A Family Break in the Sarthe, Northern France
A Family Break in the Sarthe, Northern France

A Family Break in the Sarthe, Northern France

I’ll be honest here – I didn’t know there was a Loir Valley as well as a Loire Valley. It’s not difficult to be confused – the Loir is in the Pays de la Loire region, while the Loire Valley is in the region called Centre. Easy, oui? Non

The great thing about the Loir is that while it isn’t as touristy as the Loire, there’s plenty to see and do. Also, being inland, it doesn’t have the manic crowds of the coasts during the summer holidays, and wherever you go, things feel calm and unstressful.

One of its main attractions for families is the Zoo de la Flèche with its conservation and research programs, including rescuing young elephants who’ve been rejected by the alpha-male. Highlights for us included L’île des Lémuriens, an area where lemurs roam free so you can get right up close, and the playful otters, but there are also lions, tigers, elephants and giraffes. The zoo even has fabulous lodges with toughened glass so you can stay overnight next to the polar bears, wolves or white tigers. The Arctic Lodge by the polar bears is like a high-end ski lodge; others have more of an ‘on-safari’ feel. You have to get in early if you want to stay over, though – they’re booked up months and months in advance.

The Loir Valley is very quiet and flat – ideal for cycle rides along the river and through pretty villages. The tourist office in La Flèche has bikes for hire, including a tandem for those who are feeling romantic and electric bikes for those who are feeling lazy. Our pre-booked package came with a gourmet picnic from a local boulangerie, complete with red-and-white checked napkins, which we enjoyed by the river at Luché-Pringé along the traffic-free Voie Verte or Greenway.

The vast Forest of Bercé is also a great place to explore by bike, with huge oak trees specially tended so they grow up rather than outwards. Some are around 300 years old and almost 50 metres tall. In nearby Jupilles, the imaginative Carnuta museum tells the story of how the forest is tended and what happens to the wood, with plenty of buttons to push, boxes to open, smells and sounds to experience and films to watch to keep kids interested. 

There are also castles to explore. The Château de Lude, owned by the same family for more than 250 years, offers six centuries of French architecture as it was adapted and expanded. It’s still lived in, so you have modern family snaps among the grand old portraits. In the basement the preserved Victorian kitchen is still used for cooking demonstrations, and the grounds include a maze and a 19th-century kitchen garden. Also worth a visit is the Château de Baugé, especially the 17th-century apothecary that includes remedies such as crayfish eyes and a real mummified finger.

When visiting a region named after its river, it’s always good to see it from the river too – which we did with Michel in La Chartre, whose unusual boat (the only one of its kind in France, apparently) looks more like a Jacuzzi. During our hour-long, ultra-relaxed cruise (we were the only boat on the river), he pointed out cute fisherman’s huts and passing wildlife.

We stayed in a large, comfortable mobile home-type chalet at the Base de Loisirs de Mansigné with its covered, heated pool. The site overlooks a lake, and a few minutes’ walk away there’s a playground, a sandy beach with a lifeguard and a simple restaurant and bar. Various activities are available around the lake, including pedaloing, circus skills and, while we were there, free archery for beginners.

Read more about the Loir Valley

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