While the western French region of Pays de la Loire (branded as the Atlantic Loire Valley) is all about life in the slow lane, we’ve ironically been rather busy this year, supporting its vibrant resurgence of tourist activity following the pandemic! Home to the famous green cities of Nantes and Angers, a stunning stretch of the Atlantic coast and half of the Loire Valley itself, the region has been encouraging visitors to experience slow tourism through the lens of four major themes – cycling, water activities, agritourism and wine – while investing extensively and creatively in sustainable travel solutions. We also enjoyed a group press trip to the Vendée coast and little-known Ile d’Yeu (pictured), a paradise of oyster beds and bobbing boats half an hour off the mainland.
Wine on two wheels
Did you know the Atlantic Loire Valley is the third-largest winegrowing region of France in terms of AOCs, with three areas awarded the ‘Vignobles & Découvertes’ quality wine tourism label and over 350 cellars open to tourists? And combining wine with cycling is where the region really excels! Get in the saddle and cycle the new Vignoble de Jasnières à Vélo discovery circuit starting from Chartre-sur-le-Loir or Ruillé-sur-Loir – a 16km route through the vineyards of Chenin, to learn more about this AOC white. Or discover the underground world around Saumur, whose caves of tuffeau stone make perfect wine cellars: Souzay-Champigny is famed for its unique troglodyte architecture, while the labyrinthine miles of cellars at Maison Bouvet-Ladubay (pictured) are entertainingly explored by bike with a headtorch.
Three cultural highlights
In Saint-Nazaire, the Espadon submarine reopened in July last year following restoration. A former French Navy vessel, the Espadon is the only visitable submarine presented afloat and was the first submersible to dive under the sea ice… and it now offers a new visitor experience reconstructing the dive, open year-round except in January. Culture and music lovers are spoilt for choice at Fontevraud Abbey this winter, with a range of beautiful temporary exhibitions and spine-tingling choir concerts (pictured) running from 26 November to 8 January 2023. Book into the on-site hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant to make your visit truly memorable. And if you’ve already visited the Puy du Fou, try the nearby Château de Tiffauges on for size – nicknamed Bluebeard’s castle, it’s western France’s largest medieval stronghold and you can fire real projectiles from 16 reconstructions of contemporary war machines. Reopening in April 2023.
Four green city breaks
Four of the region’s major urban areas have won national recognition and awards for their eco investments. Winner of the European Green Capital Award in 2013 and France’s first city to do so, capital Nantes boasts over 1,000 hectares of wild areas including the Jardin des Plantes, the Jardin Extraordinaire and the Île de Versailles. Further east along the Loire, Angers (whose chateau is pictured) was crowned France’s greenest city in 2020 and its €178m ‘Smart City’ project aims to achieve carbon neutrality within 12 years. Terra Botanica, the world’s first plant-dedicated theme park, is just outside town. Blooming Cholet has been awarded the ‘Ville Fleurie – 4 fleurs’ label since 2005 and won the ‘Fleur d’Or’ prize in 2019. And just outside Le Mans, the Arche de la Nature is a 500-hectare nature reserve, with six eco-lodges which opened at the end of 2021. With green roofs, pellet heating and phyto-purification systems, these innovative low-energy lodges make the ideal sustainable choice.
Le Voyage à Nantes’ first ever winter trail!
This December sees the regional capital extend its annual summer celebration of quirky art and architecture into the festive period, with a ‘Midwinter Night’s Dream’ interpreted by three carefully selected artists. Wander the streets with a vin chaud in hand and soak up the magical atmosphere. Elsewhere, Les Lumières de Laval illuminates the facades of this Mayenne town with incredible projections.
When it comes to choosing a traditional Christmas market, villages pack just as much punch as cities here. Explore Vendée’s tiny Beaulieu-sous-la-Roche with its stunning Féerie des Santons and clockwork-animated window displays. Historic Jublains in Mayenne highlights archeological treasures at both its market and museum. Meanwhile in Sarthe, Tuffé sets up its Advent market in the 17th-century abbey and dovecote, featuring work by carefully selected local craftspeople and designers.
Coming up next year…
Looking ahead to 2023, Nantes is busy preparing to co-host the Rugby World Cup (8 September–28 October) at its 35,000-capacity Stade de la Beaujoire. The four scheduled matches include Japan’s meeting with Argentina on the final day of the pool stage. It’s also the hotly-anticipated centenary of Le Mans 24H (10-11 June), as well as the iconic Porsche 911’s 60th anniversary. And Anjou Vélo Vintage returns to the Loire Valley after three years off (30 June–2 July), a fabulous fun celebration of period outfits and retro rides.