Centre Val De Loire Section
The River Loire and the Grande Levée d'Anjou
River Loire , the last untamed river of Europe
The Loire is the longest river in France (1020km). The temperamental river is also the last untamed river of Europe.
Swollen by the Cher, Indre, Vienne and Le Thouet, but also by rain and melting snow in autumn and spring, it can rapidly reach alarming heights. Quite unpredictable, it regularly bursts its banks and floods the lowlands.
Millennia of floods have left a rich alluvial plain that have attracted people since time immemorial. The first dwellers lived in the many natural galleries the river carved in the limestone cliffs that border its banks.
In the Middle-Ages, their descendants built their dwellings on islets isolated by small mounds of earth or turcies to protect themselves from flooding.
During the dry season, the river returned to its bed. It only left small pools and shallow water flowing along its long sandy beaches and many islets.
La Grande Levée d'Anjou
The 50km long Great Dyke or Grande Levée d'Anjou is the Loire Valley's spinal cord. It indeed protects it from its temperamental river and allows its fertile land to be fully cultivated!
Henry II of England (Plantagenêt) commissioned the construction of the first dyke in 1160. This first levée was a mound of earth and bundles of brushwood or fascines held in place by heavy poles.
The fertile Loire Valley could finally be cultivated all year round and the river open for navigation.
Volunteers or colonists who settled along the river, in order to maintain and repair the dyke, were rewarded with privileges. They regularly maintained, enlarged and repaired it over the centuries.
In the late 15th century, river traffic was so flourishing that coastal villages became important trading ports.
The purpose of the dyke was no longer only to protect the surrounding cultures, but also facilitate trade. It was therefore strengthened with stones, and trees were planted along it to irrigate its foundations. Finally, a law was passed in 1668 to prohibit any construction on top of the dyke.
Despite this, disaster stroke in 1707! The River Loire indeed rose so fast that the dyke broke and flooded the entire valley. People and animals drowned by the hundreds and entire villages vanished. The river even changed the course of his bed!
The last flood dates from 1856, when the river rose beyond all forecast and opened several breaches in the dyke, flooding again villages and crops.
Locals believed they had tamed their temperamental river! But the river Loire was not subdued. It was still wild and temperamental, capricious and dangerous.
A stone dyke was therefore rebuilt. Its height was also raised to 6.80 m (21ft) to prevent such tragic event from recurring. The villages became therefore safely cut off from the river.
In 1884, the dramatist Jules Lemaître wrote:
La Loire est une femme , amoureuse et pâmée,
Mais prompte à s’échapper en des caprices fous
The Loire is a woman, amorous and swooning,
But quick to indulge in crazy caprices
Finally, the small river Authion, which flows along the Val d' Anjou, was channeled between 1830 and 1832. As a result, 2000 hectares of marsh were turned into building land.
Many communities amassed huge funds by selling plots. This enabled them to build the magnificent Neoclassical style churches that today border the dyke.
Loire Valley, the Garden of France
The presence of silt or varennes and the mild climate are ideal conditions for the extensive production of vegetables, fruit and flowers.
The Orléans region is renowned for its gardens, parks and nurseries that produce throughout the year.
Doué, the French capital of Roses, has specialised in the cultivation of the flower introduced in France by the King René of Anjou.
Several varieties of fruits were created:
The Reine-Claude is a greengage named after Claude de France, the wife of King François I.
The Bon-Chrétien pear was produced from a cutting taken in the orchard of King Louis XI in Plessis-lès-Tours.
The gardener of King Charles V introdcued the culture of melons.
The fertile grasslands of the Loire Valley promote also the breeding of cattle and the dairy industry.
Selles-sur-Loire is known for its AOC goat cheese and St-Paulin for his rich and creamy cow cheese.
The town of Loué is renowned for the quality of its free range chickens.
Le Mans specialises in the production of goose and pork rillettes and rilleaux, and horse farms in the breeding of pure bloods and draft horses.
The Haras d'Angers and the Ecole Nationale d'Equitation in Saumur illustrate the importance of this tradition much rooted in the Loire Valley.
However, all industries directly related to the inland waterways have long since disappeared. Coopers, weavers, coal miners, blacksmiths, millers and boatmen had indeed to convert to other activities.
The development of road and rail infrastructure seriously slowed the river traffic. This resulted in the closure of shipyards in Angers and sail making workshops in Ancenis. The transport of goods by barge ended long ago and triggered the decline of the river ports.
The milling industry has also long disappeared and only a handful of windmills still operate.
The flour they produce is used to cook the Fouée, a sort of pita bread stuffed with local products. It's also enter in the preparation of the delicious upside-down apple pie best known as as Tarte des Dames Tatin or Tarte Tatin.
The Loire Valley region is also known for the poires tapées, dried pears prepared according to an ancient local recipe. They make an excellent dessert.
There is a much more to discover and enjoy along the beautiful River Loire and its Valley...
Credits Images from Pixabay: Sandy islets by Serge Boutrou - Blois by Julia Casada