On my last pre-pandemic trip to the Loire Valley, in 2018, I found myself in a familiar place.
Ten years after my first road trip along the region’s castle route, I returned to the 500-year-old Château de Chambord and joined a small group of European and American tourists on a guided tour. Within seconds of meeting in the inner courtyard, we were craning our necks to marvel at the structure’s ornate bell towers as our guide recited facts and dates about King Francis I and his former hunting lodge. As he led us to the towers, berating us for not listening, a sense of déjà-vu washed over me.
This was my third visit to the Loire Valley from home in Paris and the whole fairy tale experience felt tiresome. Little beyond a nearby converted hotel had changed. Not the exasperated guide who goes through the motions, nor the throngs of tourists who drop by the bus and pass through each room at a rapid pace. The amazing beauty that stretches along the Loire River was also the same, which ultimately saved the trip.
The lack of change need not be a bad thing: The UNESCO World Heritage-protected region, which drew 9 million annual visitors to its cultural sites and 1 million cyclists before the pandemic, has been beloved for years. decades for its châteaux and rolling vineyards that produce what oenophiles consider to be the most diverse selection of wines in France. But it has arguably leaned too heavily on that past, depending on what seemed like an endless stream of travelers interested only in visiting castles and riding bikes. With all the spectacular scenery of the Loire and culinary stars on the rise, was this the best it had to offer?
It’s a question local chefs, hoteliers, entrepreneurs and regional leaders were asking themselves even before the coronavirus hit, with their sights set on reinventing the area. When I returned in October 2021 to meet some of them, the evolving identity of the region was palpable.
“Our cycle route and our castles have always been popular, but the fairy tale needed an update,” said François Bonneau, president of Centre-Val de Loire, the regional council that oversees the Loire Valley. “The French traveler has long associated it with the field trips they took as children in school, while the foreign traveler has a plethora of other destinations in the country to choose from. We needed to better express the identity of the region as a whole.”
The pandemic, he continued, only reinforced the need to promote the region differently, as visits to the valley’s main sites fell 43% in 2020 and 32% in 2021, disturbing figures for a region where tourism represents the 5% of local GDP. or about 3.4 billion euros. Rethinking what travel to the Loire Valley should look like for the future has meant shifting the focus from fairytale castle tours to experiences more firmly anchored in nature, food and the arts, all while continuing to celebrate the unique terroir. region of.
That was evident from one of my first stops, at the 15th-century Château de Rivau. Patricia Laigneau, co-owner, has been actively working to attract a wider audience for the storybook castle and coveted wedding venue through food, devoting the last several years to produce grown and cooked on site.
Its two organic gardens were crescent-shaped and brimming with forgotten or near-extinct varieties of regional vegetables like Berry sucrine, purple celery, and more than 43 varieties of colorful pumpkins. The Pôle BioDom’Centre, a regional center for the preservation of local biodiversity, considers it an official conservatory for Loire Valley products.
Homegrown produce, plus a host of edible herbs and flowers, have been used for years in Rivau’s unassuming café. But now they’re the staple of the menu at Jardin Secret, Laigneau’s new 20-seat fine-dining restaurant ensconced under a glass canopy and surrounded by rose bushes. He invited chef Nicolas Gaulandeau, a native of the region, to highlight the local generosity through dishes ranging from butternut squash served with pickles and smoked paprika to roast rack of lamb with garden vegetables.
“Our guests weren’t just asking for something else, I saw the restaurant as an opportunity to show that the Châteaux de la Loire can be champions of French gastronomy,” said Laigneau.
Celebrating the land and its food is central to other new properties in the region.
In July 2020, Anne-Caroline Frey opened Loire Valley Lodges on 750 acres of private woodland in Touraine.
“Things have been a long time changing here, so of course the idea seemed far-fetched,” the former art dealer said. “But we were complete almost instantly.”
