Eleanor O'Kane visits Nantes

Eleanor O’Kane visits the dynamic town of Nantes and discovers that tradition and innovation go hand in hand...

Many factors have shaped the Nantes of today. This richly historic yet forwardthinking town sits on the confluence of the Erdre, S�vre and Loire rivers, mere miles from France’s Atlantic coastline. Once the capital of Brittany and home to its aristocracy, it is also the birthplace of Jules Vernes, author of such works of imagination as Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, this once bustling port was made wealthy by its unashamed exploitation of the sugar and slave trades and the vast fortunes of the shipowners are still evident in its grand houses and smart shopping streets. In the last 50 years, following a slump in the shipbuilding industry, Nantes has reinvented itself: improved transport links, including the TGV, have helped attract technology and communications companies while the large student population makes Nantes one of the most youthful towns in France.

The town centre lies on the northern bank of the Loire river. Compact and easy to navigate, a tram system whisks you easily from spot to spot, or you can hop aboard the gas-powered Busway that crosses the town. Nantes was named the greenest city in France by weekly news magazine L’Express in 2003, while its rival Le Point voted Nantes the best place to live in France in both 2003 and 2004. With 37m� of green space per resident, the Nantais do indeed fare well for breathing space; they even have their own tiny vineyard in the old town.

Arriving on a sunny Friday lunchtime, we headed to the town centre to get a taste of street life; and very tasteful it is too. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, Nantes’ two main sources of income were the sugar and slave trades, which brought great wealth to the town. An undeniable yet unpalatable aspect of Nantes’ past, the slave trade was extremely profitable (returns were said to be 200 per cent) and the result is an abundance of fine architecture. Much of these classical buildings, such as those that line the Cours Franklin Roosevelt at the heart of town, were built by wealthy shipowners.

Their vessels would transport slaves from the African coast to the Caribbean where they would be sold; the shipowners would then buy sugar cane and return it to Nantes where it was refined into sugar. Nantes was once crisscrossed by a series of small waterways that created tiny islands, so when the shipowners’ houses on the Cours Franklin Roosevelt were built they were originally on the quayside. The waterways were eventually landfilled and the only telltale signs are the cobblestones paving the streets that were once canals and the slight lean of some of the houses built on sandy foundations. Modern-day residents and visitors can still delight in the sights and buildings that were created for nineteenth-century high society in the Quartier Graslin.

Fluted columns

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Pride of place is the Passage Pommeraye, which stands between the old stock exchange in the Place du Commerce and the upper streets of the quartier. This elegant three-storey arcade was built in 1843 to spare Nantes’ privileged classes from the unseemly sights and smells of street life as they went about their business. Today this light and airy arcade, decorated with fluted columns and cherubs (who were inexplicably sporting Breton jerseys on our visit) houses chic shops as well as apartments, many of which are inhabited by lucky students from the local university.

We ascended the fine staircases to emerge in the upper shopping streets and continued to the Place Graslin, hub of nineteenth-century Nantes’ cultural scene and home to La Grande Th�atre. At number 4 on the square is another must-see: the brasserie La Cigale. This Nantais institution, built in 1895, is a sumptuous Art Nouveau masterpiece and no longer merely the preserve of ladies who lunch. Its relaxed atmosphere attracts a mixed crowd and for us, the opportunity to dine amid the ornate ceilings, huge curved mirrors and walls tiled in turquoise, jade and saffron was too much to resist. It’s an experience for all the senses and the perfect way to experience oldfashioned luxury.

The River Erdre, which stretches north of the centre, serves as a place for the Nantais to reflect and relax and is popular for boat trips. After lunch we headed to the Japanese garden on the �le de Versailles, and hired an electric boat. Sailing up the river, we admired more fine eighteenth-century shipowners’ houses, these ones peeping out from the lush green riverbanks. The only punctuation to the stillness was the passing of an occasional boat of single-minded rowers who, in their determination to beat the clock, had no time to admire the views.

The �le de Nantes sits in the middle of the Loire, which passes through Nantes on its way to the Atlantic, and is home to one of the largest and most exciting urban development projects in France. Until the late 1980s, the �le de Nantes was at the epicentre of Nantes’ shipbuilding industry; its decline left the once thriving island a desolate place of empty warehouses and rusting cranes. The project to reinvigorate the �le de Nantes commenced in 2000 and has already transformed much of the island. The old banana depot on the Quai des Antilles now houses a cool collection of bars and restaurants and in the evenings many Nantais take a short ferry ride or one of the bridges to the island to stroll along the quay and enjoy a cocktail or dinner on the terraces.

