Long before the Dan Brown book "The Da Vinci Code" reintroduced the Renaissance visionary to a new generation of readers and moviegoers, inhabitants of France's Loire Valley knew Leonardo da Vinci as one of their own.
Of course, Italy can rightly lay claim to da Vinci, as well, but it's interesting to note that he came to France in 1516 at the request of King Francis I, lived in Clos Luce in Amboise and was buried at the Chateau of Amboise in 1519. The French also take pride in the fact that three of the master's greatest works -- "Mona Lisa," "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne" and "St. John the Baptist" -- are exhibited at the Louvre in Paris.
With all this in mind, France tourism will mark the 500th anniversary of da Vinci's death in 2019 with a menu of activities and exhibitions set for next year in the Loire Valley region www.loirevalley-france.co.uk.
The marketing theme, which was announced at the recent Rendez-vous en France trade show in Paris, is called "500 years of Renaissance(s)." The "s" at the end is deliberate because 1519 also marked the beginning of the construction of the Chateau of Chambord. The chateau is one of the most glorious in the Loire Valley -- and that's saying a lot in a region that boasts 42 castles that carry the Unesco World Heritage Site designation.
Rather than follow the template of just looking back at history, as these famous anniversaries usually do, Loire Valley tourism is also looking forward, hoping to use da Vinci's spirit of innovation to inspire a future renaissance of ideas, according to Catherine Simon-Marion, the director general of the Chateau du Clos Luce - Parc Leonardo da Vinci.
"This is more than the da Vinci of history and heritage but of the future," Simon-Marion said, noting that an exposition of da Vinci's works, now currently at the Vatican, will be on display at the 16th century chateau next year.
Events will also take place in other areas of the Loire in collaboration with such big name contemporary art venues as the FRAC Center in Orleans, the Olivier Debre Contemporary Art Center in Tours, the Transpalette in Bourges and the Arts and Nature Center at the Regional Domain of Chaumont-sur-Loire.
In addition to art exhibitions, the program will include musical performances, garden and architecture tours, gastronomy and, most notably, a traveling digital show that will showcase, among other things, a video presentation of da Vinci's architectural creations set to music. The show, which is still in the creation process, will take place at various venues in the Loire Valley.
Of course, there are many other reasons to visit this part of France at any time of year. There are some 50 wine appellations from which to choose, tempting restaurants that range from Michelin-starred eateries to countryside bistros, 1,000-year-old troglodyte caves, boating and cycling excursions on the Loire and Vienne rivers and among vineyards -- and did I mention the castles, some of which feature dazzling sound and light shows in summer?
The Rendez-vous en France trade show, which this year was organized ty Atout France, the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Paris Region Tourist Bureau, took place at Paris Expo Porte de Versailles March 27 and 28 and drew nearly 1,000 tour operators from five continents, 35 international journalists and 750 French exhibitors. This year marked an increase in the U.S. delegation, from 53 tour operators in 2017 to 69 for this year's event.
Overall, early figures show that about 89 million travelers visited France in 2017, nearly an 8% increase over 2016, fueled partly by strong numbers to Paris, which saw more than 23 million hotel arrivals last year, a spike of 11% over 2016.