Story and photos by Betsy Marvin
If you follow the Loire River southwest of Paris past Blois and all those grand chåteaux, near the end about thirty miles short of the Atlantic, you will find the astonishing city of Nantes. A few days spent away from Paris (and any other crowded tourist destinations) in this ancient Breton capital, rich in history and culture, will give you a fresh perspective on France.
A glorious old castle, beautiful parks, remarkable museums, delicious food and drink and waterfronts galore make this “Venice of the West” metropolis a destination for all. From families to nightlife devotees, sports fans to gourmets, nature lovers to history buffs, here’s a city and area that offer something for everyone. Native son Jules Verne is honored here, as is the brilliant and beautiful Duchess Anne of Bretagne, wife to three kings and sovereign ruler of the region.
Nowadays Brittany doesn’t include Nantes, which sits at the confluence of the Loire, the Erdre and the Sèvre Rivers in its own region called Pays-de-la-Loire. Riddled with islands, bridges, peninsulas and reclaimed flatlands, it’s permeated with a long maritime and river shipping tradition that saturates its history up to the present.
The reigning architectural highlight of the old town, the Chåteau of the Dukes of Brittany, imposing and elegant, was begun in the late middle ages. Punctuated by seven towers, the austere outer wall is crowned by a sentry walk where visitors can stroll for a view out to the city as well as inside to the inner courtyard, with its Renaissance ducal residence and later buildings. Within these structures are found the Nantes History Museum, an exceptional multi-media exhibit showcasing a lengthy and fascinating legacy, plus a bookstore and a restaurant.
The restaurant, specializing in seasonal local produce, is Les Oubliettes (the forgotten). The name pays homage to prisoners who languished here centuries ago in grim cells. But there’s nothing grim about their menu.
A lovely moat and grassy lawn surround the romantic granite and limestone chateau. And it proves an excellent starting point for the visitor wishing to understand Nantes’ medieval autonomy, her seventeenth-to-eighteenth century maritime prosperity, her nineteenth century industrial development and modern success.
Anne of Bretagne
A sturdy fortress was necessary back in the middle ages, as the Duchy of Brittany tried to withstand attacks from France. Anne, sovereign duchess, betrothed as a child to one of the English Princes in the Tower, was married at twelve (by proxy) to Maximilian I of Austria, hoping the powerful Habsburg support would enable her to keep Brittany independent of France. When her husband neglected to come to her aid she had the marriage annulled and wed King Charles VIII of France. After his death, she married his brother, Louis XI. The stresses of wars, politics and fourteen pregnancies brought her an early deathbed at age thirty-six, but she left behind a number of cultural legacies. She had set the style for wearing white at weddings (interestingly, at her last) and, as a collector of fine textiles, may have commissioned some of the famous unicorn tapestries now seen at The Cloisters in New York City.
Around the Square and Cathédrale
Crowning a hill nearby, the Gothic Cathédrale St-Pierre sits, facing a vast square surrounded with tourist shops and restaurants. After touring the church, here the visitor can buy the famous Petit Beurre, the butter cookie manufactured for over a century by the LU Company in Nantes, or the delicious fruit candies Rigolettes. Hard sugar on the outside, these delightful sweets melt to a gooey explosion of fresh fruit tang inside, and can be addictive.
Another edible specialty of the region is fleur de sel, the flaky sea salt, hand-harvested, preferably from marshes, by raking the top of the water. Available in small airtight tins, it makes a great lightweight souvenir. If you’re willing to carry a bit more weight, the tasty Muscadet, the local dry white wine, is available everywhere, and goes perfectly with shellfish.
And in the same square, leaving each half hour in the warmer seasons, waits Le Petit Train, offering another overview of the history and layout of Nantes, bumping over the cobblestones, through historic streets, past the Île de Nantes and its Machines, where huge mechanized animals amaze tourists. The train, complete with French commentary and translations in English, then passes the cutting-edge architecture of the Law Courts, around the castle, and back to the cathedral, in about an hour.
Children of all ages will love the Machines of the Île. Old naval warehouses have become homes to a menagerie of strange moving creatures. Along an interior street, marches or crawls a huge manta ray, a giant crab, a reverse-propelling squid, and more fantastic creatures of their ilk. Out front sits the “Heron Tree,” a double-headed sculpture laden with greenery, and nearby is the massive mechanical elephant, whose back carries up to thirty passengers for a shuffle around the Île yard, and a view across the Loire. Visitors may also tour the workshops, where future creations are born.
Shopping and Markets
West of the chåteau lies the oldest section, Bouffay, where half-timbered buildings like the striking Maison des Apothicares are found. Here on a mild day, the narrow streets of cafes, crêperies and tiny shops flow with shoppers, tourists and coffee drinkers.
Shoppers with an eye for history adore the Passage Pommeraye, found between rue Santeuil and rue de la Fosse. An elegant 1843 arcade of decorative carvings, Renaissance-style statuary, a graceful staircase and stylish boutiques, the Passage is worth seeing even when the shops are closed.
