Your Next French City

Move over, Mar­seille. It's time to add Nantes—just a two-hour train ride from Paris—to the must-visit list. Josh Levine dis­cov­ers a for­mer in­dus­trial back­wa­ter trans­formed into a pow­er­house of cul­ture and cui­sine.

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Move over Mar­seille. It's time to add Nantes—just a two-hour train ride from Paris—to the mustvisit list.

ABOUT SIX MONTHS ago, my Parisian friends Gre­gory and Del­phine told me they were leav­ing the French cap­i­tal and mov­ing to Nantes, a small city in west­ern France, near where the At­lantic meets the Loire River. This sounded like odd be­hav­ior. Paris is Paris; Nantes is the birth­place of au­thor Jules Verne and…re­mind me what else?

I may have con­sid­ered my friends’ move hare­brained, but it turned out they were far from the only hares. In re­cent years, I learned, the city has be­come a go-to for young pro­fes­sion­als flee­ing the high rents and (rel­a­tively) noisy streets of Paris. Not only has Nantes be­come a flour­ish­ing start-up hive (Gre­gory quickly found work as a creative di­rec­tor at a dig­i­tal ad agency); it has also com­pletely re­tooled its iden­tity. Ship­build­ing, long the main in­dus­try, de­clined through the 1970s and 80s—de­stroy­ing the liveli­hoods of many Nan­tais. Over the past 10 years, I was told, a de­lib­er­ate ef­fort has been made to re­place ships with art. Splashy in­stal­la­tions are sup­ported by hefty mu­nic­i­pal spend­ing and a fun-lov­ing pop­u­lace with a taste for pub­lic spec­ta­cle.

Be­fore long, it be­gan to seem like a good idea to pay Gre­gory and Del­phine a visit. So my wife and I took the two-hour TGV from Paris on a Fri­day af­ter­noon, cu­ri­ous to find out what all the fuss was about.

FRI­DAY EVENING

We checked in to the re­li­able Radis­son Blu (radis­son­blu.com; dou­bles from €125), which has oc­cu­pied Nantes’ colon­naded for­mer court­house since that in­sti­tu­tion moved to Jean Nou­vel’s aus­tere black Palais de Jus­tice, on the site of the aban­doned ship­yards, in 2000. >>

For din­ner, we headed to a tiny restau­rant called Pick­les (pick­lesrestau­rant.com; tast­ing menu €47)—a place, our friends had told us, that em­bod­ies the new spirit of Nantes. “This city has ac­cess to won­der­ful in­gre­di­ents, but no lo­cal tra­di­tion of cui­sine,” said Do­minic Quirke, the English pro­pri­etor.

“Now a bunch of young chefs are chang­ing that.”

Quirke and his French wife opened Pick­les four years ago, af­ter he bailed out of an IT job in Paris to start cook­ing se­ri­ously. He served us the first lo­cal chanterelles of the sea­son—he’d put them through a de­hy­dra­tor to add an ex­quis­ite crispi­ness—with lard and a smoked egg. Next came su­perb, ob­scenely plump mus­sels from Groix, an is­land up the coast, that Quirke had got­ten his hands on af­ter months of strug­gling. (“I know a guy who knows a guy,” he said.)

SAT­UR­DAY

Start­ing out on foot from the ho­tel af­ter break­fast, we strolled through the heart of bour­geois 19th-cen­tury Nantes, where the city’s rich mer­chants left their im­pos­ing mark. We passed through the Place Graslin, stop­ping to ad­mire its grand, Neo­clas­si­cal opera house. Across the square stands the his­toric brasserie La Ci­gale (lacigale.com; mains €13– €28), where artists An­dré Bre­ton and Jac­ques Prévert used to talk sur­re­al­ism in the 1920s. It’s a great place to drink a café au lait and check out the fab­u­lous Art Nou­veau tiles.

From there, it was a short down­hill trot to the newer part of the city. Here, what was once a water­front was filled in the early

20th cen­tury, af­ter the river chan­nels silted up. The re­sult­ing con­crete land­fills re­mained un­used and de­serted un­til the early aughts, when they were fi­nally trans­formed into broad swaths of green—lined with trees, dot­ted with pub­lic parks, and criss­crossed by mod­ern tram­lines and bike lanes. (Nantes is bike-mad, we soon dis­cov­ered.) We walked by an open fruit and veg­etable gar­den where any passerby is free to pluck an ap­ple or pull up a car­rot and eat it at a nearby pic­nic table—one of nine com­mu­nity potagers in the city.

