Time to Discover: Sarthe – Travelling Off the Beaten Path in France

Planning a weekend break in France and in need of inspiration? Escape to Chartres sur le Loir and Le Mans for a long weekend exploring France without the crowds. 

“No, not the Loire Valley, it’s the Loir Valley,” I find myself saying for the umpteenth time in a couple of days. 

“Just to the north of it’s famous cousin and named after one of the tributaries that feed into the river you’re thinking of”. I’m met with a blank stare – I’m used to it – it was my reaction a few weeks ago when I came across the Vallee du Loir. 

You see, the French have been hiding a naughty secret. 

Away from the near-madness that is the Loire Valley in the peak summer months, there’s another Loir – one without the crowds or the exorbitant hotels, instead offering a glimpse at the bucolic rural French life we sometimes dream of but rarely encounter. 

Le Mans is a gorgeous city
Le Mans is a gorgeous city

There’s wine (of course), gourmet food, long and leisurely bike rides alongside meandering rivers – in short, the kind of off the beaten path France that I’d started to despair no longer existed.  

Oh, it exists. 

Off the Beaten Path in France: Chartres Sur le Loir

An overnight hop on the ferry to Caens and a leisurely drive in the midsummer sunshine, and I’m sitting outside of the Hotel de France in La Chartre-sur-le-Loir. 

The village square is festooned with classic cars I know nothing about but can guess are very expensive judging from the near-lascivious looks Jon keeps throwing their way (he later confirms this to me, talking about his favourites in the kind of detail that probably deserved a more knowledgeable recipient). 

My Jasnieres wine, cold and with an exuberant bouquet so distinct it stops me on my first sip, is from a vineyard just down the road and makes the perfect companion to the lazy rest we’ve permitted ourselves after the overnight journey. 

We’ve checked into our first night’s accommodation Le Grand Moulin – a converted mill with a breathtaking view out onto the water that once powered it. 

Now all that lies ahead for the next few days is an itinerary of bike rides, vineyards and food – the thought alone thrills me. 

The Jasnieres Route

I hop on a bike, well e-bike at the sage advice of the local tourism officer Margaux – equipped with a map, a rather sweaty (mine) helmet and an emergency phone number I scoff at the idea of ever needing. 

As the sun gets hotter, I become increasingly grateful for the bike’s electronic push. With it, I can breeze along the river, thinking about very little other than the view in front of me and the ice-cold water that I hope awaits me at the first vineyard. Without it, I fear it would have been a hotter and grumpier story. 

The Loir River
The Loir River

The highlight of the ride is a visit to Domaine Lelais, which mainly produces the Jasnieres for which the region is known – but there’s a twist… in the form of an extensive network of caves winding their way under the vineyard and in which the wines are aged. 

Domaine Lelais
Domaine Lelais

In times past the hoi polloi used to troop down from Paris and stop off here on their way to the coast, using the caves for rowdy parties and debauchery – today I settle for a tour of the caves from the domaine’s owners and a tasting of the wines. 

Who needs a rowdy party when you can buy and stash as many bottles as will fit into your saddlebags anyway? 

Le Relais Ronsard 

Back in the Hotel de France for dinner, the meaning of the mysterious cars is revealed. The hotel is a much-loved stop for drivers and fans of the 24 Hrs Le Mans Race that descends on nearby Le Mans every June. 

The walls are adorned with signed photos and memorabilia of the drivers who have passed through the hotel’s doors – even now, in July, the clientele has a distinct car-fanatic element going strong. 

Dinner at Le Relais Ronsard is formal without being overbearing, another thing the Hotel de France has something of a reputation for. It’s well-deserved. 

I go for the full hog – escargots, fish, creme brulee, Champagne – so much so that I have to pause and think about whether I can actually eat another bite by the time the cheese trolley rolls around (the answer is, of course, yes). 

It necessitates a long after-dinner walk before bed. 

Hiking in the Berce Forest

Creme Brulee

We spend the following days in a slightly less indulgent vein: hiking through the Berce Forest, 5,400 hectares of softwood and oak forest. 

Berce is all that remains of the much larger Carnuta Forest that once covered the region. The hike is followed up by popping into more vineyards, eating more food – maybe the day is equally indulgent after all. 

Exploring France Off The Beaten Path – Le Mans 

Soon, it’s time to hop into the car and move to our second destination for our long weekend exploring off the beaten path France – Le Mans. 

Le Mans is a gorgeous city
Le Mans is a gorgeous city

The car lovers among you may raise an eyebrow at me describing Le Mans as one of France’s off the beaten track spots. 

