For a long time, Anjou was not even a part of France. The region, not far from the Atlantic coast had its own duke who was related to the king of France but an autonomous entity. As the kingdom of the House of Bourbons expanded, more and more principalities were assimilated (for example, Nice became French only in the 1860s before which it was appended to Liguria in Italy). It is ironic that Angers, which was the capital of Anjou, is today regarded as such a cultural hinterland that people say they speak the best French here. The Tourangeaux (inhabitants of Tours) will disagree and vie for the spot (they have Balzac to boast of).
However, that does not change the fact that with its chateau in the style of the famous castles of the Loire Valley (UNESCO World Heritage properties), important rivers such as Maine and Loire touching it, and its own unique style of church architecture (the Gothic Angevin), not to forget the famous orange liqueur, Cointreau, the city has become a symbol of la vie provinciale. Even today around three O’clock in the afternoon, if you walk into a cafe, you will have a bow-tied waiter calling you Monsieur and fetching you your Perrier with ice (sparkling water) or a glass of white wine, while old ladies in their fur caps discuss the future prospects of their bright grand-daughters.
I spent a weekend in this provincial hub, which along with Nantes and Le Mans are the biggest of the cities of Pays de la Loire. The weather held good mostly, and even though the river Maine that grazes the foot of the cathedral was muddy and overflowing its banks, a light symphony of Spring could be heard in the air. If February was so mild, I gladly imagined what April or May would have been.
By the riverside
In France you can pretty much tell the part you are travelling in by the material and the colour of the toits (roofs). In the north grey tends to predominate, while in south more exuberant colours such as red (for instance, the curved tiles of Vieux Lyon) are also to be seen. The roofs here were lofty, rising into the air with a quiet dignity.
They were composed of slate tiles from the local quarries the shape of which was in fact reproduced by chocolate-makers to resemble small sweetmeats and called Quernans d’Ardoise which are, in turn, always a hit with tourists. I walked around the edge of the castle, crossed the river, and for the first time, took the landscape into perspective.
On the right, was the famous chateau, its walls dark and speechless in the afternoon. Further away stood the silhouette of St Maurice Cathedral. On the left were some of the other quartiers and landmarks of Angers. On the banks, some fishermen had dipped their rods into the river and they sat patiently next to peniches (boats) that were often somebody’s home or a restaurant. The flood had made the access difficult but this did not affect the enthusiasm of the veteran anglers.
The grass was greener than it is in Paris, because the proximity to the sea brings in constant moisture, and the sun shone with a persistent brilliance. Couples walked on the promenade. Tourists clicked pictures and young girls in frocks rode their bicycles. The winter had suddenly thawed revealing a fresh landscape bracketed by both nature and history.
The sacred and the divine
Inside the St Maurice Cathedral, the only sound was silence and the protracted hum of incoming pilgrims. There was a service going on at that time and I stood in the corners and marvelled at the giant orgue (organ) above me. Even though the high roof was strictly Gothic, I saw a touch of Baroque in the altar architecture. From the outside, of course, it was impossible to predict how warm and mystically-charged it would be inside.
The cathedrale St-Maurice is situated on a mound of sorts with flights of stairs flanked by streetlights running to from the river. A friend told me it is a common pastime among the youth of Angers to compete for who runs the fastest to the porte (door) from the base up the slope. To the right of the entrance is a chapel where the normal paraphernalia of sacredness such as Christ’s crib and medieval oil paintings are stacked, but I was particularly struck by the stained glass windows which have apparently been created by local master-artists over the centuries.
The cathedral is one of the finest exemplars of the Gothic Angevin style (again with the same stark elegance as in the grey roofs), but another interesting architectural landmark is the Maison d’Adam just behind it. From a distance it looks like a Tudor building but if you look carefully you notice that the basement is narrower than the floors on top. You also see the ornate work on the columns and it resembles a very carefully cropped tree.
I sat on a cafe-terrace with my chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) looking at both the buildings and how different and yet complementary they looked together. The Angevins (inhabitants of Angers) came out to shop on the avenues and it seemed to me that among other establishments there were two sorts that were conspicuous by their abundance: lingerie stores and creperies.
The Republic of Culinaria
Like Bretagne, Anjou has a reputation for its crepes. Note that here, unlike many other parts of France the savoury crepes (with fillings such as Emmental cheese, bacon bits called lardons, local pork scratching called Rillauds, and even tuna) are called galettes (literally a flat cake) while crepes refer to only those with sweet or fruity fillings. The crepe-walla has his little counter on the street and he cooks on a thick flat griddle like that of the dosa-maker. People queue up eagerly to see him spread the batter or work his instrument in a circular motion to make it thin and crunchy. A thick steam spreads around him as he works.
One sees a lot of orange on restaurant menus in Angers as well whether it is the zest, or Cointreau liqueur used as an ingredient. I was impressed with combinations such as Magret de Canard Roti à l’orange (Duck roasted in orange sauce) and Souffle glace au cointreau (Cointreau Souffle). However, to my mind nothing matches the excellence of French boulangerie (breadmaking). In Angers, as you walk the Centre Ville (the Historic quarter) numerous expert bakers-patissiers vie for your attention. Deliciously glazed pain au chocolats and croissants sit in piles behind glass displays making it impossible for you not to enter. Since 5 O’clock is the ideal time for the short meal which the French call gôuter (similar to a six O’clock snack in India) I paused in my rambling plans for a while to have a thick black coffee and the most scrumptious chocolate croissant in the world.
Make it happen
Like any destination in Europe, Indian citizens need a Schengen visa to visit France.
How to Get There
Angers is located in the Maine-et-Loire Department of the Pays de la Loire state, around 300km south-west of Paris. From India, it is still your best bet to arrive in Paris (current ex-Mumbai economy airfare Rs 40,000 approx.) and take the 1 hr and 40 minutes or so TGV to Angers (direction Nantes) from Gare Montparnasse. The ticket starts as cheap as €20 (one-way) and can be booked on www.voyages-sncf.com
Around the City
The Chateau d’Angers is open all days of the week except on certain public holidays between 9.30 am & 6.30 pm in the summer, and 10 am and 5.30 pm in the winter. An ordinary ticket costs v 8,50 (free for minors).
What to Buy
There is a weekend market at Place Leclerc on Saturdays between 8 am and 1 pm. Here, you can try everything from local wines (Anjou A.O.P., for example) to charcuterie, from seasonal vegetables to stuffed olives. Sample some of the varieties of goat cheese (such as the vigorously pungent Buchette Moelleuse, the hard and waxy Crottin Affine, or the creamy Rond Moelleux) from this stall called La Galichere (email@example.com) just to get an idea.
Otherwise, walk into this boutique called Les Treilles Gourmandes (Ph: 02 41 95 82 82) to procure locally-made foie gras or Magret de Canard seche (smoked duck breast).