Even in the 21st century it doesn’t take long for one to become spellbound by the special atmosphere that surrounds Saumur, France. Arriving by train, I walk over the Cessart Bridge, built in the 18th century, which spans with several arches the Loire River, to get to the heart of town. To stop halfway over and enjoy the scenic view to the left can take its time: Located at the riverbank are the classicism theatre and the impressive council house, with the old town right behind. In the background stands the imposing Château de Saumur, built with the bright white tuffeau-stone typical of this region. It’s one of the most beautiful townscapes I know and can easily keep up with that of my hometown—Heidelberg, Germany.
The Saumur Cavalry School
After passing over the bridge I turn right and walk a few minutes along the riverbank until a bright white building to the left comes in sight: the first of several big building complexes of the Saumur Cavalry School, once the biggest in the world. As a horse- and dressage-lover, this is the first place to capture the town’s glorious past involving horses and the evolution of dressage.
In older books one can see the horses of the Cadre Noir—the French military riding academy—showing the airs above the ground in front of a picturesque historical building of the École de Cavalerie or giving displays in the Manège des Écuyers—the historic indoor arena. The school’s history goes back to 18th century post-French Revolutionary times when, after the Napoleonic Wars, the mounted troops in France had to be rebuilt and Saumur was chosen as the location of the new cavalry school. Riding masters began training cavalry officers until they themselves had the skills to teach the next officers. During this time the famous black uniform, which members of the Cadre Noir still wear today, came into existence to distinguish the masters from the pupils, who wore blue uniforms. Today this uniform is the hallmark of France’s most famous riding group.
The old cavalry school is a fascinating place where one could think time stood still since the days when dressage was still in its infancy. The school surrounds the Place du Chardonnet, where the atmosphere created by the bright white stone buildings and the countless plane trees planted a long time ago along the square is unique and recreational. Sitting by a beautiful monument constructed in honor of the fallen horses and cavalrymen, one has a view of the still-existing outdoor arenas in which some of the most renowned dressage masters trained their horses for exhibitions of the world-famous Cadre Noir. Even today one can feel the glory that once surrounded this legendary school and its representatives. Their names are engraved in the Manège des Écuyers, where once the grand persons on the balconies let themselves be entertained by the horses and riders performing the quadrille and airs above the ground.
For those who wish to dig deeper into the history of Saumur, they can visit the cavalry museum, which is in one of the buildings belonging to the cavalry complex, just opposite the Manège des Écuyers. After three years of extensive restorations, the museum opened in 2008 and is dedicated to the history of the French cavalry. Especially interesting are the original stables, which give insight to how the horses lived more than 100 years ago.
The French National School of Equitation
After the disappearance of the cavalry in France, the tradition was upheld through a new challenge: the Cadre Noir changed from a military to a civilian organization and increased its number of public appearances to demonstrate academic riding. Its new task was to train riding instructors and horses to compete in the Olympic disciplines up to the Olympic Games and to give several displays in France and abroad. In 1972, the French Ministry for Sport established a National Riding School in Saumur—the French National School of Equitation (ENE)—where the Cadre Noir could fulfill its new tasks, and a large facility was built between 1975 and 1984 outside Saumur in the forests of Terrefort.
Visitors to the school have the opportunity to take part in guided tours (offered between February and November) and see the magnificent Grand Manège—the huge indoor arena. Visitors can also say hello to the four-legged stars of the Cadre Noir and admire the glamorous gala-tack, worn by the exhibition horses, in one of the big tack rooms. Depending on the time one visits there is also the opportunity to attend the Cadre Noir’s displays of the world-famous quadrille, the horses showing the airs above the ground and many more attractions.
Some guests are lucky enough to observe Olympic riders and other riders of the Cadre Noir training their horses either in the Grand Manège or the Carrière d’Honneur, the central outdoor arena between the administration building, the Grand Manège and the Prestige stable complex in which the Cadre Noir horses are stabled. I was fortunate to be there one sunny morning when the mist was just lifting and freeing the view for a truly magnificent picture: a bright bay horse piaffing in the middle of the arena with an effortlessness and lightness rarely seen, explaining why the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization chose to inscribe French traditional riding as protected world heritage in 2011.
Beyond the Horses
While Saumur is known for its horses, there are other locations worth visiting. For instance, when leaving the cavalry school on the way to the French National School of Equitation, you will pass St. Hilaire-Saint Florent, home to the renowned wine caves that have made Saumur as world-famous as the horses.
A stop at the Cave Ackerman, founded in 1811, or Bouvet Ladubay among many others is a must. Guided tours are offered of these stunning caves, dug deep into limestone rock typically found in this region. These limestone caves provide the unique conditions that have made the wines of Saumur so special.
Finally, one should not leave Saumur without visiting the castle and enjoying the aerial view over the impressive Loire down onto the roofs of the town and the Cessart Bridge elegantly spanning the river. Built on a rock plateau above the town, the castle, like many others of this region along the so called Kings’ Valley Route, is a majestic building with the charm of long-gone times coming alive—something that seems to be ever-present in Saumur. Inside the castle is a museum that contains a remarkable collection of equestrian-themed items from ancient times to
There are places in the world that you enjoy having visited. Then there are places that are so irresistible that you promise to return one day. Saumur is one of those places.
TRAVELING TO SAUMUR
France is one of Europe’s most horse-friendly countries with a long tradition of breeding, riding and showing. One could spend weeks visiting all the world-famous sites. But if you should only have a few days, be sure not to miss Saumur. It’s not only France’s unofficial capital of the horse but also a charming small town in one of the country’s most beautiful regions, located about 186 miles from Paris in Maine-et-Loire.
Horses are inextricably linked with Saumur. They brought fame and credit, but also saved the town from disaster during World War II. It is reported that the German general who occupied Saumur in 1940, a keen horse-lover and cavalryman, declined an aerial attack to spare the horses and French cavalrymen whom he considered friends.
The following are links to some of Saumur’s most memorable sites:
- Guided Tours and performances of the Cadre Noir – cadrenoir.co.uk
- Cavalry Museum and wine caves – bouvetladubay.com
- Wine Cave of Ackerman – ackerman.fr
- Saumur Tourism – ot-saumur.fr/