In north western France, on the banks of the Loire River sits the wildly inventive city of Nantes. Though now a part of the Pays de la Loire region, Nantes has strong historical and cultural ties to Brittany. This city seems to have always had the knack for transformation; from the seat of power for Breton dukes, into a thriving seafaring city, and now into a growing hub for digital, mechanical and artistic innovation.

The History of Nantes

Eager to explore the Cité des Ducs (City of Dukes), I promptly set off to find the Château des Ducs de Bretagne. With parts dating from the 15th – 18th centuries this chateau differs from other Loire chateaux due to its fortified rampart enclosure. Just outside the ramparts stands the statue of Anne of Brittany. A petite figure in real-life, she was the daughter of the last duke of an independent Brittany and – through her marriages – was twice the Queen of France.

Nantes Chateau

The moat at the Château des Ducs de Bretagne has a lovely park-like setting
Photo: Julie Kalan

Crossing above a sunken moat and park-like walking path, the regal entry bridge brings me into the chateau’s large courtyard. Desolate except for one other tourist, I can only imagine the pageantry that once took place here. The limestone renaissance-inspired chateau has housed the Musée d’Histoire de Nantes since 2007. The museum, spread throughout the entire chateau covers Nantes from the Gallo-Roman era through modern times. New interactive multi-media exhibits help bring context to the 1500 objects on view.

For much of its history Nantes was primarily a seafaring port, and during the 18th century was by great degree France’s largest slave trading port. This awful chapter of history is not glossed over or relegated to a corner of the museum, but is directly presented. At the Memorial to the Abolishment of Slavery, located a few minutes away on the banks of the Loire, the name of every slave ship that departed from Nantes is written on glass bricks embedded in the pavement.

A Brighter Bloom

The seafaring ships of Nantes did not always have nefarious goals. One of the positive results of long distance sea trade was the discovery and subsequent study of new botanical species. Under orders of Louis XV, all naval captains were to bring botanical specimens back from their travels. This practice helped populate the Jardin des Plantes with exotic plants. A multitude of magnolias are some of the hundreds of blooming species that benefit from the temperate climate of the area. Several trees that are a century and half or older reside among the ponds and ornate 19th century greenhouses of these beautifully landscaped gardens.

Mechanical Re-Invention

In 1987 the massive shipbuilding yards on the Ile de Nantes closed, ending a centuries old tradition of Nantes boat construction. While many cities would either demolish all the industrial buildings or simply let them collapse over time, Nantes took an avant garde approach turning much of the area into a home for the mechanical menagerie of the Machines de l’île.

Machine de l’île: Riding a Giant Ant

Discovering new experiences has always been a highlight of my travels and so I have often taken to heart the sentiment behind the saying “When in Rome…”. Following this philosophy is how I found myself riding a giant mechanical ant, one of the extraordinary beasts at Machine de l’île. It is not something I ever thought of doing (who would?) but when in Nantes…

Nantes Grand Elephant

The Grand Éléphant and Carrousel des Mondes Marins
at Les Machines de l’île, in Nantes
Photo: © Jean-Dominique Billaud / LVAN

The formidable ant is large enough to carry the six people currently in charge of its movements. With a lever in each hand, I am in control of its two back right legs. This only-in-Nantes experience takes place in the lab, where tours showcase new creations and lucky volunteers help test them. In the same area there is a kid-sized caterpillar, a 4-seater heron with an 8m wing span and an extremely menacing 4-person controlled spider. All of these life forms will eventually take their places on a gigantic tree that is currently being planned. When finished, in 2021, the tree will reach a height of 35m and have 22 branches – each 20m long. Within the Galerie des Machines, from a terrace 7.5m above the workshop, visitors are welcome to view the place where all these creatures take form.

A little closer to the Loire waterfront,  Le Carrousel des Mondes Marins is a one-of-a-kind merry-go-round built for the delight of all ages. This carousel is essentially 3 carousels stacked on top of each other. On the lowest level you will find the likes of a giant crab and squid populating the seabed. The middle section, representing the abyss, contains a deep-sea lantern fish, manta ray and piratefish. The top tier is the sea surface with boats, flying fish and jellyfish. Each creature and contraption has space for two or more people to actively ride. Yes, actively ride – because through the use of levers, foot pedals and wheels each person controls parts of the apparatus that they are riding. Imagine an interactive ride that doesn’t involve computer graphics!

While riding on the top tier of the carousel, I hear chants of “élephant, élephant” emanating from below. It is a chorus of schoolchildren cheering on a lumbering 4-storey elephant. Made of steel and wood, the elephant carries 50 passengers along its route through the Galerie des Machines and along the quays of the Loire. When a spray of water from the elephant’s trunk is sent in their direction, the young on lookers respond with squeals and giggles of delight.

You may be wondering, as was I, what was the inspiration behind all these fantastical steampunk creatures? The spring of inspiration flowed from the works of two future-seeing minds: the Nantes born and raised world renowned author Jules Verne and the exquisite mechanical drawings of Da Vinci.

Bird’s Eye View

Nantes Passage Pommeraye

Passage Pommeraye is an ornate 3 level shopping arcade
Photo: © Franck Tomps / LVAN

There is one building in Nantes that, much like Montparnasse in Paris, sticks out not for its beauty or charm, but by its height and utilitarian design defies its surroundings. The Tour de Bretagne is not much to look at, but like its Parisian counterpart is wonderful from which to look. From the balcony of Le Nid (The Nest) on the 32nd floor you get a 360° view of Nantes. Inside “the Nest” a huge, sleepy white bird forms the bar. Most evenings you can grab a seat on one of the cracked eggshell chairs and enjoy live music.

