Location spotlight: Loire-Atlantique

PUBLISHED: 10:25 09 December 2015 | UPDATED: 14:01 07 January 2016

The old castle clings to the riverbank in Clisson

The old castle clings to the riverbank in Clisson

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Solange Hando discovers the towns and villages overlooking the River Loire as it reaches the end of its journey at the sea

Passage Pommeraye, Nantes' shopping venue built in 1843Passage Pommeraye, Nantes' shopping venue built in 1843

Located in the Pays-de-la-Loire region, the westerly department of Loire-Atlantique follows the river all the way to the ocean. North of the estuary, it feels like Brittany with rocky creeks and traditional homes of granite and slate but down south, red-roofed villages and sweeping sands herald the neighbouring Vendée.

Inland, the bucolic valley of the Erdre is sprinkled with manoirs and mansions, a humble contrast to the grandiose châteaux of the nearby Loire, while Nantes, the ‘green’ capital, nurtures its past but embraces the future with arms wide open.

So here you are, a land of contrasting landscapes and cultures; enticing, authentic and, for the most part, away from crowded tourist spots. The proximity to the coast ensures a generally pleasant climate and as for access, the choice is yours: direct flights to Nantes, Eurostar and TGV via Paris (Gare du Nord then Montparnasse) or Lille (no need to change station), and Brittany Ferries go to St-Malo, a little over two hours’ drive away.

The ‘vignoble nantais’, Clisson and the Jade Coast

Roughly a third of the department spreads south of the Loire where you find small settlements, marshlands and the nature reserve of Grand Lieu, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the country shared by fishermen and birds.

New apartments line the beach in La BauleNew apartments line the beach in La Baule

The top inland attraction is the vignoble nantais, the domaine of Muscadet wine rolling across hills and plains in the south-eastern corner. At the heart of the vineyards, look out for Clisson, a fairytale village straight out of Tuscany, tumbling down to the River Sèvre Nantaise, framed by cascading waters and medieval bridges. Destroyed during the Vendée uprising, Clisson was rebuilt in the 19th century by Italy-loving patrons while up on the clifftop, the old castle continues to bear witness to a more distant past. This was the birthplace and country residence of the last Duke of Brittany.

On the ocean side, you reach the pristine Jade Coast, from the broad sands of St-Brévin-les-Pins, popular with families, to the bracing headland of St-Gildas and its spectacular views. There are coves and creeks too, fishing huts perched high on their stilts and the lovely resort of Pornic with its harbour, Bluebeard’s castle and gardens enjoyed by Renoir.

La Baule and the Guérande peninsula

Drive if you dare over the longest bridge in France, and on the north side of the estuary beyond the port of St-Nazaire, La Baule greets you with a vast sandy bay and seawater spas. It’s a typically French resort, with quaint restaurants and oyster bars, a superb market selling fresh seafood and delicious Breton galettes, and a long promenade where people of all ages can enjoy the ocean breeze.

The seafront is modern but down in the winding lanes, myriad Belle Époque villas nestle under the pine trees. Before long, this romantic Côte d’Amour gives way to the Wild Coast, festooned in rocky creeks, cliffs and hidden coves. There are wild flowers along the coastal path and old fishing villages; wherever you go you can enjoy the full flavour of Brittany from postcards, souvenirs and flags to traditional crêperies.

Rustic charm in Trentemoult, which lies across the river from NantesRustic charm in Trentemoult, which lies across the river from Nantes

On the Guérande peninsula, medieval ramparts keep watch over this lost corner of the Duchy, placed under the French Crown in 1532, while the salt marshes mirror the colours of an ever-changing sky.

Then it’s only a short drive to the Brière regional natural park, the second largest wetlands in France after the Camargue, where resident and migrating birds barely notice the flat-bottomed boats gliding on the waterways. Yet in this remote and quiet land are thatched hamlets, farms and near-deserted footpaths and cycle trails. Even further inland there are few towns of any size; best known perhaps is Châteaubriant with its medieval centre.

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