On the banks of the River Mayenne in northwestern France, Laval is a little city that packs a big historical punch.
The Château de Laval is the city’s centrepiece, a French historic monument raised imperiously above the right bank of the river.
From there you can tour the Centre-Ville and see its timber-framed houses and stately mansions, or stick to the enchanting riverside, crossed by a 13th-century bridge and with Laval’s beautiful monuments arranged like a gallery.
The best of the Mayenne is also on hand: The countryside’s green pasture and hedgerows, the Roman ruins at Jublains and the exquisite castle village of Sainte-Suzanne.
Lets explore the best things to do in Laval:
1. Château de Laval
Laval’s 12th century castle and its renaissance wing from the mid-16th century were both included on France’s original list of historic monuments.
The castle stands 34 metres above the Mayenne River and is easily identified by its rugged circular tower dating to the 13th century.
You can freely enter the château’s museum and the courtyard, from where you can get a close look at the château’s sculpted tufa window frames and gables.
But if you want to see the medieval lower chapel and tower you have to join a guided tour, which departs several times a day in the winter or summer, except on Mondays.
2. Musée d’Art Naïf
“Musée d’Art Naïf” is the popular name for the museum inside the château, but it has galleries covering anything from fine art to local archaeology.
The museum decide to acquire and take donations of more naïve art from the 1960s onwards, as Laval was the birthplace of Henri Rousseau, the self-trained painter whose works were ridiculed during his lifetime but inspired modern artists like Pablo Picasso and Kandinsky.
There are three paintings by Rousseau at the museum, as well as pieces by other members of the movement like André Bauchant and Camille Bambois.
3. Lactopôle André-Besnier
The Mayenne is the centre of France’s dairy industry, as you’ll realise while driving through the countryside and seeing the many herds of dairy cows grazing in lush fields.
Take the Babybel factory in Évron for instance, which produces five million mini Babybel cheeses a day! One of the big employers in Laval is the dairy manufacturer Lactalis, and the brand’s headquarters host a surprisingly compelling and stylish museum.
You’ll get the background on Lactalis’ founder André Besnier and discover how dairy products, from milk to cheese and butter, are processed.
There are antique churns from around the world and a display of vintage camembert labels.
4. Jardin de la Perrine
On the right bank of the Mayenne, Laval’s favourite park climbs steeply from the riverside with a set of peaceful terraced gardens affording great vistas of the city and château.
Henri Rousseau’s tomb is in the park, as is a monument to Alain Gerbault, who was another famous son of Laval.
In the 1920s Gerbault single-handedly circumnavigated the globe in the Firecrest sailboat, which is on display here.
For the little ones there’s a mini-zoo with goats and sheep, while keen botanists will appreciate the park’s plant collection that features a giant sequoia and a rare Chinese gingko tree.
5. Riverside and Boat Trips
In the centre of Laval the broad River Mayenne is bounded by high stone embankments built in the 19th century.
Walking the riverside paths on Quai Albert Goupi and Quai Jehan Fouquet you’ll be rewarded with photo-worthy views of the city and Pont Vieux, which we’ll come to next.
On Square de Boston is the city’s main jetty, where you can embark on cruises on the river: By day to see the sights, or at night over dinner.
If you come during the Christmas period the Lumières de Laval bathes the city in captivating light and turns the river cruise into something magical.
6. Pont Vieux
This 13th-century bridge is one of Laval’s emblems and was built on the exact site where the Roman road from Le Mans to Corseul once forded the Mayenne River.
It may be hard to believe when you look at it now, but this little bridge once supported one of the city’s gatehouses, and even had houses on two sides.
Naturally this made the crossing very narrow in the middle ages.
Pont Vieux has three arches, and took damage during the liberation of Laval in 1944 when it was partly blown up by the Germans.
Laval’s old core is replete with half-timbered houses from the 15th and 16th centuries, historic churches and plenty of renaissance and neoclassical mansions.
The Tourist Office can give you a free guide to the town, and you can also download a couple of audio tracks for a walking tour of the centre.
Certainly one square that must not be missed is Place de Trémoille in front of the Château Neuf (the newer, renaissance part of the old château) , and the lovely 17th-century pavilion that stands as a regal entranceway to the old château.
Right next to this pavilion is Immeuble Maistre Julien Briand, a half-timbered house from the 1600s with colourful leaded windows.
8. Laval Cathedral
Sometimes composite churches, made up of different and unmatched additions from different periods, can be as fun to explore as the most coherent ones.
Laval Cathedral is one of these buildings; a big melange of odds and ends, with an irregular floorplan to boot.