A Temple of Shopping

With its grand columns and statues one could easily mistake the Passage Pommeraye for a 19th century version of a Greek temple. But there is no room for Zeus or his fellow Olympians, this is a shopping arcade. Built on 3 floors and accessed by the staged staircase lit by a glass ceiling, the Passage Pommeraye is stunning. Whether or not you enjoy shopping, do not miss this extraordinary place.

A Green Line

When walking to any historical or cultural site in Nantes look down and you will find a thin green line painted on the pavement. This line, the brainchild of Voyages à Nantes, marks a 12km trail that travels to iconic spots and hidden treasures throughout Nantes. Many locals have discovered little-known facets of their city by following the green line.

Estuary Art

Nantes - le Serpent

The enormous fanged snake, of Huang Yong Ping’s famous Serpent D’Océan, is just as menacing sitting on the sand as it is in the water at high tide
Photo: Julie Kalan

Follow the Loire River from Nantes to Saint-Nazaire, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, and you will find the makings of an outdoor modern art museum. Located on both the north and south banks of the 60km trail are multiple art installations created by internationally renowned artists. All are free to discover by bike or car. Some are located in Nantes, like De Temps En Temps on the Harmonie Atlantique Building. A visual weather forecaster, best seen at night, this piece by François Morellet displays lit depictions of sun, clouds or rain. Heading to Saint-Nazaire you will find a house floating in the Loire, a contorted sailboat jumping up a water lock (akin to salmon swimming upstream), and a holiday rental cottage perched atop a mock power plant chimney. Further down the river, L’Observatoire by Tadashi Kawamai provides a raised lookout and wooden walkway through a field of hushed marsh reeds. The walkway leads to the tiny, picturesque town of Lavau-sur-Loire, where you will find the real-life house that the Loire floating house replicates. In the industrial working part of the Saint-Nazaire port, painted onto dreary facades, is Red Triangle by Felice Varini. Viewed from an elevated vantage point these seemingly random triangles line up and visually unite the expanse. Located at the mouth of the estuary, the most famous art installation is Serpent D’Océan by Huang Yong Ping. Depending on the tides this giant skeletal snake sits either on the water or the sand. The fanged beast looks like something Harry Potter would battle.

Sure to Please Accommodations

While in Nantes I stayed at two praiseworthy city center hotels:

The 4-star Radisson Blu is located in the city’s former neoclassical courthouse. The exterior of this impressive building is adorned with its original large columns and imposing flight of stairs that frame the easily accessible hotel entrance. Up one level, by elevator or stairs, the lobby features an array of sitting options beneath a soaring glass ceiling. My room was clean, modern and equipped with a separate lounging tub and shower. Just off the lobby is Le Préambule bar and, in what was the former courtroom, the restaurant L’Assise. Underneath its impressive original ceiling, L’Assise provides an extensive breakfast buffet.  www.radissonblu.com/en/hotel-nantes

The 4-star Oceania Hôtel de France is located mere steps from Place Graslin and the Passage Pommeraye – an ideal location. Inside the 18th century building are 72 comfortable, spacious and modern rooms. Just off the bright welcoming lobby, the cosy bar is a perfect spot for reminiscing about the day’s adventures over a cocktail or a café. And the breakfast buffet ensures a great start to the day. Just next door to the hotel, on the steps of the Graslin Opera House I found the perfect spot to bask in the late afternoon sun and take-in the activity of Place Graslin.  www.oceaniahotels.com/hotel-nantes-centre-ville

Dining options:

Nantes La Cigale

The Art Nouveau style restaurant
La Cigale.
Photo: © Le goût et les couleurs/LVAN

La Cigale is more than a restaurant – it is a Nantes institution. Opened in 1895, it is a glazed tile, mirror and sculpture adorned example of the joyous Art Nouveau style. Inside this historically classified building, every square inch is unabashedly decorated. Located on Place Graslin, La Cigale impresses taste buds with fresh local ingredients, and visually – it simply impresses. www.lacigale.com

Beside the St. Felix canal, the Le Lieu Unique is a multi-use cultural facility inside the former LU biscuit factory. Along with concert and theatre areas, are a bar and restaurant.  www.lelieuunique.com

Le Coin des Crepes is a tiny creperie serving the best savoury and sweet crepes. The dishes are large and tasty. I personally recommend their chocolate banana crepe topped with almonds and caramel.  www.lecoindescrepes.canalblog.com

Another tiny restaurant, By Sainbioz specializes in burgers – not your typical burgers – artisanal burgers. Expect to find salmon, duck, lamb, curry, goat cheese and foie gras on these burgers. www.bysainbioz.com

For more dining options, check out Les Tables de Nantes – www.lestablesdenantes.fr/en/

 

Travel Planner

*This article explores part of a new tourism itinerary entitled A Modern Trail across an Old Country. The route invites travelers to discover Breton culture and heritage with stops in Nantes, Rennes, Saint-Malo and Mont St-Michel.

Air France offers one or two flights per day from Montreal to Paris during much of the year. To accommodate demand during peak season, from June through September, Air France offers two to three flights per day. From Paris you can continue to Nantes by plane or by TGV train.

Whether traveling for business or leisure, it is always a pleasure to travel Business Class on Air France. Beyond the roomy flat-reclining chair (as if that wasn’t enough), noise-canceling headphones, and welcome aboard glass of champagne, your meals are crafted by world renowned chefs! Departing from Canada or the US and arriving in Paris – you will dine on gourmet dishes designed by Michelin-starred French chef Daniel Boulud!  www.airfrance.ca

Nantes  – www.nantes-tourisme.com/en

Château des Ducs  de Bretagne – www.chateaunantes.fr/en

Les Machines de L’île  – www.lesmachines-nantes.fr/en/

Le Nid – www.lenidnantes.com

Passage Pommeraye – www.passagepommeraye.fr

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