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What to see and do in Guerande, Pays de la Loire

Pitch up at any one of Gu茅rande鈥檚 four town gates and there鈥檚 no question that you鈥檝e arrived somewhere rather special. With 1300 metres of unbroken ramparts and six imposing towers, the city walls are some of the best preserved in France and the most complete in Brittany.

The masonry looks pretty impressive now in the 21st century, an age when we are all used to big builds, so imagine the impact that Gu茅rande would have had in the mid-14th century when the walls were commissioned by Jean de Montfort during the Breton War of Succession. This was clearly a town that meant business.

White gold – the salt marshes of Gu茅rande

And the main business of this strategic community built on high ground near the Atlantic coast was salt. Today Gu茅rande is part of the Pays de la Loire region, but until 1941 it was part of Brittany, and Brittany in the 14th century was an independent and powerful Duchy. Only in 1532 did it become part of France with the marriage of Anne de Bretagne and Charles VIII.

Gu茅rande controlled the salt marshes and with them a commodity as important to medieval daily life as refrigerators are to us today, the prime means of preserving food stocks. By the end of the 14th century, Gu茅rande was the second-largest town in Brittany after Nantes with some 4,000 inhabitants and some 500 years later, I can still sense the power contained within these solid ramparts as I step through Porte Saint-Michel into another world.

A visit to Gu茅rande divides neatly into two halves.聽 The walled town with its half-timbered buildings and historic streets, retail temptations and restaurants. And the extensive salt marshes fed by a narrow inlet from the Atlantic Ocean at Le Croisic. The two are inextricably linked, so be sure to see them both.

The town of聽Gu茅rande

Gu茅rande鈥檚 ramparts were classified as a Historic Monument in 1877 and today the town is also part of the Villes & Pays d鈥橝rt et d鈥橦istoire network. Stop off at the Ch芒teau-Mus茅e inside the Porte Saint-Michel, which has served over the centuries as ducal lodgings, prison and Town Hall. The only site open to the public inside the wall itself, this medieval gem also provides access to more than a third of the rampart walk where you can peep over chimneys and rooftops into hidden gardens and cobbled alleys.

Then just wander 鈥 it鈥檚 impossible to get lost. The walled town is divided roughly into quarters by two main streets that intersect outside Saint-Aubin Collegiate Church, its slate-clad spire visible from all around. History unfolds at every corner if you keep your eyes open. The outside pulpit beside the main door of the church. The ancient buildings around Place du Pillori. And the walled Manoir de la Pr茅v么t茅, home to the medieval Provost, highest ranking dignitary among the canons of the collegiate church.

After a succulent salad on the terrace outside Gout鈥橳h茅, a delightful tea room and small shop in Rue de Saill茅, I head outside the city walls to Pradel on the edge of the salt marshes and the Terre de Sel visitor centre to discover how traditional methods of salt production are still in use today. Open daily throughout the year, this excellent facility includes an exhibition and well-stocked shop, and is the departure point for guided walking tours of the salt pans (advance online booking strongly advised).

The art of salt production

Generations of salters or paludiers, have shaped and managed the landscape here for almost 1500 years and in 1991, Gu茅rande salt was awarded the prestigious Label Rouge. In winter and spring, the marshes are quiet as salters carry out maintenance ready for peak production season. Our English-speaking guide explains to our small group how the salters fill their reservoirs by opening sluice gates on the main canal to admit the strong spring tides. The water then runs into a series of shallow pools and eventually evaporates from the effect of wind and sun, causing the salt to crystallise.

The result is two different kinds of salt, painstakingly removed by hand using long-handled implements. The coarse grey salt (Gros Sel), rich in minerals, is scraped daily from the bottom of the pools, whilst the fine white Fleur de Sel is collected from the surface of the brine. As a general rule, use Gros Sel in cooking and Fleur de Sel at the table for that extra special salty tang. Mash potato and fries just aren鈥檛 the same without it, so I take the opportunity to stock up 鈥 slow food at its most pedestrian.

Salt production is a highly skilled operation and Terre de Sel is run as a co-operative, many salt pans passed down through generations of the same family. But a significant number of new paludiers are being attracted to this ancient way of life in a peaceful, natural environment that is home to more than 180 species of bird.

I stay overnight at the charming Moulin de Beaulieu, a three-storey, one bedroom windmill just outside the ramparts (unsuitable though for anyone with mobility issues). And for dinner, enjoy an al fresco meal at Burger et Sarrasin beside the cathedral, a delicious Breton take on the humble burger using local produce and with a choice of special bread containing sarrasin or buckwheat.

What to see near Gu茅rande

Next morning, I potter along the coast to La Turballe, a major centre for sardine canneries until 1989 and still France鈥檚 10th biggest fishing port. Take a guided tour from the Maison de la P锚che museum to visit the fish auction rooms on the quayside; step on board a 1960s sardine boat, Au Gr茅 des Vents; and learn about France鈥檚 first offshore wind farm, the Parc Eolien en mer de Saint-Nazaire.

I also explore nearby Piriac-sur-Mer, designated a Petite Cit茅 de Caract猫re of Loire-Atlantique, where granite houses face onto narrow flower-fringed streets behind a tranquil marina. Head the other way and you鈥檙e just a short drive from the stylish seaside resort of La Baule and the tranquil wetland of La Bri猫re Regional Natural Park, both well worth a stopover. Join me there in the Spring issue of the magazine to see why鈥

Tourist information from www.labaule-guerande.com

By Gillian Thornton, one of the UK鈥檚 leading travel writers and a regular writer for The 六合彩网址大全 Magazine and website.

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