After all, the prestigious 24 Hours Le Mans race has been held here since the 1920s and the event draws a large crowd year after year (and explains the racing themed decor of my room in the Ibis). Yet few people talk about Le Mans itself. 

Why more people aren’t raving about Le Mans as the perfect French weekend break is a mystery. 

It has all the requisite ingredients – gorgeous architecture (the most impressive of which can be seen in the Plantagenet City – twenty hectares of cobbled streets, higgledy-piggledy buildings and Roman ruins that looks like it’s been plucked straight out of a fairytale). There’s even an expansive museum dedicated to the 24 Hours Le Mans race (rather good it is too). 

24 Hour Le Mans Museum
24 Hour Le Mans Museum

Discovering the Plantagenet City

Walking around with local tour guide Stephanie brings the city to life. 

She points to all the spots that have been used as filming locations – Molière, Cyrano de Bergerac and most recently, the upcoming Ford vs Ferrari film. 

It does have the feeling of a medieval film set – the wood-beamed houses and Plantagenet architecture perfectly preserved. But then you see flashes of modern life – a discotheque in a Renaissance building, chic restaurants with outdoor terraces that firmly place the city in the 21st century. 

Even older, the city’s elaborate wall is one of many legacies left behind by the Romans. 

There are only three Roman walls in the world still standing in such good condition – and one of them is in Rome. Here in Le Mans, it’s hard to believe that its patterns – still distinct and colourful today, were built so long ago. 

Le Mans’ cathedral stands tall above it all – peeping out from the skyline of the Plantagenet City, a mishmash of architectural styles from different centuries. 

La Nuit des Chimères

La Nuit de la Chimeres
La Nuit de la Chimeres

Dinner is at the stellar La Ciboulette. Just as we’re about to turn in, we’re pleasantly surprised to see the city’s buildings transformed via a series of intricate light installations – it’s part of the La Nuit des Chimères festival and the brainchild of urban scenography company Skertzò. 

Instead of sitting around drinking wine until we feel drowsy, we walk around in the warm evening air, tracing our way from installation to installation. 

A Different Side of Le Mans

Outside of the Plantagenet City, at the point where the Le Mans starts to morph into the countryside surrounding it, sits one of the city’s lesser-known sights: The L’Abbaye de l’Epau – an old abbey founded by and the final resting place of Berengaria of Navarre, wife of Richard the Lionheart. 

It’s a quaint spot, bought by the local government in 1958 who use it both to educate visitors of the history of the building and as a gallery for contemporary art. 

Once explored, we sit in the grounds, enjoying a light lunch from the Abbey’s restaurant. The trees dapple the ground, we eat slowly, savouring the sunshine and tranquility – and of course, a crisp Jasnieres to round everything off before we head back towards home. 

Tips to Help You Travel Off the Beaten Path France

Recommendations

Chartres Sur Le Loir 

  • Stay – Le Grand Moulin 
  • Eat – Le Relais Ronsard in the Hotel de France 
  • Do – Cycle the Vignoble de Jasnieres route. Shop in Les Semailles – the gorgeous antiques shop in the village. Visit the Carnuta Forest Museum. Hike in the Berce Forest. Explore the Caves at the Domaine Lelais. Drink plenty of Jasnieres to fuel the adventure. 

Le Mans 

  • Stay – in the Plantagenet City
  • Eat – La Ciboulette  for relaxed French cuisine. La Crêperie L’explorateur for delicious crepes and galettes. The restaurant at L’Abbaye de L’Epau for regional food in an al fresco setting.
  • Do. Take a guided tour of the Plantagenet City. Visit Le Mans Cathedral. Visit the 24 Hours Le Mans Museum. Spend time exploring  the L’Abbaye de l’Epau, Arche de la Nature, La Maison de la Prairie, La Maison de la Forêt and La Maison de l’Eau on the outskirts of town. 

Looking for more info? Check www.vallee-du-loir.com and www.paysdumans.fr 


While it is possible to follow this itinerary without a car, you’ll need to take a taxi between some of the destinations and a car will make it a lot easier. Compare car hire rates on Travelsupermarket or Holiday Autos

Weekend Break in France Itinerary: Getting There and Away

  • It’s easiest to tackle this itinerary with a car, although you could take a Eurostar and get the train to Le Mans if you only wanted to focus on Le Mans. 
  • If you’re travelling from the UK, I suggest taking the Thursday night overnight ferry (via Brittany Ferries) from Portsmouth to Caen and returning on an overnight ferry on Sunday or Monday. From Caen, it’s a 2.5 hour drive to La Chartres sur le Loir, less to Le Mans. 

Looking for more inspiration for your next European city break? Read these… 

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