In the western French region of Pays de la Loire – branded as the Atlantic Loire Valley – the year ahead is all about experiences: from high-octane racing, spectacular shows and cultural exhibitions to living life in the slow lane on two wheels or on board a floating gite. Home to the famous green cities of Nantes and Angers, a stunning stretch of the Atlantic coast and half of the Loire Valley itself, this is a beautifully diverse region – and accessible by train from London in under four hours. If you haven’t explored it yet, make this year the year!
1/ The Centenary of the 24H du Mans
Sarthe is gearing up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans on 10-11 June. First run in 1923, the race has left an indelible mark on world motorsport history and is part of Sarthe’s identity. Expect an epic battle between Toyota, Ferrari (back in the top-tier category after a 40-year hiatus), Porsche (record holder for the most Le Mans wins), Peugeot and Cadillac. Almost 140 vehicles are also on display at the 24H museum at the circuit. Interestingly, the ‘Mission H24’ project launched by ACO (the Automobile Club de l’Ouest) is to produce a completely green racing car that only emits water. The first LMPH2G prototype was introduced in 2020 and was an impressive performer, reaching a top speed in excess of 300 kph, and is set to debut at Le Mans in 2025. The car gives a glimpse of the future of motor racing, which aims to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions.
2/ The return of vintage cycling and two new cycle routes
After a three-year absence, Anjou Vélo Vintage is making its proud comeback to Saumur and the surrounding countryside from 30 June to 2 July. The event invites cycling enthusiasts with vintage bikes (1900-1987) to return to a golden age of stylish two-wheel travel, organising bike rides along the Loire and through the region’s vineyards and wine estates in obligatory period dress. Explore the wealth of natural resources to enjoy in Anjou and the Loire Valley on routes ranging from 30 to 105 km long. The retro festival village hosts leading local wine cellars, second-hand stalls and numerous free events for all to enjoy. Also in Anjou, there’s a new cycle route from Fontevraud to Montreuil-Bellay and Brézé, taking in the eponymous chateaux along the way – while in neighbouring Loire-Atlantique, another route stretching from Nantes to the Mont-Saint-Michel (Normandy) is set to open in September.
3/ Nantes: host of the Rugby World Cup and a European Green Capital for 10 years
The Atlantic Loire Valley’s capital is one of 10 French cities to host this year’s Rugby World Cup (8 September–28 October), with four matches scheduled at the Stade de la Beaujoire: Ireland v Tonga (16 September), Argentina v Chile (30 September), Wales v Georgia (7 October) and Japan v Argentina (8 October). Nantes itself is a quirky green city, the first French winner of the European Green Capital Award in 2013 and home to the Machines de l’Île with its mechanical creatures, where the worlds of Jules Verne and Leonardo da Vinci collide. The ‘Voyage à Nantes‘ art trail through the city is now a year-round experience, while Le Magmaa new food hall boasts 10 tempting kiosks serving world cuisine from Korean to Afghan to South American, all prepared using local produce. You can even explore Nantes by canoe on summer evenings, enjoying views of the city from the River Loire.
4/ A new floating gîte on the Loire
Built in 2022, La Princesse de Loire is a traditional ‘toue cabanée’ moored on the river between Nantes and Angers, transformed into unique accommodation sleeping up to four. Staying here exemplifies slow life in the region, a chance to immerse yourself in nature and get up close to cormorants, terns and egrets. Despite its rustic surroundings on a still-wild section of the Loire close to the town of Ancenis, the boat is equipped with all modern comforts as well as running water and 220V electricity, plus a magnificent illuminated terrace at the bow complete with outdoor furniture. Parking is available on the riverbank. 248 Riverside also has two accompanying gîtes on dry land – Maison Paradis and Maison Bonheur – and all dwellings are situated just 100 metres from the Loire à Vélo cycle route.