The oldest part is the nave, constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries with early gothic vaulting.
There are six wonderful tapestries to admire in the nave, woven in the 1600s and showing images from the Old Testament book of Judith.
The northern arm of the transept branching off the nave is from the 1500s and designed in the renaissance style, as you can tell from the delicate plasterwork in the ceiling of the dome.
9. Basilique Notre-Dame d’Avesnières
Approaching this church’s main western entrance you’ll see a handsome but not extraordinary facade.
Nearly all of the western half of the building is from the 19th century.
The history is easily spotted if you know where to look, because the sanctuary and transept date all the way back to the 10th and 11th centuries.
Before entering you can go round to the eastern side to see the apse and the chapel bays that radiate off it.
Then you need to investigate the interior of the sanctuary and choir, where the columns around the ambulatory have fantastic romanesque and gothic carvings of mythical animals and leaves.
Historically the lovely riverside town of Mayenne was the gateway to Normandy and the home of the Dukes of Mayenne from the 1500s to the French Revolution.
Mayenne’s lofty political standing saw a number of townhouses built here for the gentry in the 1600s and 1700s, and they’re as beautiful as ever today.
But the seat of the Dukes, the solid Château de Mayenne is the highlight, and its towers and outer walls are impressive when seen from the left bank of the Mayenne.
Go inside to potter around the museum for startling artefacts like a set of dice whittled from deer antlers in the middle ages.
Labelled one of France “most beautiful villages” Sainte Suzanne is a little hill-top settlement ruled by a medieval château.
The oldest portion of this is the oblong-shaped donjon, built in the early 1000s and climbable with thanks to a system of metal stairs and gangways.
Newer but no less stunning are the village’s ramparts, built for the 100 Years’ War in the 1300s and 1400s, and looking like new.
On a neighbouring hill, 800 metres away is the Camp de Beugy, where William the Conqueror’s forces were set up for an unsuccessful siege of the town.
Nearly a thousand years later it’s easy to trace the earth ramparts and you can see how it would have looked with the help of a scale model at Sainte-Suzanne’s museum.
12. Musée Robert Tatin
If the museum in Laval gave you a taste for naïve art you can have a feast at this surreal “art environment” created by Robert Tatin between the 1960s and 1980s.
Tatin took inspiration from ancient civilisation and cultures from around the world to build all kinds of strange monuments with coloured cement.
You’ll be introduced to his world on L’Allée des Géants (Driveway of the Giants), where he placed 19 large and idiosyncratic sculptures of historical figures like Vercingetorix and Joan of Arc, and then cultural icons such as Rodin, Picasso, Gauguin and Rousseau.
And after that you’ll tour Tatin’s home and the galleries he built for his works, and try to work out if Tatin was a genius or totally out of his mind!
13. Refuge de l’Arche
With a name that translates as “The Ark”, this animal refuge is an animal attraction that will warm your heart: The Ark rescues injured, mistreated and abandoned animals, no matter if they’re domestic or exotic species.
It’s reassuring to know that a lot of the animals at the park are just temporary guests, reintroduced to the wild once they regain their strength and instincts, like Brutus, a lion rescued from a circus and then released in South Africa.
Their generous enclosures are in 14 hectares of forest along three walking trails, and you’re allowed to feed popcorn to some of the Ark’s monkeys and birds.
14. Gallo-Roman Town of Jublains
Jublains today is just a little village in the pastoral Mayenne countryside, but 2,000 years ago it was the regional city of Noeodunum, established by the Gaulish Diablintes people but expanded by the Romans.
There’s an intriguing glimpse of the ancient Gaulish culture here in the form of a monumental stele slab in front of the church.
And from the Roman era there’s the Castellum (a small but impressive fortress), the theatre, a large and surprisingly complete spa, a sanctuary and the foundations of several homes.
All the exciting artefacts unearthed in Jublains, like an Iron Age sword, inscriptions from the theatre, mosaics and votive statuettes can be seen at Jublains’ Archaeological Museum.
15. Walks and Bike Rides
The Pays de Laval has more than 700 kilometres of walking trails through lush farmland and by the many streams and rivers that curl through the landscape.
You can buy a comprehensive guide at the tourist office, but failing that, the scenery to the east of the city is wonderfully idyllic with dairy farms and hedgerows around Bonchamp-lès-Laval.
While just to the south of Laval you could pack a picnic for the Bois de l’Husserie, 250 hectares of beech woodland with designated routes for bikers.
And don’t forget the newly-restored towpath on the Mayenne, which has 85 kilometres of bucolic greenery and retains its 18th-century locks.