At that point, our for­merly Parisian friends Gre­gory and Del­phine joined us for a walk along the quay. They had only just got­ten set­tled and were still reel­ing from the cul­ture shock. “In Paris, cross­ing the street is a test of wills. Here, cars slow down be­fore you even leave the curb,” Gre­gory mar­veled. We reached a sec­tion of the es­planade em­bed­ded with 2,000 glass plaques, each bear­ing the name of a slave ship that had once made Nantes its home port. (The city was re­spon­si­ble for around 5 per­cent of the At­lantic slave trade un­til it abol­ished the prac­tice in 1830.) The in­stal­la­tion is part of a mu­seum called the Mé­mo­rial de l’Abo­li­tion de l’Es­clavage (memo­rial. nantes.fr). In a coun­try that is of­ten ac­cused of cov­er­ing up its his­tor­i­cal blem­ishes, the ex­pe­ri­ence felt re­fresh­ingly en­light­ened. Near the mu­seum, the four of us jumped aboard a shut­tle boat that took us across the es­tu­ary to the charm­ing fish­ing vil­lage of Trente­moult. We ex­plored nar­row al­leys of brightly col­ored houses, with their neat gar­dens of trop­i­cal >>

flora car­ried back from dis­tant sea voy­ages (one neigh­bor­hood is nick­named “Lit­tle Cal­i­for­nia” for its palm trees). We lunched on the ter­race of a de­light­ful seafood restau­rant called La Civ­elle (laciv­elle. com; mains €17–€39), while all around us crowds of Nan­tais soaked up the sun on lounge chairs. It all felt much far­ther away than the seven min­utes it took to get there.

Down a nar­row lane from the restau­rant, we hap­pened upon a derelict fac­tory with an in­con­gru­ous 7-me­ter pen­du­lum swing­ing from its tower. This is Ro­man Signer’s Le Pen­d­ule, one of 30 gi­ant art in­stal­la­tions strung out along 65 kilo­me­ters of the es­tu­ary, from Nantes to St.-Nazaire. The guid­ing spirit is play­ful­ness. In Nantes it­self, you can see model Laeti­tia Casta’s wavy-haired image star­ing up from the bot­tom of a canal, like drowned Ophe­lia, in a piece by the artist Ange Lec­cia called Nym­phéa. And out by St.-Nazaire, Huang Yong Ping’s

Sea Ser­pent, an alu­minum skele­ton of a 130-me­ter snake, rises from the shal­lows.

These are the kinds of cul­tural fire­works on which Nantes has bet big in the past 10 years. In 2012, the city cre­ated a kind of su­per­a­gency called Voy­age à Nantes to man­age its come­back. It shrewdly chose Jean Blaise, an out­side-the-box artis­tic di­rec­tor and ur­ban plan­ner, to run it. “Nantes no longer had an iden­tity, and we had to be au­da­cious to change its image,” he told me. “I don’t want to sound im­mod­est, but I have to say, I’m pretty sat­is­fied.”

SUN­DAY

The Marché de Talen­sac (marchetal­en­sac.fr), where Nantes dis­plays its edi­ble bounty on Sun­day morn­ings, hap­pened to be a fiveminute walk from our ho­tel. I’m a devo­tee of my Paris marché on the Boule­vard Ra­s­pail, but I have never seen shell­fish like this: bas­kets of sea snails, lan­goustines, scal­lops and tiny pink shrimp still wrig­gling. And oys­ters—I counted eight dif­fer­ent kinds at one stand.

Be­fore head­ing home, we crossed over a branch of the Loire to the Île de Nantes, the is­land that once housed the city’s ship­yards. While new of­fice cubes and apart­ment build­ings are clus­tered around the Palais de Jus­tice, per­haps the best sym­bol of the re­branded city is the cur­rent oc­cu­pant of the is­land’s mas­sive ship­build­ing hangars.

As its name im­plies, the theater com­pany Les Ma­chines de l’Île (les­ma­chines-nantes.fr) makes ma­chines—like a 12-me­ter-high ele­phant that can plod along at around 1.5 kilo­me­ters per hour, car­ry­ing 50 pas­sen­gers while blow­ing ma­jes­tic jets of steam. In the work­shop, you can in­ter­act with this menagerie, find out how it was made, and ride on a three-story carousel of sea crea­tures in­spired by Les Ma­chines’ kooky lo­cal avatar, Jules Verne. Think steam­punk meets Leonardo da Vinci. This mix of tech­nol­ogy and fan­tasy rep­re­sents the way Nantes likes to think of it­self now. We found it ut­terly be­guil­ing.

The his­toric Château des Ducs de Bre­tagne houses the Nantes His­tory Mu­seum.

FROM TOP: The brasserie La Ci­gale, a lively hang­out long fa­vored by lo­cal artists; Nantes' sto­ried Pas­sage Pom­mer­aye, an 1893 ar­cade that re­mains one of the city's fa­vorite shop­ping des­ti­na­tions.

FROM LEFT: Part of the me­chan­i­cal menagerie at the work­shop of theater com­pany Les Ma­chines de l'Île; Trente­moult, a fish­ing vil­lage across the river from Nantes.

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