Never heard of Laval? Well, our French neighbours are no fools. This lovely town in the Mayenne region of the north west is a hidden gem of fantastic food, culture, architecture and history, sat amidst some stunning countryside. It’s even a designated ‘town of art and history’. No wonder the locals are keeping it to themselves.
But no more - the secret's out and here’s our guide to having a great family trip to Laval…
1. Let the train take the strain
Avoid airport and motorway stress altogether by making the journey part of the holiday. You can reach Laval from London's St Pancras in a leisurely five and a half hours by Eurostar and TGV. Check-in times are shorter, luggage allowances more generous and restless toddlers can burn off energy if required.
We travelled with a buggy and a nine-month-old, and it was a doddle. Word of advice though: change in Lille rather than Paris if you can. The latter involves a 45 minute transfer by Metro that will definitely kill the holiday mood. Return tickets from £99pp from voyages-sncf.com
2. Stay in style at Hotel Perier du Bignon
This grand 18th Century mansion feels chic but comfortable all at once - and is incredibly peaceful while still being a stone’s throw from the Old Town and main sights. There are 24 rooms and six suites, including a family suite, as well as a pretty courtyard garden, outdoor pool and small spa which has a steam room, sauna and jacuzzi.
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Service is friendly and families made to feel welcome, with cots and highchairs available, along with parking should you need it. Rooms from £110 per night, hotelperierdubignon.fr
3. Lunch like peasants at Creperie Ty Billig...
Grab a window seat and choose from a huge selection of delicious galettes and crepes at this quaint cafe, nestled in the heart of the Old Town. It's perfect family-friendly fodder and parents can wash theirs down with a tea cup of Breton cidre. Expect your baby to be cooed over by the local ladies while doing so - it seems the people of Laval all take a two hour lunch and they all love children. creperie-ty-billig-laval.com
4. And dine like lords at L'Epicurien
For a fabulously French dinner, you need travel no further than down the stairs from your room. Hotel Perier du Bignon's gourmet restaurant combines fancy French surroundings (think chandeliers and silver service) with equally fancy French food, yet there is a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere that means a family can dine without worry. We enjoyed feasts of seasonal asparagus and poached eggs, soft lamb cutlets and creamy local cheese, washed down with champagne, while the baby snoozed in the buggy beside us. A rare treat!
Reservations required, three course set menu for €34 (approx. £30)
5. Explore Laval Castle from top to bottom
The town's 11th Century chateau cuts a dramatic figure sitting on a rocky outcrop overlooking the river and will definitely pique your child's interest. Take one of the daily guided tours, allowing you to scale the 34m tower - it has a unique circular lookout point at the top made from the original wooden beams and offering fantastic views.
Afterwards, you'll be taken into the crypt to hear stories of lost mummies and see a statue of Jesus dressed as a French soldier - a piece of Anglo-French war propaganda apparently. Tours three times a day, Tues-Sun (two extra during summer, Tues-Sat) - check website for times. €3 adults. laval-tourisme-uk.com
6. See the art of Henri Rousseau
The people of Laval are rightly proud of their most famous son, whose exotic, child-like paintings influenced generations of artists. However, he was less loved by the locals in his lifetime. Born into poor family in 1844, who lived in the one remaining medieval gate to the town, Porte Beurcheresse, the self-taught painter moved to Paris but never lived off his work, only receiving proper recognition after his death.
The Musee d'Art Naif et d'Art Singuliers, which is housed at the castle, has a gloriously weird and wonderful collection of works inspired by his 'native' style that kids will love. Expect dinosaurs, bold colours and strange sculptures. Entry €3.
7. Pick up a picnic at the market
On Tuesdays and Saturdays, Laval's Place des Acacais and Place de la Tremoille turns into a foodie's paradise with stalls selling gooey cheeses, fragrant strawberries and fresh fish. It's a lovely place to stroll and show children the variety of seasonal produce on offer, as well as pick up lunch or some tasty treats for the trip home. Stop off at Moise Derval artisan bakery, on the square, for a few of their gorgeous strawberry pastries too.
8. Blow off some steam at Jardin de la Perrine
This charming park beside the castle is where you can find Rousseau's final resting place, as well as a huge playground, an aviary and some goats. There are superb views of the river and town, and lots of spots to eat the goodies you bought at the market or kick a ball.
You'll also see the wreckage of a sailing boat that allegedly belonged to Laval’s second most famous son, Alain Gerbault. He was a professional tennis player who sailed round the world solo in the early 20th Century, settling in Tahiti where he later died of a tropical illness.
9. Indulge your cheese dreams at Lactopole
With two cows for every person in this part of France, they take their milk very seriously. Lactopole is a former cheese factory transformed into a quirky shrine to all things dairy, with 4000 artefacts from the milk and cheese industry through the centuries. There are cheese tasting too, and cheese and butter making sessions for children.
Visits are by two-hour tour only at 3pm and must be reserved in advance. The museum is open on weekdays most of the year, seven days a week in July-August. €10 adults, €6 aged 6-12, under-6s free. lactopole.com
10. Hire bikes and cycle the River Mayenne towpath
There are 85km of towpath running through a peaceful conservation area to explore beside the river, running up to Mayenne in the north and Chateau-Gontier in the south. Rent bikes and child trailers at Halte Fluviale on the banks of the river - who will give you a handy map and field guide - and burn off all that calorific French food.
The routes are fairly flat and very safe, with plenty of chateaux and cows to spot, lots of picnic benches to stop at, and walking trails to divert onto should you wish. Afterwards, enjoy an ice cream at the open air cafe next to the hire shop.
Find out more about Laval at Mayenne Tourisme