There’s more to the Loire than its châteaux. Follow the Loire towards the Atlantic and you’ll reach Nantes, a sprawling city with a vibrant arts scene, historic buildings aplenty and over a hundred parks and gardens. We had just shy of eight hours to see as much of the city as possible, and true to form, we packed in a lot (of steps, pastries and monuments).
After a double dose of viennoiseries for breakfast, from the delightful Mille Feuille d’Idées and Maison Travers, washed down with a chocolat chaud from La Mie Câline, it was time for us to leave Cholet (and Vicki) and hit the road. It’s roughly an hour by bus from Cholet to Nantes, and we split our time between snoozing and admiring a fellow passenger’s tortoiseshell cat.
There’s no charge to enter the courtyard or roam the ramparts of the Château des Ducs de Bretagne, so we made that our first stop. Since its inception in the thirteenth century, the Château des Ducs de Bretagne has served as a military fortress, the residence of the ducal court and, subsequently, visiting kings, a military barracks, an arsenal and a prison. Today, the castle houses the Musée d’Histoire de Nantes, and its moat an assortment of terrapins and ducks.
Nantes Tourisme is located just across the street from the Château des Ducs de Bretagne, and we nipped inside to pick up a free map. In Nantes, they’ve gone the extra mile: not only do they have printed maps with a neat little green line tracing a route across the city, but that very same green line has also been painted directly onto the pavements, bridges and handrails. Nifty.
Off we trotted, dutifully following the green line: down cobbled streets, buildings tilting inwards, through open squares lined with cafés and brasseries. Round the corner of Rue de la Juiverie, Église Sainte-Croix: metre upon metre of carved stone rising upwards, crowned with angels blowing trumpets.
We passed through Place du Bouffay, tables spilling out across the square, and pressed on towards Île Feydeau. Once a marshy isle, reclaimed by traders in the eighteenth century, Île Feydeau is, today, only an island in name; during the 1920s and 30s, branches of the Loire were filled in, thereby joining this area to the rest of the city. Wandering along Rue Kervégan, we were taken in by the area’s understated charm and elegance.
Over Passerelle Schœlcher, the murky waters of the Loire flowing beneath us, and along Quai François Mitterrand. (The French love naming streets and squares after their heads of state; the English, not so much.) The backstreets of Île de Nantes were home to numerous quirky façades and installations, including Rolf Julius’ Air and Lilian Bourgeat’s Mètre à Ruban (below).
The highlight of Île de Nantes was still to come: Les Mâchines de l’Île, a fusion of Jules Verne’s fantasies, Leonardo da Vinci’s technological ingenuity and Nantes’ industrial heritage, built on the site of a former shipyard.
Le Grand Éléphant, a hulking mass of wood and steel, and Le Carrousel des Mondes Marins, an enormous merry-go-round with underwater creatures from the ocean floor, deep blue and the shallows, were both silent on the day we visited, but it wasn’t hard to imagine them in action, whirring away.
Crossing Pont Anne de Bretagne, to return to the city centre, we came to the Mémorial de l’Abolition de l’Esclavage. Between 1707 and 1830, ship owners transported over half a million captive Africans from Nantes to the colonies, and ran more trading expeditions than Bordeaux, La Rochelle and Le Havre combined. For years, Nantes resisted publically acknowledging its involvement in the slave trade, but when local organisations pressed the city to recognise its colonial past the Mémorial de l’Abolition de l’Esclavage, France’s only memorial to the slave trade, was built. It comprises glass plaques fixed to the ground, each bearing a name, and a museum set beneath the quayside, designed to echo the claustrophobic hull of a ship.
Next, we ambled through Cours Cambronne (formerly a convent, now a narrow park bordered by trees) and up past the Musée Dobrée (currently undergoing renovations) and the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle. Feeling peckish, we made a detour to Emma Pâtisserie (12 Rue Scribe), a veritable choux emporium which saw us deliberate for a good ten minutes over the flavours. Passionfruit or pear? Speculoos or strawberry? Chocolate or caramel? In the end, we opted for lemon and blackcurrant choux (plus an éclair, a pain au chocolat and a baguette . . . it’s fair to say neither of us can resist the siren calls of a boulangerie), which we ate at one of the tables just outside the shop.
Pastries polished off, we retraced our steps to the green line. Round Place Graslin, home to the Opéra Graslin, and on to Passage Pommeraye, a gorgeous, olde-worlde arcade set over multiple levels.
From Place Royale, the green line took us towards the Tour Bretagne and Marché de Talensac (open Tuesday-Sunday), before leading us back into town past the Hôtel de Ville and Cathédrale St. Pierre et St. Paul. If you’re short on time or visiting on a Monday when the market is closed, I’d recommend cutting across Rue d’Orléans and Rue de la Barillerie and heading straight for Cathédrale St. Pierre et St. Paul.
Cathédrale St. Pierre et St. Paul is the result of over four centuries of craftsmanship: its foundation stone was laid in 1434, and the north transept and choir – the last pieces of the puzzle – weren’t completed until 1891. Its façade is extraordinarily ornate – three elaborately carved gates, topped with two towers – and its interior pared back, emphasising its cavernous dimensions. Regular readers will know that I’m a huge (huge) fan of stained glass, and Cathédrale St. Pierre et St. Paul delivered on this front with some beautiful modern pieces.
Our circuit of Nantes – at least as far as the green line was concerned – ended at the Jardin des Plantes, a sprawling botanical garden with greenhouses, water features and well-tended flower beds. I particularly liked the greenhouses with cacti (no surprises there – my windowsill at home is full of them) and exotic plants.
We spotted a few frogs in the pond outside one of the greenhouses, and were by no means the only visitors peering over the wall looking for them (some with success, others not so much).
With our time in Nantes drawing to a close, we headed back into the centre in search of food. Enter, Arno Boulangerie (16 Rue de Verdun), which did a cracking baguette and some seriously tasty tarts.
All too soon, it was time to locate the Navette Aéroport and head back across La Manche. À la prochaine, France!
- Greenhouses at the Jardin des Plantes are free to access, though some require a passcode. Head to the shop/info point, and ask for the “code d’accès pour les serres”. Check the Nantes Tourisme website for details of opening hours.
- The Navette Aéroport costs €9 for a single ticket (it’s steep, but cheaper than a taxi). Pay in cash or by card on board, and don’t forget to validate your ticket at the machine by the driver. There’s a bus every twenty minutes, and the journey takes around twenty minutes from the city centre.