by Matthew Head,
Nestled on the banks of the Loire, the historic town of Saumur is a great place to visit during a Loire Valley holiday. This is a guide to its best sights.
With many of its buildings built from the beautifully light colored tuffeau stone, Saumur (like many of the Loire towns,) has an almost fairytale feel to it. The buildings are historic, yet look so new and clean, and there are lots of narrow streets full of shops – some old and quaint selling souvenirs and traditional items, and others more modern selling fashion – such as you’d expect in a modern town of the 21st century. It’s this clash of ancient and modern that makes Saumur an ideal place for a day out – you can enjoy the history without feeling that you’re stuck in a timewarp. Three words could probably sum up this beautiful town. Horses, Chateau, Tanks. It’s almost worth saying you could sum it up in four words and say Horses twice, that’s how prominently they feature. I’ll now go on to explain those three in more detail.
Horses are so prominent in Saumur because of the National School of Horsemanship that resides there. Whether you’re a fan of horses or not, you can still appreciate the stamp that the equine creatures have made on the town with their hooves. It’s a stamp of majestic pageantry, which culminates in a great show called the Carrousel each year featuring the Cadre Noir – the name of the display team who have called Saumur their home since 1821. On your visit you might not be lucky enough to catch the horses in action, but their presence is still felt through the schools buildings and training grounds which are very visible, and through the souvenirs that are on sale throughout the town. If you are more deeply interested in the horses then you can visit the school and watch some of the training going on. It’s best to visit the office d’tourisme for details though, as times do vary.
The Chateau in Saumur is the town’s most visible landmark. If you’re approaching from the north (as I always do when I arrive in the valley) you’ll cross the bridge over the Loire and see the town, with the chateau rising up beautifully above the other buildings. This view is particularly stunning at night, when the chateau is all lit up. You could well imagine watching this scene that there was still a king or a lord up in the chateau, looking down on his subjects in the town below. Visiting the chateau is easy. You can drive up there, but if you’ve parked in town already then it really is much easier to walk – only a short climb on foot via the Allee des Menestrels. I say short, well, it is, but it’s also quite steep.
Don’t be put off though as just as you’re probably thinking that maybe you should have taken the car you’ll be there. Last time I went we got a reduced ticket price as parts of the chateau were closed for renovations. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but at least they were prepared to give you a discount in the event of you not being able to see the whole thing. There is the chateau proper and then a selection of outbuildings – some of which have been converted into little museums and exhibitions (including one dedicated to our horse friends from the school in the town below). In the summer months too there are frequently actors who are all dressed up in medieval costumes, hanging about in tents and roasting pigs on spits and so on, which is all great fun and really gets you in the mood for the chateau. The chateau itself is stunning, with a history dating back to the 10th century. There are dungeons and turrets to explore, and the views are simply breathtaking, so it’s well worth a visit even if history isn’t really your bag.
In line with the chateau and the horses, Saumur also has quite a strong military history. The Armoured Cavalry Branch of the French military has its training school here. For the non-military expert, this means tanks. Once upon a time it would have been horses, but now it’s tanks. There is still a strong link between the horses and the tanks though, and they both display together at the annual Carrousel. The Musee des Blindes is a specialist tank museum in the town, and it’s one of the worlds largest. I went there slightly dubious, as I have to be honest tanks never really interested me, but after looking at the sheer amount of vehicles on display I couldn’t help but get into it, and by the time I got round to the gift shop I was itching to buy a little tank model that you put together and painted at home. My advice would be to go in whether you think you’re interested or not, as I’m certain you’ll be impressed.
Needless to say there are numerous restaurants and cafes in the towns various squares that are all brilliant. For me you can’t beat a baguette or a little cake from a patisserie, and Saumur isn’t short of those. One thing I would mention – toilets. Walking about the town I found facilities few and far between, but I did eventually track some down in the indoor market in the Place St. Pierre, so if you’re stuck then head there! Oh and Coco Chanel was born there! How about that for a claim to fame!