The quayside is lit by huge, brightly coloured illuminated hoops, an art installation known as Les Anneaux de Buren. At the end of 2009, a new cultural centre will open its doors, offering even more for the island hoppers. Deciding to spend the evening on the �le de Nantes, we dined on the terrace at T�o, a chic restaurant on the Quai des Antilles. As the sun went down, across the water the old town in Nantes came alive, framed by Buren’s rings. Not far from the restaurant, in an old warehouse, a sleeping giant – the most exciting and original feature of the new-look �le de Nantes – was resting peacefully.

The great elephant

Le Grand �l�phant lives in the old boiler rooms, known as Les Nefs, and is king of an assortment of creatures known as Les Machines de l’�le. The creatures are the brainchild of a theatrical company called La Machine and are homage to both Jules Verne and the industrial heritage of Nantes. Les Machines de l’�le are a series of huge working structures that come alive at the pull of a lever yet their design and look celebrates their mechanical nature, rather than disguises it.

The great elephant was the first of the machines to inhabit the old hangars and is now one of Nantes’ most popular tourist attractions. Built from tulip wood and steel, 12 metres high and 8 metres wide, he carries 45 passengers every time he strides around the island. Passengers can ride deep inside his belly, from where you can watch the driver operating the elephant or, for an alfresco voyage, ascend the spiral staircase to emerge on the elephant’s back.

Returning to the island the next morning, there was a feeling of anticipation in the air as we climbed the metal staircase of the workshop to embark the elephant along with our fellow passengers. No one quite knew what to expect and parents were as curious as their five-year-olds. Once we were all aboard, with a wiggle of his leather ears, a bat of his long black eyelashes and a loud trumpet, we were off, slowly making our way past the old warehouses.

On the ground below us, small children ducked in and out of the elephant’s path, squealing with a mixture of joy and terror each time he squirted them with water from his trunk or emitted a deafening trumpet. There was something very magical about the experience: the elephant is defiantly mechanical – a mass of rivets, levers, leather and sleek panels of wood – yet when he comes alive and begins to move you are instantly entranced. For Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture, La Machine created La Princesse, a huge mechanical spider that stalked the city. It brought out similar feelings of awe and wonderment in those who came to see it and there is talk of making La Princesse a permanent feature in the city.

When the ride was over, we disembarked and wistfully watched the elephant amble away. Hungry to discover more about the machines, we visited the workshops for a preview of some of the creations being constructed for future projects. In spring 2010, Nantes will unveil a 25-metre-high, marine-world merry-go-round comprising 27 creatures on three levels. Each creature on the carousel will move independently and accommodate one or two people, who will be able to control their animal’s movements via levers and pulleys At the atelier we got a chance to see two of the creatures that have already been completed for the merry-go-round – a menacinglooking reverse-propelling squid and a manta ray, whose wooden wings flap gracefully.

From the island we took the Navibus (river ferry) across to Trentemoult, a former fishing village on the Loire’s south bank. Shabby-but-chic Trentemoult is now a trendy neighbourhood; however, reminders of it former life remain. Buoys and fishing nets adorn gardens now owned by commuters and on the riverfront a selection of inviting restaurants such as La Civelle serve the catch of the day to diners.

Cultural symbol

Another symbol of Nantes’ heritage that has been brought up to date is the former LU biscuit factory. Birthplace of the famous Petit Beurre, the building is now neatly known as LU, which stands for Lieu Unique, and houses a contemporary arts centre as well as a bar and restaurant.

We couldn’t leave without visiting the Ch�teau des Ducs de Bretagne, restored and reopened in February 2007. The pride of Nantes, the castle is the town’s oldest building and home to its most important museum, the Mus�e d’Histoire de Nantes. Thirty-two rooms in the ch�teau tell the history of Nantes from its beginnings through to its present-day self. The museum has a contemporary feel, juxtaposed within the medieval rooms of the castle. The building itself serves as a reminder that Nantes was once the capital of Brittany. Surrounded by stout medieval walls, the fifteenth-century Renaissance building of tufa stone was built by Francis II and his daughter Anne of Brittany.

Francis II was the last duke of an independent Brittany, and the ch�teau was built as a defence against the kingdom of France. After his death, a marriage was arranged between Anne and the king of France, Charles VIII, uniting Brittany with the rest of the country. The castle became the Breton residence of the French kings and in subsequent centuries, it served as a barracks, arsenal and prison, falling into disarray over the years. Many of the exhibits are multimedia installations that children will love, and at night video projections illuminate the south fa�ade, bringing this historic monument firmly into the twenty-first century. Within the walls of the ch�teau there are regular open-air concerts and the courtyard caf� is a popular spot to break an afternoon of sightseeing.

The success with which Nantes has married tradition and modernity marks it as one of France’s most fascinating cities. It proudly revels in tradition – its history, architecture and regional identity – while boldly embracing the future. I can’t wait to see what else this city has in store for us.