Frey, a believer in the therapeutic benefits of trees and an avid collector of modern art, developed the property to offer guests a forest bathing experience, or shinrin-yoku, a Japanese wellness ritual that involves spending time in the nature as a way to slow down and reduce stress. The 18 treehouses, on stilts, are dotted throughout the forest and each, decorated by a different artist, has floor-to-ceiling windows, a private terrace with a Jacuzzi, and with a notable absence of Wi-Fi, a stillness of its environment. As I sat with a book on my verandah one afternoon, all I heard was the faint sound of a pair of wild boars stirring among the fallen leaves.
A unique attraction is the guided forest bathing walk, led by a local nature specialist. Guests can also view outdoor sculptures and paintings that appear throughout the property (useful markers, I discovered, when I returned to my accommodation in near-total darkness after dinner); ride a bike through the grounds or to the nearby town of Esvres; take a dip in the pool surrounded by larger-than-life art installations; Have a solo bento box picnic or have dinner at the restaurant, as long as you’re ready to meet up with others.
The tree house concept is not the only departure from the tradition of sleeping in a castle.
“There have always been plenty of B&Bs, but the limited supply of hotels has only added to the dated image of the region,” said Alice Tourbier, co-owner of Les Sources de Cheverny hotel and spa, which opened in September 2020. .
The estate, which she owns with her husband, includes a restored 18th-century manor house, as well as outbuildings spanning 110 acres of farmland, fields and vineyards. Some rooms are in stone houses surrounding an orchard, others are in a converted barn. Suites are available in a hamlet of log cabins overlooking a lake.
Ms Tourbier, who also co-runs Les Sources de Caudalie, a spa hotel in the Bordeaux countryside, said she hoped to entice Loire Valley travelers to do more than just a quick stopover. Traditionally, the instinct has been to run to see as many castles as possible, a narrow approach to travel that I’ve been guilty of taking in the past.
“People will still want to see the castles and we are close: 10 minutes by bike from the Château de Cheverny and 45 minutes from the Château de Chambord,” said Tourbier. “But those visits can also be extended and combined with gastronomy and wellness.”
Activities are plentiful, from yoga and horseback riding to kayaking and wine-infused spa treatments, but the Tourbiers also intended to turn the property into a culinary destination. Les Sources de Cheverny has two restaurants: L’Auberge, a country bistro serving hearty traditional dishes, and Le Favori, the property’s elegant restaurant, which earned its first Michelin star in March for chef Frédéric Calmels’ modern cuisine.
For those seeking a more casual, yet unique, inn experience, the Château de la Haute Borde is a small, two-year-old guest house that doubles as an artists’ residence.
As Céline Barrère, co-founder and photographer, explains, she and the other two owners wanted to create a secluded, creative environment where artists and travelers could interact: Four of the nine rooms are reserved for artists-in-residence, who stay anywhere from a week to one month.
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“We see it as a retreat that brings together nature and contemporary art,” said Ms. Barrère.
Visitors can explore the property’s 27 acres covered in 100-year-old oak trees, lounge by the heated pool, or participate in food-foraging workshops, but they’ll also share communal meals with resident artists and see works by Hiroshi Harada, Danh Võ and other artists. Conveniently, art lovers can find more with a five-minute drive down the road at the Domaine de Chaumont-Sur-Loire., known for its garden festival and contemporary art center.
But perhaps the greatest addition to the region is the one that locals have been waiting for the most. Fleur de Loire, a new five-star hotel from two-Michelin-star chef Christophe Hay, opens in Blois in mid-June. Occupying a former 17th-century hospice, the building overlooking the Loire River will house two restaurants, a pastry shop, a shop, a spa and 44 rooms and suites. But for the chef, known for reviving cuisine using local river fish, the true ambition is to go beyond culinary experiences and luxury accommodation to preserve the region’s greatest gift: his land.
“I want people to see how much we can grow ourselves here and how important that is to cooking and eating well,” Mr. Hay said, adding that his 2.5-acre garden using permaculture techniques, a self-sustaining farming system, and a sizable greenhouse will be open to the public. “That’s a big part of what makes the Loire Valley so special.”