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 to the area’s castle, I returned to the 500-year-old Château de Chambord, joining a small group of European and American tourists on a guided tour. Within seconds of sitting in our inner courtyard, we raised our necks to admire the building’s decorative bells as our guide popped up facts and dates about King Francis I and his former hunting lodge. When he led us to the towers, scolding us for not listening, a feeling of deja-vu flooded me.
This was my third visit to the Loire Valley from my home in Paris and the whole experience of the fairy tale made me feel tired. Just beyond a nearby renovated hotel had changed. Neither the outraged guide who made the moves, nor the crowds of tourists who fell from the bus load and crossed each room in one quick clip. The heartbreaking beauty that stretches across the Loire River was also the same, which ultimately saved the trip.
The lack of change should not be bad: the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which annually attracted 9 million visitors to its cultural sites and 1 million cyclists before the pandemic, has been beloved for decades for its castles and rolling vineyards that produce what wine lovers consider France’s most diverse wine selection. But it has undoubtedly relied heavily on this past, relying on what seemed to be an endless stream of travelers interested only in château hopping and cycling. With all the dramatic landscapes of the Loire and the rising stars of cooking, was it the best it could offer?
It is a question asked by local chefs, hoteliers, businessmen and regional leaders even before the coronavirus struck, turning their attention to the area’s reinvention. When I returned in October 2021 to meet some of them, the evolving identity of the area was evident.
“Our cycling route and our châteaux have always been popular, but the story needed to be updated,” said François Bonneau, president of the Center-Val de Loire, the regional council overseeing the Loire Valley. “The French traveler has long associated it with trips they made as school children, 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 area differently as visits to the valley’s main locations fell by 43 percent in 2020 and 32 percent in 2021 – worrying numbers for an area where tourism accounts for 5 percent. local GDP. or about 3.4 billion euros. Rethinking what future trips to the Loire Valley should be like was shifting the focus from fairytale castle exploration to experiences more firmly anchored in nature, food and the arts as we continue to celebrate its unique terroir. area.
This was evident from one of my first stops at the 15th-century Château de Rivau. Patricia Laigneau, co-owner, is actively working to attract a wider audience to the fairytale castle and the sought-after wedding venue through food, devoting the last few years to products grown and cooked on the spot.
The two organic gardens of her kitchen were crescent-shaped and overflowed with forgotten or almost extinct varieties of local vegetables, such as berry succulent, violet celery and more than 43 varieties of colorful zucchini. It is considered the official conservatory for the products of the Loire Valley by the Pôle BioDom’Centre, a regional center for the conservation of local biodiversity.
The local products, in addition to a number of herbs and edible flowers, have been used for years in Rivau coffee without treatments. But now they are the cornerstone of the menu at Jardin Secret, Mrs. Laigneau’s new restaurant with excellent 20-seat cuisine located under a glass dome and surrounded by roses. He brought local chef Nicolas Gaulandeau to highlight the local generosity with dishes ranging from squash served with pickles and smoked paprika to roast lamb with vegetables from the garden.
“Not only did our guests ask for more, I saw the restaurant as an opportunity to show that the castles of the Loire can be champions of French gastronomy,” said Laigneau.
The celebration of the land and its food is central to other new properties in the area.
In July 2020, Anne-Caroline Frey opened the Loire Valley Lodges on 750 acres of private forest in Touraine.
“Things were slow to change here, so of course the idea seemed crazy,” said the former art dealer. “But we closed completely almost immediately.”
Believing in the healing benefits of trees and an avid contemporary art collector, Ms. Frey developed the property to offer guests a forest swimming experience – or shinrin-yoku, a Japanese wellness ritual that includes spending time in nature as a means of slowing down and reducing of stress. The 18 tree houses – on stilts – are spread throughout the forest and each, decorated by a different artist, has floor-to-ceiling windows, a private deck with jacuzzi and a noticeable absence of Wi-Fi, quiet. their environment. As I perched with a book on my deck one afternoon, all I could hear was the faint sound of a pair of wild boars trembling among the fallen leaves.
The only advantage is the guided walk in the forest-swimming, led by a local nature expert. Visitors can also see outdoor sculptures and paintings displayed throughout the property (useful markers, I discovered, as I returned to my shelter in almost total darkness after dinner). cycling in the gardens or in the nearby village of Esvres. Take a dip in the pool surrounded by life-size art installations. Have a pent-up bent-boxing picnic in solitude or dine in the restaurant – if and when they are ready to be in the company of others again.
The idea of a tree house is not the only deviation from the tradition of sleeping in a castle.
“There have always been many B & Bs, but the limited hotel deals only added to the old-fashioned image of the area,” said Alice Tourbier, co-owner of the Les Sources de Cheverny spa and hotel, which opened in September 2020.
The estate, which she and her husband have, includes a renovated 18th-century mansion as well as ancillary buildings spanning 110 acres of farmland, fields and vineyards. Some rooms are in stone houses surrounding an orchard, others are in a renovated barn. Suites are available in a settlement with wooden cabins overlooking a lake.
Ms Tourbier, who also co-hosts Les Sources de Caudalie, a spa hotel in the Bordeaux countryside, said she hoped to motivate travelers to the Loire Valley to do more than just make a quick stop. Traditionally, it was my instinct to strive to see as many castles as possible, a close-knit approach to travel for which I had been guilty in the past.
“People will still want to see the castles and we are close – 10 minutes by bike to the Château de Cheverny and 45 minutes by the Château de Chambord,” said Ms Tourbier. “But these visits can be extended and combined with gastronomy and wellness.”
Activities abound, from yoga and horse riding to kayaking and spa treatments with wine, but the Tourbiers also had the intention of turning the property into a gastronomic destination. Les Sources de Cheverny has two restaurants: L’Auberge, a country bistro serving hearty traditional dishes, and Le Favori, the property’s excellent restaurant, which won its first Michelin star in March for chef Frédéric’s modern cuisine. Calmels.
For those looking for a more informal – but unique – inn experience, the Château de la Haute Borde is a small two-year guest house that also serves as an artist residence.
As co-founder and photographer Céline Barrère explains, she and the other two owners wanted to create an isolated, creative environment where artists and travelers could interact: Four of the nine rooms are reserved for home-based artists who live anywhere from a week to a month.
Travel trends that will determine 2022
Look forward. As governments around the world ease loosening coronavirus restrictions, the travel industry is hoping this will be the year that travel returns. Here is what to expect:
“We see it as a refuge that unites nature and contemporary art,” said Barrère.
Guests can explore the 27 acres covered by 100-year-old oaks, stay in the heated pool or take part in food search workshops, but will also share shared meals with local artists and see works by Hiroshi Harada, Danh Võ and other artists. Conveniently, art lovers can search for more in five minutes by car on the road to Domaine de Chaumont-Sur-Loire, is famous for its garden festival and contemporary art center.
But perhaps the biggest addition to the area is the one the locals expected the most. The Fleur de Loire, a new five-star hotel by double Michelin-starred chef Christophe Hay, opens in Blois in mid-June. Housed in a former 17th-century hostel, the building overlooking the Loire River will house two restaurants, a patisserie, a shop, a spa and 44 rooms and suites. But for the chef, known for reviving cuisine with local river fish, the real ambition is to transcend culinary experiences and luxurious accommodation to maintain the area’s greatest gift: its land.
“I want people to see how much we can grow here and how important this is for cooking and good food,” said Hay, adding that the 2.5-acre kitchen garden uses permaculture techniques, a self-sustaining system. agriculture, and a large greenhouse will be open to the public. “This is a big part of what makes the Loire Valley so special.”