Welcome to Part 3 of this GourmandeMom (Beginners) Guide to Austin's sister city, Angers, France-- in honor of Austin's Psych Fest hitting the road for Levitation at Le Chabada. Part 1 is a general introduction to Austin and Angers, including some very basic tips on getting by in French culture; Part 2 gets down to business with some specifics on the restaurant scene in Angers. Part 3 goes into practical details about train travel and a few of the sites just to whet your appetite about making the trip to Angers.
Indeed, a great aspect about Angers is that its size is manageable. It's large enough to have some interesting industry in the creative arts and technology, yet small and charming enough to get up close to the people and the terroir, get some history lessons while having your mind blown by some edgy contemporary tapestries (no, not an oxymoron), then walk a few feet and have some local Loire Valley wine while overlooking the Maine River and maybe catch an opera at the Quai. It's not a bad life....
Getting to Angers from Paris
You can land at Charles de Gaulle-Roissy (CDG) airport and take a train straight from there to Angers, or spend a few days in Paris. If you stay over in Paris before heading to Angers though, the train station (la gare) from which you will depart is Gare Montparnasse. Paris has many train stations: which one you need to find to catch your train depends on which direction you are heading.
- That Great SNCF Site ... if it likes your credit card
Check out the train schedules on line. I go straight to the site for the SNCF (the national rail system) and buy tickets on line. Just print to PDF, save, and pull it up on your smartphone to show that to the conductor checking tickets on the train. He will probably ask you to enlarge the bar code so he can scan it. There is also an SNCF app for this.
Be prepared though for this otherwise slick routine not working. That SNCF site can be picky about US credit cards. Have a couple of different credit cards handy (and be sure and tell the credit card company before you leave that you will be traveling).
If the site does not like your card once you have done all the work to select the train, time, and seat number, it will block the card for 24 hours until you can try again. No fun if you are in a rush. And because that US card will not work at the self-serve kiosks at the station (because it does not have “puce” or smart chip like French credit cards): you’ll be stuck waiting in line (if there is one) at the train station if none of the technology is working for you. Some US credit cards do have the smart chip technology, however, so check this superb article on the issue—including a list of the cards that have the technology—to be fully functional for maximum credit card spending abroad.
Don’t be confused if you see references on the train schedules and at the station to not just the TGV but the TER. It’s a train too, a regional one. It will get you where you are going just as well.
If you end up buying a regular ole paper ticket, you may hear a word and see signs reminding you to “composter” your “billet.” It’s a process of just validating the paper ticket. The machine to do this is a little yellow machine, somewhere around before you leave the lobby of the gare to reach the area to find your train. This article sets it all out for you.
Regardless of whether your arrival via TGV is straight from Charles de Gaulle airport or Gare Montparnasse, the arrival in Angers is a shock to the system.
Light and bright, the Angers the train station (referred to on TGV schedules as Gare St.-Laud) is, well, pretty. No grunge or ugliness here. It is a breath of fresh air – fresh Loire Valley country air. It always makes me smile when I walk out into the lobby, look out the big glass doors, and see the rainbow-colored tramway on the other side of la gare.
Many hotels are located close by, and if you have a room at the Best Western Hotel d’Anjou, (where I usually stay because it is close to the Hotel de Ville and the economic development agency), the tram will take you straight there in just a few minutes. There’s a stop practically right in front of the hotel.
If possible, avoid a bus tour. How can you really see and love the countryside from a bus?! Get on a bike.
Many bike rides with a handy map on how to get from Angers and into the vineyards are available. But perhaps the one to Savennières is the most fun and interesting for the food- and wine-inclined person. Savennières dates from the early Christian era and has been producing lovely white wines for almost two enturies. From there, you can head back to Angers for dinner at Chez Rémi – assuming you reserved already – or keep going, to the village of Béhuard, one of the most charming villages of the region: it is in fact a little island in the middle of two branches of the Loire.
So get out there into the countryside and get to know the terroir: Drink local (wines)!
Sure museums can be tiresome (for me), but when they are sited as beautifully as the ones in Angers are, and combine modern architecture with medieval mysticism – and outdoor gardens with apocalyptic contemporary tapestries -- these are museums that even I with a short attention span can love.
Sometimes museums can have the best cafés around. The one here for the museum is sited beautifully, just on this courtyard, and has an architecturally interesting decor.
Yes, sunlight streaming in through the required renovation to recover from a fire, this site combines old and new brilliantly.
The gardens are lovely, and the old and new combine again here: contemporary textiles sited within the courtyard for an outdoor public art installation (last time I was there) at the Museum of Contemporary Tapestry.
Next door is the Jean Lurçat Museum, housed in the 12th century L'Hôpital Saint-Jean. Hanging there is a spectacular modern tapestry — also apocalyptic in theme: Le Chant du Monde by Jean-Lurçat, who is known as the man who revolutionized French tapestry-making. Indeed, it was his experience of seeing in 1937 the Apocalypse Tapestry in the Château d'Angers that inspired him. Back then "was a time when tapestry design was not considered one of the great arts, but he saw a return to medieval methods as the way to revitalize the art."
Sure, the châtaeau is 7th century, founded by the Counts of Anjou, expanded in the 13th century to its current size with its 17 towers -- it is worth a view for that history alone.
But the real showstopper is the Apocalypse Tapestry.
The series of tapestries extends through an enormous dimly lit room that highlights the stunning deep blues and reds of the background. Hard to believe that in the fervor and atrocities of the French Revolution this work of art was cut up into pieces — for protection — and distributed to various people to safeguard it.
Not all the pieces were recovered — 16 went missing — but the rest was returned and restored between 1843 and 1870.
This is the piece that inspired Jean Lurçat and his work, all of which in toto reinvented the art of tapestry-making.
Angers does not stop at the river. Cross any one of the bridges from the part of Angers around the Château and the old Medieval city and explore the charming area of La Doutre. The 11th century origins of this area, origins centered around religious institutions, give it a completely different feel from the Angers across the river. Its origins are centered around the Abbey of Le Ronceray, one of the wealthiest abbeys in Anjou up to the revolution. Though this video runs a little long, the visuals are lovely and evoke the magic of this special little part of Angers.