5/ Rembrandt at Fontevraud
The Royal Abbey of Fontevraud is Europe’s largest monastic site, a former convent which later became a prison and is now a thriving cultural centre with a luxury hotel and Michelin-star restaurant on site. The latest addition to the complex is a modern art museum, opened in May 2021, which houses an exceptional collection of paintings, sculptures and other items donated to the region by private collectors Martine and Léon Cligman. From 17 June to 24 September, a special exhibition will shed light on a collection of etchings by Rembrandt with ‘Impressions en noir et blanc: Eaux fortes de Rembrandt van Rijn’. The core of the exhibition will comprise nearly 70 engravings from the Glénat collection, supplemented by other works from private collections. The museum’s inaugural exhibition, on Monet, attracted over 80,000 visitors.
6/ The world’s only troglodyte zoo
Saumur is renowned for its cave heritage – from its mushroom caves and wine cellars to atmospheric cave restaurants and the Logis Hotel Rocaminori, with 12 troglodyte rooms carved out of the rockface. In nearby Doué-la-Fontaine, Bioparc is a zoo with a difference, home to over 1,700 animals and devoted to the protection of endangered species by leading numerous conservation projects in the animals’ natural habitats. Created in 1961, the park is set in an outstanding natural environment, carved from the rock and surrounded by lush vegetation. From June this year, visitors can spend the night just a short distance from the gates in one of five new gîtes.
7/ France’s sardine and sailing capitals
In the south of the region, the Vendée coast steals hearts with its wide swathes of sand and pine forest, two islands, scores of watersports, and fish and shellfish aplenty. Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie is capital of the sardine and a labelled ‘Site Remarquable du Goût (a French gastronomic label awarded to 71 places across France), where you can pull up a chair on the harbour to feast on the fresh catch. Two new walking routes opened here in 2022, taking in two historic neighbourhoods and marked out by sardines and ships painted on the ground. Forty minutes down the coast, Les Sables-d’Olonne is an international sailing hub, start and finish point of the Golden Globe and Vendée Globe solo sailing races, and a member of select club ‘The Most Beautiful Bays in the World’, recognising its large, unspoilt natural areas of beach, forest and marshland and its commitment to the protection of biodiversity.
8/ Lunch with a lockkeeper in Mayenne
Meeting local people and sharing in their knowledge, learning how products are made or maintained, and sitting down around a table has never been more important – and that’s where Mayenne’s ‘Slowlydays’ concept comes in. Just across the border from Normandy, Mayenne is the Atlantic Loire Valley’s northernmost department and is dotted with lock houses that come to life during the summer. These are perfect places to stop and chat with lock keepers, who often double as restaurateurs, grocers and gardeners. Also don’t miss the area’s rustic riverside guinguettes – open-air cafés – for fun, refreshing breaks.
9/ Maritime industry and sustainability in Saint-Nazaire
The major industrial port of Saint-Nazaire offers unique cultural and industrial experiences for visitors from eight to 80. Discover life on board legendary ocean liners at the Escal’Atlantic, with artefacts from Normandie (1935) and France (1962). Clamber on board the first French submarine to dive below the ice field, Espadon, which reopened in July 2021 following a long restoration and is the only submarine presented afloat open to visitors in France. Learn the history of Saint-Nazaire at the Écomusée and Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyards. Looking to the future, the city also boasts France’s only tourist attraction devoted to offshore wind energy: the EOL Centre éolien. A dedicated tourist pass allows visitors to combine entry to all sites for one price.
10/ Puy du Fou’s latest show
Much more than a traditional theme park, Puy du Fou is France’s second most visited park after Disneyland Paris and brings history back to life through 18 immersive shows and adventures, four period villages, a century-old forest and six themed hotels. New for 2023, ‘Le Mime et L’Etoile’ (‘The Mime and the Star’) transports audiences to a 1914 film set, celebrating the carefree Belle Epoque and the beginnings of the seventh art. Situated at the heart of the Vendée countryside, Puy du Fou offers a staggering journey through time from antiquity to the 20th century – and its regular evening show, Cinéscénie, has now been enjoyed by over 13 million people in the 45 years since its creation.