This town in the Pays de Loire was caught up in the French Revolution worse than any other in the country.
There was a cataclysmic battle here in 1793, when much of Cholet burned down.
The battlefield has been marked with a orientation table, and the municipal museum will recount the battle and introduce the protagonists.
But that is also only one chapter in Cholet’s story: The town was also one of France’s big textile manufacturers, making snazzy handkerchiefs for all of France, and you can get in touch with this heritage at a restored mill.
Beyond that there are two picturesque lakes, and many hectares of parkland for walks, watersports and picnics.
Lets explore the best things to do in Cholet:
1. Musée du Textile et de la Mode
For a thorough summary of Cholet’s historic textile industry, look no further than this museum in an old industrial laundry.
The atmospheric factory buildings are from 1881,and inside are galleries that recount almost a thousand years of spinning, dying and weaving in Cholet.
There are historic looms that you can see in action on demonstrations, and displays paying tribute to the countless weavers who contributed to a nationally-renowned industry.
You can also check out stylish displays of contemporary textile arts, as well as the last workshop in the town to make Cholet’s trademark red handkerchief.
2. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire
This region saw some of the worst fighting during the French Revolutionary Wars, and in 1793 the Battle of Cholet was fought between Republican and Royalist forces.
The museum’s History Gallery goes into detail on the War in the Vendée, introducing some of the military players of this period like the charismatic insurrection leader Jacques Cathelineau.
There are also letters, ornaments and paintings belonging to the Duchess of Berry, mother Henri, Count of Chambord, who was the last person to have a legitimate claim to the French crown.
In the art galleries are pieces by many names that Baroque art aficionados might know, like Antoine Coypel, Charles André van Loo and Giovanni Battista Salvi.
3. Parc Oriental de Maulévrier
As you’ll see, Cholet is a town with many enchanting parks.
But if there’s one that you need to see before the rest it’s this Japanese garden on the southeast shore of the Lac du Verdon.
This park was designed at the turn of the 20 century by the Parisian architect Alexandre Marcel.
He had a love of oriental styles and recreated the Cambodia’s Khmer temple for the Paris Expo in 1900. The Parc Oriental de Maulévrier was plotted in the grounds of the Château Colbert and is the largest Japanese garden in the country.
There are 300 plant species, displays of bonsais and Japanese porcelain, as well as a pagoda, water features and an ornamental bridge.
4. Parc du Champ de Bataille Cholet
Standing on this hillock looking down on Cholet’s commercial and industrial estates it can be hard to imagine canon smoke and muskets firing.
But right on this spot a pivotal chapter in the French Revolution was played out on 17 October 1793. The Republicans defeated the Royalists here, and almost 12,000 people lost their lives at this mundane-looking place.
At the summit of the hill there’s a large orientation table that shows where the various contingents were based, how they attacked and who was in charge of them.
There’s also a memorial cross marking the battle site and an 18th-century Gribeauval canon by the path.
5. Église du Sacré-Cœur
Not as old as it looks, Cholet’s Sacré-Cœur Church was actually built at the beginning of the 1940s in a Neo-Byzantine style.
But despite not being an ancient monument, there are a few things that make the church worthwhile.
First is the appearance, because it doesn’t look anything like other churches in Vendée or Maine-et-Loire.
Another is that it was built entirely from materials found or made in region: There are local red bricks, an orange slate known as Pineau, pink granite from Saint-Macaire-en-Mauges and blue granite from Vezins.
Also gratifying to know is that the church was funded entirely by donations from Cholet’s citizens.
6. Cholet’s Menhirs
There are several prehistoric megaliths around the city, hewn, carried and placed here by human hands thousands of years ago.
The tourist office can give you directions to each one: The most noteworthy is the Grand Menhir de la Garde, which you can’t miss as it’s right in front of the old ramparts a short walk down from the town hall.
It’s little brother, the Petit Menhir de la Garde is a few hundred metres away, and is only “small” by comparison as it is still more than 3 metres in height.
And then in the Parc du Menhir is the Pierre Plate de la Pochetière, 2.3 metres tall, and like the other two it’s recognised as a French historic monument.
7. Église Notre-Dame
There’s no avoiding this Neo-Gothic church and its lofty towers, which are the second-tallest in the Angers diocese.
They climb to 65 metres and are roughened by Gothic-style pinnacles.
The church is another that looks older than it is, and was only finished in 1887. It’s predecessor was a victim of the Revolution, and even though it escaped fire and cannonballs it was used as a warehouse and collapsed through neglect.
