In another life, Émilie Pocquereau worked for a wine house. Vincent, her husband, was cellar master. Since they fell in love with the flat-bottomed wooden boats traditionally used to navigate the Loire, they have transformed three of them into lodges. On two others, the Nonchalant and the Missthey offer exotic walks with commentary around Saumur.
In this city where no less than six major bridges connect its two banks, the Loire, several hundred meters wide, gives way to numerous islands. Sailing on this wide river allows you to grasp its majesty and shallow depths while drinking a glass of Saumur brut (or having lunch, if you have opted for a cruise with a meal). It is also an opportunity to discover the essential role of the Loire, at the time when, to transport goods from Nantes to Paris via Orléans, there was neither train nor car.
Stronghold of Protestantism
If the epic of the river navy and its little people of workers is over for a long time, in Saumur, the castle of the counts of Anjou still dominates the city. Its high white towers have fascinated since, around 1440, the Limbourg brothers represented them in a miniature of the precious manuscript, The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry.
The city remains that of the horse and the Cavalry Museum. It is proud to have many finely sculpted freestone buildings and to have been a prosperous bastion of Protestantism. Its winding streets retain their medieval layout and rue Saint-Jean still leads to the very lively Place Saint-Pierre where half-timbered facades, 18th century houses and restaurants stand side by side: it is good to eat Loire fish on the terrace accompanied by a glass of dry white.
Wine is one of the local riches. The vines thrive on the clay-limestone soils of Saumur, and produce white, rosé and red nectars. In Saint-Hilaire-Saint-Florent, the Bouvet-Ladubay wine merchant, founded in 1851, continues to produce excellent sparkling wines with must purchased from 80 winegrowers. The eight kilometers of underground galleries that house its cellars can be visited, on foot or by bike, before a tasting.
The visit also ends with a tasting at the Château de Parnay. Its vines, located in the area of the prestigious Saumur-Champigny appellation, are particularly well exposed to the sun.
It was Antoine Cristal (1837-1931), a passionate and inventive autodidact, who brought this domain to excellence. It is to him that he owes his mythical “Clos d’entre les murs”. In this plot, the chenin vines grow leaning against walls which create a microclimate. Sometimes they cross them, their feet cool on one side of the wall, their stomachs in the sun on the other. They produce a dry white that is as rare (1,500 bottles per year) as it is remarkable.
Villages with troglodyte charms
At the foot of these hills, kilometers of galleries have been dug for centuries to extract tufa, a stone born of chalky sedimentation over 90 million years old. This activity, almost abandoned in the middle of the 20th century, has been revived a little since the historical monuments needed this stone to restore the sumptuous Abbey of Fontevraud, nearby.
Abandoned quarries are used to age wines, grow button mushrooms (the Saumur region produces 200,000 tonnes of them a year!) or, sometimes, like in Turquant, to set up craftsmen nicely.
Married to the slate of the roofs, the tufa is the charm of the villages, sometimes downright troglodyte, and in particular that of Montsoreau. Built on the edge of the Loire, the castle still watches over this small town which lines up its beautiful houses along its cobbled streets, almost to the hillside where the vines flourish.
However, tufa does not reign everywhere in Anjou. In Doué-la-Fontaine, less than 20 km from Saumur, another geological story played out. A shallow sea stretched there ten million years ago: under the effect of the tides, an underwater dune gradually rose, aggregating in its sands the remains of many animals, to give the falun, a slightly yellow stone quarried for a long time in deep galleries. Today, on the Perrières site, a skilful scenography highlights the history of this geological curiosity.
As soon as they leave this underground “cathedral”, the green landscapes and the legendary mildness of the Loire Valley, favorable to market gardening, arboriculture and the cultivation of roses, once again take hold of the visitor.
→ SELECTION. Six appointments around the rose
Still in Doué-la-Fontaine, a paradise for rose growers, the Dittière family offers its splendid rose garden for visitors to visit and the Terre de rose distillery offers a wide range of products around rose water in an old farm that has become an eco-museum. It’s a completely different story than happy, in Saint-Hilaire-Saint-Florent, the Gardens of Puygirault. In the vegetable garden which once supplied the Saint-Florent abbey, 14 spaces retrace the evolution of the gardens since men have been cultivating the land. After this educational and fun stopover, it is tempting to simply go and immerse yourself in the gentleness of the banks of the Loire.
• Ask about : Anjou and Saumur tourist offices.
• Housing : Hotels Le Londres in Saumur and Le Bussy in Montsoreau.
• To visit : in Saint-Hilaire-Saint-Florent, the Puygirault Gardens; in Doué-la-Fontaine, the rose garden Les chemins de la rose, the Terre de rose distillery and the scenographic route The Mystery of the Faluns.
• Cruise on the Loire: Loire Escape.
• Tasting wine:Bouvet-Ladubay and Château de Parnay cellars.
• Guide-lecturer, vineyard and heritage specialist:Amelie Bruneau
• Read : Pays de la LoireMichelin, “The green guide”, 2022, 550 p., €14.90.