The Sarthe spawned the Plantagenêts, one of the great dynasties of English kings, Richard the Lionheart among their number. Richard’s widow Bérengère founded the Abbaye de L’Epau near Le Mans, extensively restored, one of the many delightful and tranquil settings in this rural landscape. As the River Sarthe and its tributary the Huisne wind their way slowly south, steeply sloped woods appear to the west and dense forests to the east, interspersed with hundreds of tiny farms, surrounded by rows of apple trees.
The upper Sarthe is famous for its forests, dense and forbidding, one of the last places where you can see the Europe of the dark ages, when travel outside the main routes was all but impossible. The most important are Sillé-le-Guillame, vast and majestic; and Perseigne, where sinuous paths search out a mysterious belvedere at its very centre.
Navigable for more than 135 kilometres, the lower Sarthe is at its most attractive between Malicorne and Angers to the south-west, passing picturesque villages and ancient mills. Pleasure craft may be hired at various points but progress can sometimes be infuriatingly slow because of an eccentric system of locks, with turbulent gate sluices as the water rises and lock keepers afflicted with the hereditary deafness from which so many seem to suffer.
The Loir, often confused with the Loire, the longest river in France, is another tributary of the Sarthe. Look out for the hollows in its chalky banks, which over the centuries have served as convenient stores and improvised dwellings. It flows by a town with many fine 17th century buildings, La Flèche, literally The Arrow, which suggests some swashbuckling past but more probably the name derives from the Latin fixa, a peg, from the early Roman settlement built on piles in the Loir. La Flèche was felt to be so boring in the 18th century, when it had only one café, that transgressors were sent there as a punishment. The poet Jean Baptiste Gresset, exiled from Amiens for satirising the Jesuits, took his revenge on La Flèche by emphasizing its ordinariness:
Un climat assez agréable
De petits bois assez mignons,
Un petit vin assez potable,
De petits concerts assez bons,
Un petit monde assez passable,
La Flèche pourrait être aimable,
S’il était de belles prisons.
Aclimate fairly nice,
Small woods fairly lovely,
Asmall wine fairly acceptable,
Small concerts fairly good,
Asmall world fairly tolerable,
La Flèche could be pleasant,
If there were pleasant prisons.
In the 15th century a rather more exciting inhabitant of La Flèche for a time was Gilles de Rais, one of Joan of Arc’s captains, a marshal of France at 25, whose distinguished career ended in a celebrated trial for Satanism, abduction, and child murder. Earlier Gilles had fought and won a bloody single combat, removing his opponent’s arm, his leg and finally his head, at the Château du Lude on the Loir. It is hard to imagine such a gory event taking place at this exquisite château, one of the best, yet least known, in the whole of France. The walls of the Lude sink dramatically beneath the waters of the Loir in a delightful reflection that enhances its grandeur. Few castles have made such an effective transition from 15th century fortress to 18th century elegant residence and it has remained in the same family for more than 250 years.
At the heart of the Sarthe lies Le Mans, a prisoner of the motor car ever since Renault relocated there after the First World War and the city became, in 1923, the location of the annual 24-hour endurance test of men and machines, undoubtedly the most famous event in motor racing. The original circuit, when little attention was paid to safety, ran through the city suburbs. In those pioneer days the race could be watched from the city walls, the best preserved Gallo-Roman fortifications outside Rome itself. They dominate the surrounding medieval streets and if you look closely, you can see that each colossal tower has a different pattern. The unknown builders experimented with different mortars to create a geometric décor of chevrons, diamonds, triangles and hour-glasses. The Saint-Julien Cathedral, completed in the 15th century, rivals Chartres for its beauty: the nave is a treasure of Roman art and the chancel apse a superb example of Gothic art. Just as unique in its own way is the Jardin des Plantes, a fascinating combination of the best of French gardens, with a superb rosary, and the best of English, with many remarkable trees. It was fashioned in the 19th century by a certain Monsieur Alphand, director of the gardens of Paris, who was poached by Le Mans to emulate his achievements in the Bois de Boulogne.
Le Mans old town
Château at Le Lude - plant market
River trips down the Loir
Les 24 heures
Le Mans cathedral
© CDT Sarthe