Meander along the river less travelled in Vallee du Loir

la fleche zoo

la fleche zoo - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton and family enjoy a visit to the quieter, lesser known Loir valley with its lovely river, castles, wine and historic sites.

Chateau de bauge

Chateau de bauge - Credit: Archant

The road – or the river – less travelled is often the more rewarding; a mantra that could well apply to a French region that often gets confused with its busier, bigger sister.

The Vallee du Loir – without an e – lies 50km north of its more famous namesake, but offers a quieter, idyllic setting to enjoy the pleasures of the river, its pretty villages and historic sites.

After crossing to Caen with Brittany Ferries, we were in La Fleche just over two hours later. The six-plus-hour journey, taking in breakfast, a movie, and a ship’s-eye tour of Portsmouth harbour, has become as hotly anticipated a part of our annual jaunt to France as buying our first croissants in the boulangerie.

In this riverside town, Henri IV founded a royal college that is now an elite military academy. We stayed in a hotel named after him, or at least his nickname.

Le Vert Galant is a good value, child-friendly Logis with an attractive rear terrace where we enjoyed an evening drink with the children after a wander along the river. Nearby is one of France’s best zoos, well-laid out along wooded, shady paths it’s a pleasure to linger here for a whole day. You are rewarded with sights of rarely seen animals like a swimming polar bear (just be warned polar bears stink!) or lions and tigers pacing their large enclosures.

The next day we pushed on to Bauge where restorers of the 15th Century castle have created an interactive family friendly interpretation of its medieval history, including a multi-media film-show and hands-on exhibits.

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It was at the battle of Bauge in 1421 that our own Duke of Clarence, brother and heir of Henry V perished at the hands of a pesky Scottish-French alliance during the 100 years war.

Time-travelling forward a few centuries, we had a fascinating tour of the town’s hospice and perfectly preserved 16th Century apothecary, (pictured left) where once again the kids were encouraged to touch the exhibits and discover for themselves how the sick were treated and healed in the past.

The Loir is full of admittedly lower-key surprises than the better known Loire, where successive kings of France built their grand chateaux.

But the castle at Le Lude would give any of them a run for their money. Built on the banks of the river it was converted from a medieval stronghold into a luxurious palace by the descendants of Louis XI’s chamberlain Jehan De Daillon, who employed the finest craftsmen of the Italian Renaissance to create a façade and stunning ceilings that are among the best examples in France.

See also the perfectly preserved kitchens and lovely gardens including an orangery, rose garden, maze, and kitchen garden.

Velo tourists can cycle from Le Lude to Chateaux-du-Loir along dedicated paths, and for the active there is also kayaking at Marcon. For those wishing to linger you can also tour the vineyards making delicious and good value local appellations Coteaux du Loir or Le Jasnieres.

In truth the Loir’s a great stop-off if you are heading south, as we were, to a holiday home in the Brenne region south of the Loire (with an e).

Famed for its etangs or lagoons, it’s a huge national park where there’s little todo except bird watching and walking. A perfect do-nothing escape from our busy life in London.