Terra Botanica, a theme park about gardens, is France's hottest must-see. And it's just outside Angers, with its medieval streets, massive castle and a world-famous tapestry.
Hot off the press is Terra Botanica...France’s answer to Britain's Eden Project has been ten years in the making. Part garden, part educational, part interactive theme park, this is the place to learn about, cultivation, economics, modern scientific methods, and how rare plants were gathered.as well as explanations of DNA and photosynthesis, Terra Botanica even has a 4-D film following drops of water travelling through a magnolia. And it is on the edge of Angers, one of France's prettiest nmedieval towns.
But when you have had your fill of plant life, it is time to fill up on chocolate. You can learn a lot from chocolate shops in France. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it! We are in La Petite Marquise (22 Rue des Lices), a small but bustling chocolaterie in the heart of Angers. As we nibble a flat blue-coloured sweet, made of chocolate and nougatine, the shop assistant explains that these Quernons d’Ardoise chocolates were invented in 1966: “They are made to look like the local slates used on every roof for miles around.”
In the heart of the Pays de la Loire, Angers straddles the river Maine, a tributary of the Loire. With most of its cobbled streets now pedestrianised, the old capital of Anjou is easily explored on foot. Our first stop is the centrepiece of the city: the 800-year-old castle, with dark, brooding walls topped with 17 towers. Built to keep the English out, it is now the home of the world’s largest tapestry. Some 140m long and 6m high, the Apocalypse Tapestry stretches right round a vast gallery. We pick out the knights in armour and the rabbit diving in to its burrow, but most of the scenes were drawn and woven to keep medieval viewers on the straight and narrow.
A few steps away, the medieval Maison d’Adam graphically shows off some of life’s temptations. Despite their age, the carved wood scenes on the façade of this classic 16th-century merchant’s house still retain much of their earthy humour, including a man with three testicles. “Time for lunch,” my wife decides.
With its array of fresh vegetables and fruit, this part of the Loire Valley is known as the Garden of France. There is no better example of the region’s excellent small restaurants than Le Petit Comptoir, where chef Stéphane Cosnier and his patissière-wife, Laetitia, conjure up well-priced two-course lunches.
Refreshed, we drive to another Angers’ landmark. As soon as we step in to the Cointreau distillery in Saint-Barthélemy-d’Anjou, a suburb of Angers, we can see the huge copper vats and smell the heady scent of oranges. A guide hands us a piece of bitter orange, peel which, surprisingly, is green not orange. Ending with a dégustation (tasting), the free guided tour reveals all – except the secret recipe for the liqueur.
It’s not just chocolates and liqueurs that have attracted us to Angers over the years. Within easy reach are grand châteaux and miles and miles of glorious vineyards. Pick a château, any château. Perhaps Château du Plessis-Bourré, surrounded by a moat full of water, approached by a long bridge and guarded by a drawbridge that still works. It looks like a film set, except that the 500-year-old castle is home to the de Sauvebeuf family. On the tour, we decide that the most interesting room award goes to the Salle des Gardes, whose coffered ceiling is decorated with references to alchemy.
Next up is a vineyard, a very special vineyard, about 15 minutes southwest of Angers. According to American wine guru Robert Parker, “Savennières is the most underrated great white wine in the world.” At the Domaine du Closel, a chateau in the village of Savennières, we enjoy one of the best wine-tasting sessions ever. Sipping and spitting, we begin to understand why soil, weather and ageing make such a difference. My wife points out that the de Jessey family is also a huge influence. “There have been three generations of women in charge of the wine here, and you don’t get that in France very often!”
Brittany Ferries sail from Portsmouth and Poole to Caen, Cherbourg and St Malo.
Where to stay
Hôtel du Mail: 26 rooms in a converted 17th-century convent; central but quiet.
Hôtel de France: handy for the railroad station; known for its classy Les Plantagenêts restaurant; traditional rooms.
Places to eat
As well as Le Petit Comptoir, try the Le Bouchon Angevin across the river, which doubles as a restaurant as well as a wine merchant.
Terra Botanica, Angers, www.terrabotanica.fr
More information on Angers