If you’re a horse enthusiast in need of holiday ideas the town of Saumur in the Loire Valley would be a great shout.
France’s cavalry has been based in Saumur since the 1700s, and you can come to see how things are done at the eminent riding school, the Cadre Noir.
Horses were retired from the battlefield a century ago, to be replaced by armoured vehicles, and the Musée des Blindés will show you that side of Saumur’s heritage, at one of the best tank museums anywhere.
As you dawdle on the town’s streets you’ll notice the brightness of the stones in the Saumur’s monuments: This is tufa, a soft type of limestone that has a yellow radiance in the sun.
Lets explore the best things to do in Saumur:
1. Musée des Blindés
One of the world’s top tank museums is here in Saumur.
The Musée des Blindés has almost 900 armoured vehicles, only a quarter of which can be shown at any time.
This enormous cache of track vehicles was founded in 1977 and was the brainchild of Michel Aubry, an army colonel whose goal was to keep as many of these tanks in working order as possible.
So more than 200 are drivable, including a Schneider CA1 from 1916, as they’ll demonstrate at the three-day Carrousel military tattoo every July, which has been going for 160 years.
2. Château de Saumur
Crossing the Loire into Saumur for the first time the sight of the château rising above the Loire is one that will stick with you.
Dominating the skyline from a ridge this landmark started out as fortress in the 900s.
Later, René of Anjou converted it into his plush “Château d’Amour” in the 1400s and the design hasn’t changed much since then.
The building has been covered with scaffolding for restoration these last couple of years, closing off a lot of the interior.
You can still come for the sweeping panorama of Saumur and the Loire, and to duck inside for the decorative arts museum, which follows.
3. Musée des Arts Décoratifs
On the first floor there’s a lavish assortment of decorative items from the 1300s to the 1700s.
A lot of the space is reserved for ceramics, especially fine porcelain from the 17th and 18th centuries, but there are also wonderful tapestries and furniture in pristine condition.
You’re in Saumur, so it’s only right that there should be a room for equestrianism, where there’s all kinds of horse paraphernalia like harnesses, stirrups , bits and saddles, some of which go back to antiquity.
4. Pierre et Lumière
Set in a cave, Pierre et Lumière is an ode to the wonders of the Loire Valley in Anjou and Touraine, with 20 sights, among them churches, châteaux and whole towns (the village of Baugé is a standout), all carved from tufa stone in scale models.
The workmanship is almost unbelievable, and each sculpture is perfectly lit in these solemn subterranean galleries.
Pierre et Lumière is a useful option to keep up your sleeve in summer as it’s a steady 13°C down here, perfect if you need to beat the heat.
5. Musée du Champignon
Pierre et Lumière’s neighbour is another journey underground, and you can get into the Musée du Champignon on a combined ticket.
Mushrooms are big business around Saumur, giving France more than 80% of its white button variety.
You can sate your appetite for mushroom facts in an atelier that harvests some 12 million tons a year and has the largest mycological collection in Europe.
You’ll go deep into a network of cellars, set in prehistoric troglodyte caves, to learn about the 500 edible species of wild mushroom, and pick up some of the tricks of the trade for cultivation and harvesting.
There’s also a shop at the end where you can pick up some mushrooms for dinner.
6. Cadre Noir
The French National Horse-Riding School is unmissable if you want to understand Saumur’s centuries-old connection to equestrianism.
The name, Cadre Noir comes from an elite corps of black-clad cavalry instructors, formed in 1828, and still making up the teaching staff at the academy.
Members of the Cadre Noir regularly take gold in “eventing”, dressage and jumping at the Olympics.
You can visit the academy for instructive tours of the facilities, and there’s enough to keep kids enthused as they’ll be able to meet and pet the horses.
In summer there are phenomenal dressage shows that demonstrate the Cadre Noire’s military precision.
7. Musée de Cavalerie de Saumur
In the former stables of the Cadre Noir is a museum that will acquaint you with the 560-year history of the French cavalry.
You’ll go back to the early days of the cavalry during the reign of Charles VII in the 15th century and come up to speed with the mechanised divisions that replaced horses a century ago.
There are tableaux of history’s great battles and two galleries full of weapons, equipage, armour, harnesses and uniforms.
