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Credit Derrick J Matthews For most of us, when we think of the Loire Valley it's the grand chateaux and grand wines that pop into our minds – but there’s another aspect to this stunning part of France that’s no less impressive. Though the Loire Valley is UNESCO listed for its cultural landscape, historic towns and great architectural monuments, there is a rather sleepier side to the Maine et Loire department. It’s a place of hidden gems, amazing gastronomy, a village of roses, less well-known chateaux that look like something out of a fairy tale and towns that are pickled in the past. So when you head for the greats – look out for the great but off the beaten track places and double the pleasure of your visit… Saumur Saumur is a tranquil sort of town with a friendly ambience. It’s a great place for those who love culture, history, beautiful architecture, wine and great French cuisine. And, let’s face it, it doesn’t get much more tempting than that does it?! 5000 years ago there were settlers here and just 2km from Saumur you'll find the biggest funeral chamber in Europe, left behind by those early inhabitants. A huge dolmen which bizarrely is located in the garden of a pub that's privately owned and currently for sale. If you’re interested in owning a property which dates back to probably about the time the most ancient of Egyptian pyramids were being built – have a look at the Dolman de Bagneux! The Plantagenets bought good times to the town, building a bridge over the River Loire which helped it prosper. Then Saumur mostly seemed to go to sleep and not much happened until the religious wars began in France. Protestants from around the world found refuge and safety in Saumur. They bought with them new ideas, set up a university and changed the face and pace of this tranquil place.
Credit: Terry Webb Urbanisation of Saumur came with the Age of Enlightenment (mid 17th century). It brought an attempt to eradicate the bad old ways including sadly, the abolishment of medieval buildings. They were considered dark, damp, small and unsanitary. The movement took place all over France and though today we are horrified by the destruction, then it was seen as a wonderful opportunity to improve living conditions and create a better place. New buildings went up, made with light coloured stone, wide avenues and airy squares were constructed. Luckily, laziness prevailed enough to keep some of those wonderful old buildings. Saumur today is a flowery town which feels prosperous and unhurried, those cream coloured buildings have mellowed and contrast beautifully with their pale shutters. It’s a great place for wandering. You’ll discover the remains of the ancient walls of the city,and plenty of surprises. Head to the Belvedere Hotel and push a button on a gate to enter a pretty courtyard, walk down “the streets of hell” and into Place st Pierre, lined with beautiful buildings some of which go back to the 15th century. Here you will find plenty of cafés and places to while away the hours while you enjoy the local wine and produce - it's a gourmet pleasure Place. Don’t miss Saumur Chateau built in the 12th century. It was converted to a military barracks and later a prison, causing it to lose its looks. However it has been partially restored after architect Jean Drapeau found a picture by chance in a chapel showing it as a fairytale looking castle in 1410. He restored the towers and gold finials of this quite enormous building. It's not furnished, but absolutely worth going to for its good looks and the view over the town and the river – it is stunning.
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