Wild at Sarthe: Pays-de-la-Loire

Wild at Sarthe: Pays-de-la-Loire

There are four hungry wolves prowling outside the hotel window, traces of their saliva clearly visible on the glass. When I’d told my children we were spending a wild week in Sarthe, they had hardly expected it to be this wild. Their fear subsides somewhat when I point out that the wolves are surrounded on four sides by high glass windows, one of which doubles up as the hotel’s living rooms.

The Zoo de la Flèche, in the south of Sarthe (a department in the Pays-de-la-Loire), is the most original I’ve ever visited – one where you can spend the night in a lodge slap bang next to the animal enclosures. There are four lodges currently available, two overlooking the Arctic wolves and two next to the white tigers. Next year the owners will complete a fifth lodge whose main window will double up as one side of the polar bear’s swimming pool. It’s like Jurassic Park but with marginally fewer teeth.

At this zoo everything is geared up for total visitor immersion. There are no cages to be seen, only glass barriers, wooden fences, moats and – when there’s real danger lurking – the odd electric fence. And what a difference it makes. You’re no closer to the animals than in a normal cage-bound zoo, but somehow it feels more intimate. And the animals appear more content.

It’s a similar mentality at the second Sarthe zoo we visited, Spaycific’Zoo, in Spay, just south of Le Mans. Here, visitors are allowed to walk freely through many of the enclosures, petting or avoiding the animals, depending on their mood or the number of claws/teeth. Wallabies, parrots, bats, pelicans, tortoises, pot-bellied pigs, weaver birds and goats were all to be found flapping or roaming about. The kid goats were a particular attraction to my own kids. In fact they couldn’t leave them alone.

My children were just as animated the following day when we found ourselves at an amusement park in Le Mans itself called Papéa Parc. Here we subjected ourselves to various wild adventure rides designed to uncouple us from our stomachs. When the summer heat got too much we sat by the pool and sent the kids down the water slides.

That evening, fully clothed this time, we wandered round Le Mans old town, gawping at the amazing light shows on offer. On summer nights, from July to September, the Sarthe capital comes alive with its annual festival of light, La Nuit des Chimères. It’s an art form the French have honed to perfection. Some of the most innovative or brilliant (literally) light artists in the world are from France. And judging by the displays we were seeing, many of them had been hired that summer by Le Mans. Enormous projectors threw moving images onto the medieval brickwork of the town’s finest buildings.

Much of the subject matter was linked to Le Mans’ Plantagenet past, so plenty of medieval characters, kings, queens, angels and demons. The most impressive light show of all was projected onto the town’s stunning Saint Julien Cathedral. One of the largest cathedrals in France, its every window, every buttress, every stone was perfectly lit with a different coloured light. On such a massive backdrop, the overall effect was like tiny pixels combining to create the main image on a mighty cinema screen.

That night we stayed in a cabin bed-and-breakfast on the edge of town; one cabin for me and my wife, one for the two kids. It may sound a bit too rustic for a city break but it was actually perfect. The proprietor had built three wooden cabins (with all the mod cons you’d expect) in her back garden, just far enough away from the town centre to avoid the traffic noise, but close enough to amble in on foot.

Le Mans is such a small city that after just a few minutes’ walk from the centre, you find yourself in the suburbs. And what is it about some of the Le Mans street names? Town planners must have been in a very macabre mood at one of the naming committees. Boulevard Bobby Sands? He was one of the IRA hunger strikers. Not the most appropriate name for a nice leafy avenue through the suburbs. What about Rue des Résistants Internés?

It strikes you as a tad unusual, as you’re strolling down this sunny boulevard with plane trees on either side. As for Rue des Victimes du Nazisme – try saying that to your taxi driver on the way home after a boozy Saturday night. At least the town planners had lightened up a bit when they chose to name one of the streets leading off the river: Rue de Ah! Ah! Interpret that any way you want.

Toponymy notwithstanding, the Le Mans town planners have done a sterling job. As well as ensuring the medieval and Roman sections of the city are preserved in all their finery, the developments along the River Sarthe, that bisects Le Mans, deserve a mention too, especially l’Ile aux Planches Park. Spread across a three-hectare island in the river, it’s an old electricity board site that – thanks to an injection of €6.2 million – was in 2008 transformed into a wonderful little city park complete with botanical garden and children’s playground. The evening we visited, there was an acrobatic display and an open-air cinema showing Steven Spielberg’s Tintin movie. The kids certainly thought that was wild.

Even wilder things awaited. The following night we stayed in a farm gîte on the edge of the River Sarthe. The night after that we were guests at the Château de Chanteloup. Actually, that’s not entirely true. If you can’t afford to stay in the château then at least stay in the shadow of the château, as we did.

We found ourselves in a huge glamping tent with a proper bed, fridge and random pieces of antique furniture and artworks that had obviously been pilfered at some point from the château. It was the last night of the season and already the majority of holidaymakers had headed back to work or for school rentrée. We woke late under our posh canvas and found the grounds virtually deserted. Fortunately the owner, Dominique Souffront, had agreed to let us hang around the whole day, so we cooled off in his enormous swimming pool and swanned round the gardens like victorious revolutionary peasants not quite sure what to do with their new-found property.

By the late afternoon, though, our reign of terror was over. Our hosts were back in charge of the château and we were heading for our final wild destination: Les Domaines de l’Ane, a guesthouse and donkey sanctuary in the far north of the Sarthe department. Part of our stay included a donkey ride for our kids through the surrounding countryside. All went swimmingly, with the kids astride their new friend whose wildest antic was to stop every now and then to munch lush grass on the side of the road. But then, just as we arrived back at our guesthouse, my eldest daughter got too close to the donkey’s hooves. She let out a little yelp as one of them squashed and bruised her toes.

That week we’d experienced wolves, white tigers, polar bears, scary amusement park rides and the Rue des Victimes du Nazisme. But in the end it was the cuddly donkey that proved to be wildest of all.

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