A journey through Maine-et-Loire, France

The blue and yellow sparkled under the faint light peeking through the stained glass windows. Chavagnes’ single church hand-painted interior was dark, intense, but stunningly beautiful. Each column spiralled toward the ceiling, coated in its own individual pattern of blue and green streaks, snaking around each other in a climb to the top. Images and monuments of the resurrection of Christ lined each wall.

And yet, this testament to the skill of medieval artists is tinged with sorrow and loss. The Great War memorial on the far wall paints the picture of a French village ravaged by war: 30 sons, from 23 different families, were lost to the most vicious warfare Western Europe has ever seen. A generation later, and another five names were added to the memorial. It tells the tale of a village that was torn apart and never recovered.

The pews are also beginning to rot away. The kneelers are worn, unkept for decades. France is now one of the most secular countries on the planet. Many French identify themselves as Catholic but average church attendance in the country is about 5% of the population. It shows. Whilst church attendance falls in the country, it would be a crying shame for these vast structures to be left unkept. Churches such as the one at Chavanges are found throughout the country, and whilst our society may not frequent them as much as our ancestors, their history reminds us of a time when their simple beauty was all that gave much of Europe’s peasantry hope and comfort. They remind us how good a life many of us have.

Stepping out of the church and walking around the village, the rurality of the place is put into sharp focus. There is a solitary restaurant, but it is open Friday to Sunday for lack of customers, and a boarded up hotel.Looking down the main street, green fields of vineyards come right up to the last houses on either side. The place is empty. Tourism clearly struggles here, even though Chavanges is located smack bang on a road that connects a fair few cities in the region. New signs have been put in place to try and convince drivers, or anybody really, to pay a visit to various different locations in the area.

Many of the windy backroads are lined with the most classic of French architectural tropes, the window shutter, but modern brutalism has come here too. The Mayor’s office is across the road from the church, built almost like a bunker house, with barred windows and security cameras everywhere. For want of a better cliché, it really does stick out like a sore thumb. The school has taken a vintage building and put a conservatory-esque reception area in front of it. Nonetheless, this area is in a gorgeous corner of France. Anjou- the historical area of this region- is, according to a guidebook, renowned for its olives and its slate. However, Chavanges is like a little piece of Tuscany tucked away in Western France. Rolling hills are covered in vineyards, dotted with churches and cobbled villages with the sun rising in the morning painting the entire scene red.

Châteaux Martigne-Briand is just a quick cycle further down the road, one lined by blossoming daffodils that cut sharply through the vast swathes of greenery. Its tower dominates the view to the South from most of the villages in the area. And it is quite something up close, seemingly never ending its reach for the sky. Unfortunately the place was closed on our arrival, but if driving from Angers to Poitiers further south, it may be worth a quick stop for a snap.

Doue Bioparc boasts of its record of being the 2nd highest rated zoo in France of Trip Advisor. Quite the title. But whilst many are now quite sceptical of zoos and the conditions that animals live in, Doue does much to allay these fears. Enclosures are spacious. But what is most impressive is that it is home to one of Europe’s best breeding programmes. Endangered animals from the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa have arrived here over the last 50 years in the hope of preserving species that face extinction. And some guinea pigs.

One point that Simon Reeve, one of the most famous travel documentarists of this millennium, made about his time in Africa is that many nature programmes suggest that much of Africa’s wildlife is still abundant despite the overall poaching crisis our planet faces. However, a trip to Doue reveals that giraffes are actually on the verge of extinction, and that certain types of zebra face annihilation. Education seems to be the most important goal here.

The centre is also coming up with innovative ways for the public to become involved in conservation- from volunteering to donating deceased pets for feeding to birds in the wild. Whilst it can seem an alien concept, giving a passed companion can help sustain recently reintegrated animals alive whilst they come to terms with their newly acquired freedoms.