Nantes is home to quirky art, friendly people, beautiful architecture, delicious cuisine and a superb transport system. In 2009, it was also home to me, when I spent a year abroad teaching English. I decided it was about time I went back to say hello.
We started with a whistle-stop tour of the city, showing Nicola the castle, cathedral, houses and the former LU biscuit factory, all a short walk from the historic centre of the city. The LU factory, instead of churning out Petit Beurre and BN biscuits, is now ‘Lieu Unique’, a cultural space, full of exhibitions, stages and bars. During our visit there was a literary festival, with panel sessions, pop-up bookshops and writing classes dotted around the building.
We crossed back over the railway from the Lieu Unique and climbed the ramparts at the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne, Nicola ever-patient as I pointed out numerous places I had once been. We continued through the old town (“I used to go to that bar on a Tuesday sometimes”), past the cathedral (“they had a fair here once”), and walked up Rue Crebillon (“I think that shop might be new”), to La Cigale.
La Cigale is a charming brasserie on the Place Graslin, just across from the opera house. Inside the art nouveau building, thousands of painted tiles adorn the walls, ceiling, and probably the floor under the decorative carpet. It was once described by actor Jean-Louis Trintignant as ‘the most beautiful brasserie in the world’. As we sat there with a couple of coffees, Nicola decided it was ‘a bit much’. To be fair to her, it probably was.
There are hundred of bars to visit in Nantes, but none more unusual than ‘Le Nid’. Designed by French illustrator Jean Jullien, the ‘nest’ sits at the top of Tour Bretagne, 470 feet above the city. The bar is dominated by a huge white stork, with its body as the counter, and the neck serving as a long winding bench. From the outside terrace, you can see for miles in every direction, and along the Loire to the coast. Nicola and I ordered obligatory egg-themed cocktails, and listening to the band playing in broken English, watched the sun set over the city.
The food in Nantes is heavily influenced by the neighbouring region of Brittany. After some highly-scientific research while living in Nantes, the crepes and galettes at Le Vieux Quimper were judged the best in town. They cook delicious buckwheat galettes, filled with cheese, ham and egg, topped with creamy garlic and parsley mushrooms. At Vieux Quimper, every day is Shrove Tuesday but hammier and cheesier and better.
We took the shuttle boat (included in a 4€ day travelcard; hear that, London?) to Trentemoult, a charming village on the southern bank of the Loire. We walked around the village, where the houses have all been painted in a variety of cheerful colours. Weaving our way through the sunny alleyways we came across leafy courtyards full of bulbs, flowers and plants harking the arrival of spring.
In between Trentemoult and the city centre is an island, ‘L’Île de Nantes’. Formerly a shipyard and docks, it is slowly being renovated into a cultural hub, with art galleries, restaurants, bars, clubs, exhibition spaces, and that thing that all cities need: a 12-metre-high mechanical elephant.
The ‘Grand Éléphant’ is part of Les Machines de l’Île’, a project thought up by a man who likes making giant animatronic creatures, and funded by the good people at Nantes District Council. The 45-tonne elephant walks around the island a few times a day, spraying anyone who get too close with its mechanical trunk. You can pay a few Euros to for a 45 minute ride, or you can join the hundreds of tourist Lilliputians who follow in awe as it strides around the island. It is a truly magnificent sight, and is exactly what should be done with increasingly derelict dockyards. Other cities, take note.
I’ve never understood why so few people in the UK have heard of Nantes. When I (frequently) mention it to people, no one ever seems to know the name in the same way that they do for Lyon, Bordeaux, Grenoble or Toulouse. I’m not sure why, but I hope as you read this, you’re tempted to go. You should, it’s a brilliant place.
We ate at: Au Vieux Quimper (tripadvisor.co.uk)
We had drinks at: Le Nid (nantes-tourisme.com)
We saw: Les Machines de L’île (lesmachines-nantes.fr)
The ‘most beautiful brasserie in the world’ is: La Cigale (lacigale.com)