All is not lost if the first thing that comes to mind when you hear ‘Cholet’ is Madame Cholet the Womble; she was, as it happens, named after this little French town. When my sister, Vicki, found out she’d be spending the second part of her year abroad in Cholet, Laurence and I figured we’d hop across La Manche and pay her a visit. Since we didn’t want to run the risk of our flights being cancelled in a post-Brexit Britain, we visited in early March, just a few weeks after Vicki had moved there.
To say it took a long time to get to Cholet from Cambridge would be an understatement – it was a four-hour coach ride to Gatwick Airport, followed by a considerably shorter flight to Aéroport Nantes Atlantique, a shuttle bus, a train ride and a rail replacement coach – but it was worth it.
Vicki met us at the station with a paper bag of goodies and led us back to her flat for a much-needed spot of lunch. (Vicki had said her flat, which is on the top floor of one of the school buildings, was huge, but Laurence and I hadn’t expected it to be twice the size of our two-up two-down terraced house.)
Refuelled, we set off on foot (there’s really no need to entertain the thought of any other modes of transport in a town this size) for Place Travot. Tucked away behind the main square was Église Notre-Dame de Cholet. Over the centuries, it’s changed from a small chapel to a cavernous church; across the diocese, it’s second in size only to Angers’ Cathédrale St. Maurice.
With his fingers (or toes) flying across the keys, a young organist filled the church with popular tunes; we particularly liked his rendition of ‘Despacito’, and stuck around for a while to listen to him.
I wanted to pick up a copy of Pierre Lemaitre’s Travail Soigné (the first in the Camille Verhœven series), so our next stop was Passage Culturel; the thriller section was so well-stocked I could easily have come away with a pile of books. We then had a browse in Hola là and Le Caféier, before going for coffee (or in my case, chocolat chaud) and cake at Bagiau Christophe. Vicki had two macarons, I opted for a slice of tarte au citron and Laurence chose a decadent carthage, a mousse-like dessert with a crunchy centre, glazed with dark chocolate and topped with a chocolate curl.
We’d hoped to have tea at one of the local crêperies – and Vicki had attempted to book a table for us earlier in the week – but as luck would have it, they were both fully booked. We ended up at La Dolce Vita, which did the job but wasn’t a place I’d especially recommend. Back at Vicki’s flat, we watched Slumdog Millionaire (I’d forgotten how much I love that film), then hit the hay.
Our second day in Cholet was a Sunday: a day on which les grenouilles of small-town France shut up shop and have a day’s rest. So, we did what we do best: stuffed some snacks in our packs and headed out on a walk. Before long, we’d left civilisation behind and were surrounded by green fields and rolling hills.
Cholet is known for fattening up cattle, sheep and pigs for market, and while we saw no porkers, we did spy a few herds of cows and some spring lambs out in the fields. En route, we also passed a house with some rather wacky garden décor.
Our destination? Lac de Ribou, pitched as a destination nature for Choletais and visitors alike. After viewing the dam from all sides, we plonked ourselves down on a conveniently-placed bench and tucked into our snacks.
We’d worked up an appetite on our walk, so we devoured a bowl of couscous back at Vicki’s before heading out to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire. It’s free entry for students, teachers and the unemployed; Vicki’s still a student and Laurence had the foresight to buy a three-year NUS card just before graduating, so that just left me as the fee-paying visitor. Amusingly, the lady at the desk was very keen for me to also fit into one of those categories, but I didn’t mind paying the €4 entry fee.
The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire is, as its name suggests, a museum of two parts: on one side of the museum are rooms filled with traditional portraits, oil paintings, floor-to ceiling canvases and quirky installations; on the other, a series of rooms which trace the history of the local region, from the days of Gaul to World War One, with a particular emphasis on the Wars of the Vendée which occurred during the French Revolution.
However, as interesting as these two parts are, the Labyrinthe du GRAV, which is sandwiched between the two main sections of the museum, is arguably the best bit. It’s choc-full of weird and wonderful works and, more to the point, is intended to be a hands-on, interactive zone; in the words of the museum, ‘il est interdit de ne pas participer’. I particularly liked the hall of mirrors: instead of walls covered in mirrors, it consisted of mirrors hung from the ceilings which you had to weave between to reach the exit (not pictured, as navigating the room was enough of a challenge).
We stopped off at Le Grand Café for a hot drink, and then swung by Les Papilles Font de la Résistance for a crêpe (it’d be criminal to come to France and not have one, after all). After tea chez Vicki, we ventured out to see the Église Notre-Dame de Cholet illuminated.
Next stop: Nantes. Stay tuned!
- The railway line between Nantes, Cholet and Poitiers is currently being upgraded, and a replacement bus service is in operation. Check Oui.SNCF for the latest information.
- Cholet’s Musée d’Art et d’Histoire is always free for students, teachers and the unemployed, and is free for everyone on Saturday afternoons between 1st October and 31st May.