The historic city of Angers in western France – a stepping stone into the Loire Valley – is a train ride from London. It boasts a formidable medieval castle (once the power base for England’s Plantagenet Kings), boulevards, fine squares and family-run cafes and restaurants, and is home to a world-famous liqueur.
It is also right up-to-date, with one of Europe’s biggest botanical gardens and a new tram system.
1. Perfectly placed rooms
It was an easy, stress-free train trip to Angers from London St Pancras, with one change in Lille. We stayed at the Hotel de France, on the square directly opposite the railway station. From here it’s a five-minute walk to the castle, and 10 to the city centre, parks and museums.
The Hotel de France is a comfortable, family-run business that has welcomed visitors straight off the train for a century, sensibly directing them, as they did us, into the excellent Les Plantagenets Restaurant, which is part of the hotel. www.hoteldefrance-angers.com
2. Gliding on grass
The city’s gleaming new harlequin-liveried tram (launched in 2011) has made too-far-to-walk-to attractions easy to reach. It cost £2.90 (R42) for a 24-hour, go-anywhere ticket, which you touch against a reader.
We glided elegantly and quietly through the pedestrianised heart of the city, down tramways partly set into grass to deaden the sound, and through the spruced-up central square, Place du Ralliement. We ticked off likely shops, restaurants, cafes and an opera house for a later visit.
The line has its own bridge over the river Maine. From our backwards-facing seat we had an epic view of the cathedral and the castle on the hill.
3. Gardener’s World
Take the tram to the remarkable Terra Botanica, on the northern edge of town. It opened in 2010 and is a theme park devoted entirely to plants. Terra Botanica is a sensory delight, full of colour and aroma, as ambitious and compelling as a David Attenborough nature series. It’s a garden for our times, celebrating the plants of the world – useful, mysterious, domesticated and extremely rare.
We wandered through the abundant habitats of the world, from the Louisiana Bayou via Cleopatra’s tulips to a glade of living prehistoric trees. We took a trip in a guided, unmanned boat and soared through the trees in pedal-driven “nutshells”. Crazy and wonderful, it’s worth a full day, and more. www.terrabotanica.fr
4. King of the castles
Louis IX of France upgraded the Plantagenet King Henry II’s fort on a rocky ridge overhanging the river Maine into one of the most powerful citadels in France 800 years ago. Inside the immense dark walls is the 30m-long Book of Revelations tapestry depicting the end of the world. Louis commissioned it as a piece of 14th century propaganda – Henry is one of the seven-headed monsters.
A tranquil antidote to the apocalypse is a walk through the cobbled streets of the ecclesiastical quarter to the cathedral, worth a visit for the stained-glass windows alone. Walk over the river to the Quartier de la Doutre, a medieval backwater off the main tourist beat.
5. Wines and spirit
We scaled a steep slope and saw hills smothered in vines rolling away in all directions. At Savennieres, a little more than 20km west of Angers, is Chateau des Vaults where Mme de Pontbriand trusts you to find your own way around her vineyards, following her helpful English-language leaflet.
The 37 bus from Angers takes 30 minutes. Back in Angers, on the Cointreau factory tour, we discovered how the simple idea of turning two types of orange peel, sweet and bitter, into a colourless liqueur launched a global phenomenon. I liked the gallery of posters and adverts celebrating a century of selling a famous taste. www.savennieres-closel.com, www.remy-cointreau.com
6 No-fuss food
We settled at a cafe outside the station for pre-dinner drinks and paid £3.69 for two glasses of vin rosé. I happily recommend all three restaurants we sampled. We took our second evening meal at Mets et Vins Plaisirs and had lunch the next day at Chez Remi. Both are small, unpretentious and friendly, with knowledgeable staff.
It was good, unfussy cooking, with inventive variations on the staples of beef, duck and chicken. Chez Remi was just one narrow room, with cheerful red-painted wood, and Chef Remi was at work in his open-to-the-diners kitchen.– The Daily Mail