the main center of Saumur, a car journey or a taxi ride away. This 300-hectare estate is where the elite come to train under expert Ecuyers (riding instructors).
It was founded in 1815 after the Napoleonic wars had destroyed so much of the French cavalry to train both riders and horses for yet more warfare. Discipline and hard work, practice, and understanding are the mainstays of the school, which is much the same as it was in the days before tanks took over from horses.
You start the tour watching how some of the 150 students working in the outdoor rings and their horses are trained. Indoors in the Grand Manège, you can sit and admire the horses performing those complicated maneuvers that make up the art of dressage.
You also see the tack room and the stables with the 5-star treatment reserved for the equine stars (special showers, special lamps to dry them after the showers and more). It makes a lovely half day out and the tours are bilingual. If you can, go to one of their special shows which are spectacular and show off the balletic steps of horses and riders. There are several throughout the year.
Activities for History Buffs
Whatever you might think of tank museums, this is part of Saumur’s military history. The Musée des Blindés has over 200 armored vehicles on display. Themed halls take you through the story showing tanks from all over the world from the German Panther to the U.S. M3 Lee Grant. There are models of tanks, cutaway tanks, and turrets, amphibious vehicles and leaders like Patton, Montgomery, Rommel, and Leclerc displayed in their command vehicles.
- Musée des Blindés
- Place Charles de Foucauld
- 49400 Saumur
Where to Stay in Saumur
Treat yourself to the delightful bed and breakfast Château de Verrières set in gorgeous gardens. This Belle Epoque mansion seems nicely Victorian with its traditional furniture, wooden floors, and antique bathroom fittings. There’s no restaurant but plenty of choices nearby for dinner. 53 rue d’Alsace; 0033 (0)2 41 38 05 15.
Right in the heart of Anjou, the St-Pierre was once a private mansion built in the 17th century. Pretty rooms with fireplaces and good bathrooms make this a popular choice. Hôtel Saint Pierre, Rue Haute Saint-Pierre; 0033 (0)2 41 50 30 00.
For a good budget option, Le Londres is centrally located, with modern rooms well decorated in bright colors. Le Londres, 48 Rue Orléans; 00 33 (0)2 41 51 23 98.
Where to Eat in Saumur
L’Alchimiste is the best restaurant in Saumur, with a small garden for summer dining. It’s central and the chef uses good local ingredients to produce some great specialties. Menus from €19 for 2 courses. 6 rue Lorraine, 00 33 (0)2 41 67 65 18.
La Table des Fouées is an interesting place. It’s a stylish huge restaurant in a troglodyte cave. But don’t worry; it’s warm and the food is traditional and heartening.
Top Attractions Around Saumur
The Château de Brissac is nearer to Angers than Saumur, so if you are coming from Angers, then make this a stop before you get to Saumur. It’s a wonderful château that looks faintly odd at first glance. Then you realize why; it’s remarkably tall, in fact, it’s the tallest castle in France with a whopping 7 stories.
It’s hardly surprising that the owner calls it the ‘Giant of the Loire’. Imposing from the outside, it’s pretty spectacular inside as well, cared for and embellished by succeeding generations of the family. On your walk through the castle and grounds, you might meet the present owner, the affable and unassuming Duc Charles-André de Brissac whose family has lived here since 1502.
Period furniture fills the stately rooms; tapestries decorate some rooms; paintings of ancestors look down on you in others. These you expect; what is more unusual is the underground tunnel and the lavish little theatre created by Jeanne Say, Marchioness of Brissac, a talented singer. From 1890 to 1916 she hosted an annual opera festival which became a firm favorite with Parisian high society.
Then make your way down to the extensive kitchens where servants slaved over elaborate dishes to feed their masters upstairs. And don't miss the shop where you can buy some of their own estate wines. The château is open during the high season and also in November when it hosts a spectacular and unusual Christmas Fair, well worth a visit.
Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud
One of the must-sees in this part of the Loire Valley is the spectacular Romanesque collection of buildings around the UNESCO classified Abbey of Fontevraud. Just a 20-minute drive from Saumur, it’s the largest collection of medieval abbey buildings in Europe.
Fontevraud was founded in the early 12th century as both a monastery and a nunnery run by an abbess which was a pretty unusual arrangement. The 12th-century buildings originally housed the nuns and monks and also the sick, the lepers and prostitutes who had given up their profession. From 1804 to 1963 it was a prison, set up by Napoleon.
Today you can see the cloisters, the chapter house with its 16th-century murals, and the huge refectory which served as the dining room. There’s an ambitious arts programme, so walk through the various buildings to see paintings both old and new, videos and sculpture. You can also walk past the kitchen garden which is growing different and old varieties of fruit and vegetables.
The main building is the abbey church, a vast, high cavernous space filled with light. At one end lie the tombstone effigies of the Plantagenet royal family, testimony to the bond between England and France.
You see the remarkably life-like Henry II, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy and King of England II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful and influential women of her time who died here in 1152 having become a nun, their son Richard the Lionheart and daughter-in-law Isabelle of Angoulême, Richard’s queen. There’s a good programme of concerts and shows throughout the year.
Where to Stay
If you want to savor the peace and quiet after the visitors have gone and have a great and unusual hotel, book at Fontevraud l’Hôtel in what was once the St-Lazaire priory. It has been spectacularly converted with the former monastic cells making up the 54 guest rooms in different parts of the priory.
The design is clean and contemporary making extensive use of beautifully designed wooden furniture. There’s a strong sense of peace and tranquillity and you get a good night’s sleep from the quiet location – and the bespoke mattresses.
The dining room follows the simple, but infinitely sophisticated feel. Opening onto the cloister and extending into the chapter house, there's banquette seating around the walls while some tables look through the glass wall into the cloister.
The attention to detail is impressive; even the ceramics are specially commissioned from Charles Hair, a Franco-American ceramist who lives nearby. The cooking is superb from young Thibaut Ruggeri, using local ingredients from the region and the area. The Ibar has a great innovation – tables which are touch screens showing the history of the Abbey which is great for children.