My time in France is beginning to draw to a close. I do actually still have five weeks left in-country (not counting the two weeks’ holiday at the end of the month, which I’ll be splitting between Croatia and the UK) as I’ve just had approval for the extension of my teaching contract by another month. But even so, if those five weeks go anywhere near as quickly as the last six and a half months have gone, I’ll be out of here in no-time – so I have begun a marathon attempt to squeeze every day off and weekend dry, fitting in all the places I have been meaning to visit since October but haven’t quite round to seeing just yet.
First on the list was Angers, which I visited on Monday. A friend from university in Bath, also on placement this year and also teaching, works in Angers but lives very close to me in central Nantes. Everyone else seems to have visited her there already, something which for me has been on the cards since I arrived and yet which, like everything else, had fallen to the bottom of the pile.
As little as 35 minutes from Nantes on the TGV fast train (or an annoying hour and a quarter if you miss the TGV by minutes, as I did, and end up having to take the local TER train), Angers gets a rather bad introduction in the Rough Guide. Overall its write-up is pretty favourable, but first impressions are everything, and describing it as ‘a rather depressing place’ where people are unfriendly and don’t smile (show me a place in France that isn’t like that!) is hardly going to inspire you to pack your bags and go there on a whimsical jolly.
Frankly, my advice is (as so often, unfortunately) to ignore the Rough Guide – or at least that poorly researched intro to the Angers entry, and head to the city anyway. Sure, I was going to like it because I was there on a beautiful sunny day and meeting a friend, but it is hard to see what about the place could fail to please. Your entry point to a city that feels so much more Loire-like (and yet it’s actually on the Maine!) than still-Brittany-under-the-surface Nantes, the train station is just a short walk from the centre (again, ignore the suggestion you should take the bus and get a feel for it on foot). From there you can choose between a beautifully manicured Jardin des Plantes, a wealth of high street, boutique and independent shopping options, quirky Victorian back streets, a magnificent cathedral and a château that even without stepping inside (I didn’t on this visit) can only be described as breathtaking.
Perhaps I am beginning to unfairly downrate Nantes in the way that you inevitably always do when you begin living somewhere even relatively long-term, taking for granted what you have there, but everything I saw in Angers rated more highly for me than Nantes’ equivalent offer. The Jardin des Plantes, for one, may be right next to high-rise council estate-like buildings that tower over it in parts, but this doesn’t take away one bit from the quiet beauty and fancy grandeur of the park. It has the feel of a sprawling country estate in a way that Nantes’ own Jardin des Plantes feels more like an attempt at something stunning that has ended up as more of a regular city centre park. I am not knocking the one in Nantes, which in areas is also very tranquil, but by comparison to Angers it feels cramped, where Angers wins out on width and certainly on flower arrangements in the borders. Angers also did well out of the fact that I visited mid-week, whereas most of my trips to the park in Nantes have been at the weekend, when it is undoubtedly going to be busier. Either way, though, despite feeling so grand, Angers’ also seems a lot more lived in and used by the locals – big groups of grannies sitting outside the little church building catching up with one another and taking in the sun’s rays, and others sat solitary on benches elsewhere, reading a newspaper or simply taking a moment’s midday pause.
If pretty planted tulips aren’t enough to steal the show, then the cathedral surely must come close. Walking up to it from the side of the Maine river involves a trek up a considerable flight of old steps, but is well worth it and makes for by far the best approach – the impressive front of the cathedral at once striking even from far at the bottom. This is a beautiful building, and one from which you are also afforded great views back down those same steps and out across the water.
By the far the jewel of Angers’ crown, though, is its château. I didn’t even get inside – by this time I was almost out of the four or so hours I had given myself there, almost an hour of which had already gone on hot chocolate in Atelier Café (highly recommended for its quirky, shabby-chic-meets-grungy-student feel) – and yet I was so impressed by its striking appearance from the exterior that it ended up contributing forty-five of the 181 photos I took that day (and I was rather snap-happy in the Jardin des Plantes, too).
My instinct since walking alongside the huge, alternately dark and light stone layered turrets that somewhat resemble the look of a cake with alternate layers of chocolate and vanilla sponge, has been to describe them as looking like gas cylinders, the sort that you see at the side of roads in suburbs and the visible sides of which rise and fall as gas enters and leaves them. I realise that, much like the Rough Guide description of Angers as a ‘depressing’ city, this simile doesn’t really sell them very well, and to be fair probably doesn’t do them much justice – but that is indeed what they look like, in a far more attractive way than any gas cylinder could ever manage. These numerous turrets, which line the outside wall of the castle in an amazingly resistant demonstration of their protection of what lies inside, demand undivided attention from the second they come into view, and are striking beyond comprehension. In many ways because of their sheer size, they are the decisive factor that again means Angers easily wins out over Nantes without a moment’s thought in château wow-factor. These turrets tower into the sky, casting great shadows on the grass alongside them and putting on a show of majesty that Nantes fails to live up to, cramped between shops on one side and a tramline on the other. The expanse of the grounds of the château is in itself also very impressive – I walk fast, and it still took me a good while to get around the whole lot, with the houses and cliff face-like edges. If there is one place to visit in Angers then it is this, and I shall be back to see the tapestries that are housed inside – ironic that I didn’t get to see them this time, since they were the main reason the city was recommended to me!
It is probably typical away-from-home grass-is-greener behaviour that dictated how much I have been seduced by Angers, but the city seems to offer so much that Nantes doesn’t – a quieter general feel, ever so slightly smaller but still cosmopolitan enough, being likely the most attractive. With great connections to both Paris and Nantes, it makes for a very worthy stop by.