Stepping Back into French History

Article excerpt

Byline: Karen Hambridge

IN all of my 40-odd years I had never been across that small stretch of water to enjoy the ancient kingdom of Gaul.

Then the chance came up to visit Mayenne, the smallest department in the country, nestled in an area of France to the south of Normandy and east of Brittany.

It's a rural area often bypassed by the uninformed traveller. Naturally the people of Mayenne would like that to change and so I was on a mission to find out what the area had on offer. s

Getting to Mayenne is simple enough. A seat on Eurostar takes you to Paris Gare du Nord where a short Metro hop across the city to Gare Montparnasse allows access to the French rail network, the SNCF.

It's a 1 ' -hour journey to Laval, the main town in the region. From there you can pick up a hire car to explore the area fully.

That was what was in store for us. A hire car, three nights' bed and breakfast in three towns, in three different styles of accommodation.

First stop was the weird and wonderful outdoor museum of eccentric artist and Laval's own son, Robert Tatin, at Coss-le-Vien. Using chicken wire, concrete and paint Tatin created a sculpture garden of strange sculptures, celebrating other artists, the environment and man's place in the universe.

On the way to the museum and to our first overnight stop at La Baconnire, we drove along deserted country roads.

This was the story of the weekend. A rolling rural idyll with strange-faced cows in the fields, the odd chateau on the horizon and traffic numbers you could count on one hand.

"It's a beautiful place, really calm and peaceful but people just don't know about it," said one expat whom we bumped into at dinner on the last night.

"People drive through it on the way to Normandy or Brittany maybe and aren't aware of what the area has to offer."

For us at La Baconnire it was a treehouse and a new one at that.

Hostess Flavie and her family had come to this sleepy part of rural France four years ago to run a farmhouse B& B. After renovating a farmhouse they now offer two comfortable B& B rooms with large shared bathroom and sitting/TV area and two treehouses.

Their first treehouse has been a hit for weekend bookings and they hope their second will be just as successful.

Climbing a steep ladder you reach the door of the bedroom, with a low but comfortable double bed and just enough room for luggage and to move around. Then it's out on to the balcony, avoiding lowlying branches and the occasional bug.

The toilet is in a corner of the deck, with a raised bench and hole over a baglined bucket. It's all very eco-friendly; you sprinkle wood chippings into the bag before using the loo, top it up with more chippings, then tie it up, attach it to the pulley on the other side of the balcony and lower it to the ground.

Anyone requiring more mod-con facilities can always trot to the farmhouse where the loo flushes, there's electricity and hot and cold running water.

But why would you want to do that? Roughing it for the night is part of the fun.

St Suzanne was our port of call the following morning, after a picnic basket breakfast of jam, croissants and coffee, hoisted up on the pulley.

Once besieged by William the Conqueror, the sleepy village is famed for its ruined medieval stronghold, dating from the 12th century. The ramparts of the crumbling keep offer stunning vistas of undisturbed rural landscapes. A chateaux, Le Lodge, built in the early 1600s, is restored and houses an exhibition on the history of the area. …