Hopping a tram up to the Talensac Market provides another opportunity for shopping, for luscious local cheeses and meats, beautiful vegetables, crusty breads and flaky pastries so mouth-watering you’ll never make it home with them. Outdoors, a jewelry maker sells beaded baubles, a beekeeper offers honey and beeswax candles, and other vendors have booths full of flowers, wine and even clothing.
On the Water
The Erdre River floats canal-like through this part of the city, and strollers along its banks eventually find boats docked upstream. Upon second glance they are…restaurants! Climbing aboard Des Ronds dans l’Eau Crêperie, the hungry tourist discovers seating for forty, bright décor and delectable aromas. The specialties are crêpes, made with wheat flour, and galettes, which are made with buckwheat flour and stuffed with savory fillings such as mushrooms, different kinds of cheese, ham, eggs, even spinach. Dessert crêpes ooze with chocolate or jam, ice cream, nuts and fresh fruits.
Up the river a little farther, the Isle of Versailles is covered entirely by a Japanese garden, colorful in spring. Two bridges join it to the land, and it’s a restful pause on a long walk along the bank. Not so far beyond the island lie the docks for tour boats that take visitors on a 1 hour 45 minute cruise past marshes, gardens, villages and schools, past strollers and boaters and hikers, past herons and ducks and cormorants, and finally past several beautiful chåteaux; some that have been enjoying the river views for the past seven hundred years.
Another trek from the center leads westward along the river up to Butte de Ste. Anne, where a lovely nineteenth century house clinging to the steep embankment contains the museum of Jules Verne, favorite son of Nantes. The small exhibition presents facets of his life and, more significantly, facets of his lively mind. Down the hill an assembly of statues in a green area portrays a small boy daydreaming on a bench, gazing toward the mythical Captain Nemo of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea.
On top of the butte, two murals on rue des Acadiens honor the Acadians who were deported from Canada and later resettled in Louisiana, becoming known as “Cajun.” Nantes’ position as a major shipping port provided a spot to drop these hapless and homeless French speakers, for a time.
The port at Nantes has existed for over three millennia, but the peak of its importance as a seaport was during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the slave trade and developing connections with Africa and the Americas brought immense wealth, recognition and growth. By the time slavery was outlawed, other types of shipping related to the new industrial age had been developed; the importation of a broader worldview gave the city a cosmopolitan flair that endures to modern times.
Food, Culture & Sport
The city boasts a number of fascinating museums and exhibitions. Nantes’ art museum, the Musée des Beaux Arts, has a remarkable permanent collection most notable for its works of the early twentieth century. Not far away lies the exquisite Botanical Garden, bright on a spring day with rhododendrons, tulips and poppies in great abundance. White doves feast on visitors’ generosity, and ducks populate the scattered ponds.
A feast for the eyes as well as the palate awaits diners at La Cigale, the highly decorated Belle Epoque brasserie famous as a rendezvous for writers and artists. Opened in 1895, La Cigale is known for its rich ornamentation on every surface and has earned classification as a historical site. If the restaurant looks a bit familiar, you may have seen it as background for the 1961 film Lola, or perhaps other movies. And the food is simply divine.
For sports fans, the long-lived FC Nantes soccer team plays at Stade de la Beaujoire, which also hosts rugby matches. Hikers enjoy the long river trails and nature lovers find plenty of wildlife to watch.
Maybe it’s the Breton legacy, or perhaps all that contact with the wider world, but Nantes feels different. And like the galettes, so stuffed with delights, it pulls visitors back for another taste.
If You Go
Cheap Flights from CheapOair.com can easily get you to Paris.Getting to Nantes is easy and fast, just two hours from Paris on the TGV high-speed train, or a quick flight. For TGV schedules, go to www.raileurope.com/index.html
Getting around Nantes is just as efficient, with a comprehensive network of city transit, trams and buses. The Pass Nantes, available at the Information Office, allows entrée into museums and tourist sites, onto public transit, including ferries and tour boats, and even includes the shuttle from the airport.
2, rue Boileau
33 (0)2 40 48 78 79
Centrally located, moderately priced.
Hotel Westotel – La Chapelle-sur-Erdre Nantes
34, rue de la Vri
+44 203 027 7155
in a 5-hectare landscaped park, 400 metres from the périphérique Nord expressway and close to the Fairground and the Beaujoire stadium.
Brasserie la Cigale
4, place Graslin (Facing the Opera)
+33 (0)2 51 84 94 94
Des Ronds dans L’Eau Creperie
Quai de Versailles
Access from Tram St Mihiel, Bus 22 (Bonde)
Open all year round, closed Sunday and Monday.
Restaurant Pont Levis
1, Rue Chateau (just across from main castle entrance)
02 49 35 19 20
Tourist Information Office
3, cours Olivier-de-Clisson
Open Monday to Saturday, 10 am – 6 pm
(Thursday opens 10:30 am)
Other locations listed on the website.