A few of the wooden stalls in the stables have also been preserved to give you a clearer picture of life in the cavalry.
8. Église Saint-Pierre
The gleaming facade of the church on Place Saint-Pierre is baroque, from the 1600s, but it conceals a far older romanesque and gothic structure.
The church was founded around the time the Plantagenets held sway in this region of France.
The interior has a few intriguing things to look out for: There’s a tapestry from the 1500s illustrating the life and deeds of St.
Peter, while wooden stalls in the choir date to the 1400s.
9. Loire Boat Trip
Moments from Pont Cessart and Saumur’s tourist office there’s a jetty where, from April to October, you can embark on lovely cruises on the Loire.
The most popular excursion takes just under an hour, during which you’ll be introduced to the heritage and nature along the banks with the help of a multi-lingual guide.
With luck you’ll be able to spot a variety of waterfowl and fishing birds, and the cruise is rounded off with a glass of Bouvet-Ladubay Saumur brut, the local sparkling wine.
The same company, Croisières Samur Loire, also offers cruises on Saturdays upriver to Candes-Saint-Martin, or downriver to Le Thoureil, if you’d like to see more of the region floating on this beloved waterway.
10. Dolmen de Bagneaux
A couple of kilometres south of Saumur is a fascinating megalithic monument: The Bagneaux Dolmen is one of the largest portal dolmens in Europe, and is remarkable for its height, with a chamber rising to 18 metres . The structure comprises 15 large slabs of sandstone and two wedging stones to help hold it all together.
The dolmen dates back around 5,000 years and would have been used as a burial chamber.
The sandstone material wouldn’t have had to come far as it was quarried on the nearby Bournand and Terrefort hills, no more than 400 metres away.
11. Musée du Moteur
In line with Saumur’s eccentric diversity of museums is an attraction entirely based around the combustion engine.
The Motor Museum has assumed the responsibility of conserving France’s 20th-century industrial heritage by restoring motors of all descriptions to working order.
The museum is in a factory from the 1800s and has 400 pieces in all.
The earliest is an external combustion engine from 1818 and one of the most recent is the motor from a Peugeot 307 that raced in the World Rally Championship.
12. Day Trips
Inside an hour you can be at Tours or Angers, two of the Loire Valley’s most beautiful cities.
In Angers you can pick up the trail of René of Anjou, one of France’s most powerful men in the 1400s.
The brooding towers of the Château d’Angers conveys the kind of authority that the Counts of Anjou wielded, and the Apocalypse Tapestry inside is an example of the epoch-defining art that they commissioned.
Tours is to the east, with a cathedral that will make your heart skip a beat, and three different medieval quarters.
13. Wine Tourism
A host of wine merchants have cellars in and near Saumur, and this also has something to do with the town’s tufa stone.
The old quarries had the perfect conditions to help wine age, especially for the sparkling Crémant de Loire, which is produced around Saumur in large quantities.
On a hot day in summer nothing hits the spot like a local light sparkling wine.
And if you’re serious about learning more Langlois Chateau is a Crémant de Loire that gives you a crash course in oenology at its “wine school” and talks you through every stage, from pressing to ageing.
The wine matures in those stone tunnels, and the ones below Langlois go on for more than 300 metres.
14. Loire à Vélo
Just by being on the Loire you have access to an 800 kilometre cycle trail that begins on the Atlantic coast and ends at Nevers in Nièvre.
It goes without saying that the scenery is a delight throughout, but what makes it even better is the multitude of service stations, hire centres and bike friendly accommodation.
In Saumur you don’t even need to ride more than a few minutes to get to something amazing: At Souzay-Champigny a few kilometres upriver, the route sends you through spellbinding troglodytic passageways, hewn from the soft tufa stone.
15. Local Produce
The troglodyte caves that riddle the landscape around Saumur have been a godsend for mushroom cultivation.
On top of the mushroom museum there are three other mushroom-growing caves within touching distance of Saumur if you’re really want to get to the bottom of this local industry.
The champignon de Paris is the main local variety and makes a cream of mushroom soup to die for.
Galipettes are also delectable; mushrooms stuffed with garlic, parsley and butter.
If you have a taste for triple-sec or absinthe then the Combier distillery awaits your visit, and uses the same copper stills as it did in 1901!