Rethinking what the region’s travel should be has meant expanding the focus from fairy tale castle crawls to experiences anchored more firmly in nature, food and the arts.
On my last prepandemic trip to the Loire Valley, in 2018, I found myself in a familiar place.
Ten years after my first road trip on the region’s castle route, I was back at the 500-year-old Château de Chambord, joining a small group of European and American tourists on a guided tour. Within seconds of convening in the inner courtyard, we were craning our necks to marvel at the structure’s ornamental bell towers as our guide rattled off facts and dates about King Francis I and his former hunting lodge. When she ushered us up to the towers, chiding us for not listening, a feeling of deja-vu washed over me.
This was my third visit to the Loire Valley from my home in Paris and the whole fairy tale experience felt tired. Little beyond a nearby converted hotel had changed. Not the exasperated guide going through the motions, nor the throngs of tourists dropped off by the busload and herded through each room at a fast clip. The dumbfounding beauty stretching the length of the Loire River was the same too, which is ultimately what salvaged the trip.
A lack of change doesn’t have to be a bad thing: the UNESCO Heritage-protected region, which drew in 9 million yearly visitors to its cultural sites and 1 million cyclists before the pandemic, has been beloved for decades for its castles and the rolling vineyards that produce what oenophiles consider France’s most diverse selection of wine. But it has arguably leaned too heavily on that past, reliant on what appeared to be an endless stream of travelers interested only in château hopping and bicycling. With all of the Loire’s dramatic landscapes and rising culinary stars, was this the best it could offer?
It’s a question that local chefs, hoteliers, entrepreneurs and regional leaders were asking themselves even before the coronavirus hit, setting their sights on the area’s reinvention. By the time I returned in October 2021 to meet some of them, the region’s evolving identity was palpable…
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