Des­ti­na­tion: Nantes

One of France’s ma­jor ports – all ship-shape and Bris­tol fash­ion...

RiDE (UK) - - Contents -

Where’s that then? It’s where the river Loire spreads out into the es­tu­ary that takes it out to the At­lantic. It was once a city of bridges and flow­ing water, of­ten called the ‘Venice of the West’. But in the early 20th cen­tury the city fa­thers took the am­bi­tious de­ci­sion to fill in most of the chan­nels, turn the wa­ter­ways into roads and pipe the river Er­dre un­der the city. You men­tioned his­tory? Yep, there’s plenty of that about. There’s been a ma­jor set­tle­ment here since Ro­man times and the me­dieval cas­tle shows its strate­gic im­por­tance. But as one of the ma­jor At­lantic ports, it’s mostly about trade. The glory days were the 18th and early 19th cen­turies, when Nantes busi­ness­men fi­nanced bour­geois town­houses with lu­cra­tive trad­ing trips to Africa, the West Indies and back home. They’re proud of their mar­itime her­itage but tend to gloss over the fact their an­ces­tors were trad­ing slaves, and that con­tin­ued long af­ter the prac­tice was il­le­gal. Think of Nantes as a French Bris­tol and you’ll get the idea. That’s all in the past now, though? It is, along with the money it brought. Nantes re-in­vented it­self as an in­dus­trial cen­tre, ma­jor­ing on ship­build­ing and food pro­duc­tion and pro­cess­ing (it is one of France’s big food and wine re­gions). The in­dus­try’s mostly long gone now, along with one of France’s most­fa­mous bis­cuit brands, LU. All that’s left is the dis­tinc­tive build­ing, now the HQ for a huge on­go­ing art and cul­tural pro­gramme called the Es­tu­aire Project.

What about the present? The town’s thriv­ing. The cen­tre’s packed with glitzy de­signer shops and depart­ment stores, although the Pas­sage Pom­mer­aye is the high­light — a 19th-cen­tury cov­ered ar­cade. If shop­ping’s not your thing, head for the snidgy lanes of the old Jewish Quar­ter, or the bus­tle of the newly-re­gen­er­ated dock­yards, now a thriv­ing hub of bars, restau­rants and ex­hi­bi­tion spa­ces. The old Chantier Naval (ship­yard) now houses Les Ma­chines de L’isle, an am­bi­tious project in­spired by the town’s favourite lit­er­ary son, Jules Verne.

Any good roads nearby? In­deed there are. Mostly scenic rather than sin­u­ous though. Fol­low the D751 along the south bank of the Loire to­wards Angers for great views over the river, or off to the north-west to lose your­self in the coun­try­side around Re­don. Worth a ride out to the south­east as well, to ex­plore the Parc du Puy de Fou, south of Cho­let.

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