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.
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.
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.)
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.”
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.