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