Step off the beaten track to find France’s secret treasure, the Loir

SITUATED on what used to be fiercely fought over territory separating Maine from Anjou, the Fléchois region was for centuries at the heart of some of France’s best-known and most bitter conflicts.

With those struggles long over and done with, what’s left is a mellow and absorbing destination less than three hours drive from the north coast ferry ports. Brittany Ferries sails from Portsmouth to Caen in just six hours, providing the classic sense of being on holiday from the minute you step aboard – a relaxing escape that is impossible to find amid the scrum of Britain’s crowded airport departure terminals.

Less well-trodden than Provence, not as densely populated as the nearby and better known La Loire, the Pays de Fléchois offers a France you feel you know but somehow hadn’t discovered.

Like La Loire, a river is at the heart of the region’s identity. The smaller Le Loir was once a key trade route but today offers a wealth of water sports – as well as giving the area its peaceful ambience.

If good food is high on your list, L’Auberge du Port des Roches in Luché- Pringé where Le Loir bends southwards towards one of the historic towns, Le Lude, is not to be missed. This relaxed restaurant has rightly won plaudits for one of its €24 set menus from the Michelin Bib Gourmand guide – richly deserved given its quality and attention to detail.

The region is also famous for the “La Flèche black fowl” – a traditional breed, whose origins can be traced to the town of La Flèche. A praline-like chocolate with finely crushed nougatine – the Pyrtaneen – is also worth sampling.

Back on the trail of the region’s history, Château de Baugé, to the south west, was founded in the 11th Century and rebuilt by King René of Anjou, whose daughter Margaret famously started the Wars of the Roses. Built at the end of the 100 years war, this amazing castle is the best place to gain a feel for the area’s rich and regal history. It is also a place of beauty in its own right, with imposing facades and an amazing five-metre wide spiral staircase. Excellent and informative films provide an explanation of the history and hands-on exhibits bring the story to life for children.

The Boule D’Or restaurant a short walk away boasts a decent menu for reasonable prices. A superb duck confit main course features on the €28 menu.

After lunch, seek out the Apothicairerie located in the Hôtel Dieu – the town’s hospital until 2000. This stunning 17th Century apothecary shop with its beautiful ceiling and marquetry floor, still stores mythical compounds such as goat’s blood and fox oil and is one of the region’s gems.

Further east and back on the banks of Le Loir, the imposing Château du Lude is a Renaissance treasure. The Nicolay family live here throughout the year and use the main rooms, so walking through the gardens and living quarters provides a stark contrast to the museum-like atmosphere of some of the neighbouring Loire region’s chateaux.

Countess de Nicolay maintains the property both as her family’s home and the region’s foremost chateau. She is also the driving force behind a calendar of gardening festivals, literary prizes and music and gourmet days during the year.

Lavardin, which is home to just 250 inhabitants, is said to be one of France’s most beautiful villages. Saint Genest, the impressive 12th Century church, appears massive for such a small village but it owes its existence to the medieval castle – which has been in ruins since 1590 – as well as the military and gentry who used to be located here. The church’s walls are covered in recently restored red paintings of religious scenes, only uncovered in the 19th Century after they were painted over during the Italian Renaissance because they were considered unattractive.

One of the best ways of taking in the area’s scenic beauty is to take to the air, which you can do from La Flèche’s flying school, Aéro-club Paul Métairie. On even a short 15 minute flight you will clearly see the châteaux and the town from where emigrants left to set up the new world in Montreal, Canada. Today La Flèche is home to one of France’s foremost military schools.

Back on solid ground, the historic Thèâtre de la Halle-au-Blé in La Flèche is also worth a visit. Compared to a candy box because of its refined decoration, it remains one of the last Italianate style theatres of the first part of the 19th Century. It was deteriorating before an ambitious restoration project brought it back to life.

And if all this history and beauty is causing the kids to wilt, head for the zoo at La Flèche – one of the best in France. Whatever your feelings about zoos, this one is superb with amazing recreations of natural habitats for elephants, grizzly bears, hippopotami, lions and exotic birds.

The river nearby provides fantastic boat trips, kayaking and fishing. There is also horse riding, mountain biking and hiking opportunities in the ancient Forest of Bercé – which has oaks that date back more than 240 years – and festivals to bring the region’s historical links to life.

Accommodation is broad – boutique hotels to camping. In the heart of the region, at Mansigné there is Au Bord du Lac, which houses 20 well-equipped wooden chalets with a large play area for children, a private heated swimming pool and pleasant garden terraces.

If you want something a little off the beaten track but nevertheless stuffed with authentic history, scenic beauty and the usual mix of good food and wine but at a more relaxed pace, the Loir region is accessible and diverse – France for the discerning visitor.