But despite being an homage to medieval art rather than the real thing, the Norman-style stained glass, window traceries and organ all boast masterful workmanship.
8. Small Sights around Town
Cholet has a multitude of smaller sights that can be rolled together on an educational jaunt around the town.
Here’s a couple to check out: The large public garden that that rises above the town near the tourism office is where Cholet’s castle used to be.
This was destroyed in the War in the Vendée, but you can still see parts of the outer walls and climb them for vistas of the town.
Then on Rue des Vieux-Greniers there’s a rare building that came through the war unscathed.
The Tour du Grenier à Sel is a 16th-century tower for storing salt subject to tax, with a corbelled turret and a weathered but noble doorway.
9. Lac de Ribou
This placid man-made lake was created when the Moine and Trézon Rivers were dammed in 1958. And it wasn’t long before Cholet’s residents realised the leisure and relaxation opportunities of the 90-hectares of clean water.
Bridleways, biking tracks and hiking paths encircle the lake and weave their way through forest.
The CISPA activity centre has all the gear and expertise for kids to take part in archery, sailing, pedal-boating and canoeing.
But there’s also the Raymond Russon tourist centre, with tennis courts, a mini-golf course, children’s playgrounds and a volleyball court.
10. Parc de Moine
Cholet has reserved more than seven hectares of green space on the banks of the Moine River just south of the centre of town.
The Parc de Moine is a place for gentle walks after lunch and for friends to meet up.
The paths meander next to the river and under the foliage of mature trees, edged by lawns, bushes and flowerbeds.
If you like you can ramble in peace and greenery all the way to the Lac du Ribou, four kilometres from the centre.
There are pétanque courts, a skate-park and football pitches all laid out as part of a big regeneration plan in 1970s.
11. Puy du Fou
There are historical re-enactments and stunt shows, and then there’s the Puy de Fou.
It’s a theme park with a twist, with production values and creativity that will wow even the most jaded tourists.
There are more than 20 shows to catch, all founded in a historical/fantasy theme.
You’ll witness chariot races, gladiator fights, a castle siege, a Viking raid and sword fights by musketeers.
All of this is complemented by traditional minstrels, falconry demonstrations and water shows.
And then in the evening there’s the epic spectacle of the Cinéscénie, which recounts the history of the Vendée area with the help of more than a thousand actors and hundreds of horses.
12. Lac du Verdon
As Cholet developed in the second half of the 20th century it soon needed a larger water reservoir.
So in 1979 the Moine River was dammed further upstream to form the Lac du Verdon.
Being a little further away from Cholet fewer people venture to this lake.
It’s a quiet and gently scenic location, cushioned by a green “bocage” landscape of arable farms and hedgerows.
Lac du Verdon is a bit more open to the elements so has become a hit with windsurfers.
There’s another hiking trail around the perimeter, which also gives you a good look at the imposing dam and plenty of vantage points for fishers.
13. Musée des Métiers de la Chaussure
Set in an old factory in the outlying village of Saint-André-de-la-Marche, this museum shares the savoir-faire of shoemaking.
It’s the only museum in France dedicated to this industry and has managed to preserve an astounding set of century-old machines.
No aspect of the craft is left unexplained, whether it’s cobbling and repair, leather-making or how shoemaking became industrialised in the 1900s.
There’s an antique shoe collection, and workshops at the museum help you make your own sandals that you can actually wear.
14. Chemin de Fer de la Vendée
Less than 10 kilometres south of Cholet you can board a heritage train to ride a section of the decommissioned Vouvant-Cezais à Saint-Christophe-du-Bois line.
This early-20th-century line was reopened as a tourist attraction in 1992 to help save it from destruction, and when you travel the 22 kilometres you’ll understand why all this effort was made.
The rolling countryside is idyllic, and bestriding the three deep river valleys are majestic viaducts.
The round-trip will last 2.5 hours and you’ll be pulled along in vintage cars by old steam or diesel engines.
15. Local Specialities
In Cholet a Mouchoir de Cholet can mean two things: It could be the emblematic red handkerchief hemmed by two intersecting white lines.
Or it’s the chocolate inspired by it! Mouchoirs de Cholet are orange-flavoured almond paste and pralines in thin squares coated with chocolate dyed red.
You’ll see them across town, and they’re even sold in the tourist office.
And for proper meals, in Cholet you’re in the perfect place to try roast squab (young pigeon), while the charcuterie is also high quality involving rillauds (cured pork) and boudin noir (black pudding).