Sweet Indian summer in Nantes – Meanderings through France n° 199
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
According to opinion polls Nantes is one of French people favourite towns where they would love to live. Ideally set on the banks of the Loire River and only a one-hour drive from beautiful sandy beaches, Nantes has indeed many assets to attract families, students and tourists as well. Since cars have been banned from the city centre it’s easy and pleasant to visit it by foot or bike. With a mild weather and plenty of sunshine early fall is the ideal season to discover Nantes.
Nantes is an ancient city that was already inhabited in prehistoric times before becoming an important Gallo-Roman port on the Loire. In the 5th century one of France’s first bishoprics was created on this strategic site and ten centuries later Nantes became the capital city of the Duchy of Brittany. Its port activities took a major role in the economic life of the city especially with the slave trade, bringing tremendous wealth. This is the period during which many opulent looking houses and mansions were built. Most of these elegant 18th century buildings have been well preserved and still are a main attraction of the city architectural heritage in spite of their questionable financing.
Don’t even think of using your car to visit Nantes, you would soon get lost in the maze of one-way streets circling around the pedestrian zone, making you loose a lot of time and… your temper! Leave your car in one of the many car parks (of course they all are pay parkings…) and discover the city centre by foot, bike or tram. Several tramway lines go through town and a bike rental service called “Bicloo” with 1.230 bikes for rent in 123 different stations where you can easily take or leave a bike, make it very easy to get to one point of interest to another. Nantes truly is a bike-friendly town and one of Europe main stops on the Euro Velo Route 6 that links Saint-Nazaire in France to Constanta in Romania. This 3.650 km long road goes from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea through 10 different countries.
Historical city centre
The oldest buildings in town date back from the Middle Ages and you will see many half timbered houses mostly in the Bouffay district. The Duke of Brittany Chateau undoubtedly is the most interesting historic building in town. Mainly built in the 15th century it present a surprising contrast between its outside medieval looking ramparts and drawbridges and its inner Renaissance residence built with local white tufa stone. It now is a museum of fine arts.
Nantes’ cathedral actually is the third cathedral built in the very same place. A first cathedral was built in the 6th century when Nantes became a bishopric. It was quite large and richly decorated attracting the attention of the Vikings who plundered and burnt it several times. A Roman cathedral replaced it in the 12th century. It has been transformed, enlarged and embellished through the following centuries and it was not before 457 years of works that the cathedral was officially opened in 1891! Unfortunately it was bombed and partly destroyed a few decades later during WWII. The renovation works were barely completed when a huge fire engulfed the roof and its frame in 1972. Finally the cathedral came back to its original glory in 2013 with a new roof and the restoration of the western façade that looks today as it did in the 15th century.
The “Passage Pommeraye” is a charming shopping gallery and an authentic masterpiece of the 19th century architecture. Built on a hillside in place of a squalid and bad part of town it was successful at once and Nantes’ good society adopted it quickly. Beautiful monumental staircases adorned with stylish statues, columns, clocks and finely worked wrought iron banisters links the three different levels. Since its construction in 1843 it’s been a source of inspiration for many artists, writers, photographers or film directors. It is a very photogenic place and you will enjoy window-shopping before having lunch or tea in one of the pretty restaurants of the passage.
Paying tribute to Jules Verne with the “Machines de l’Ile”
Nantes has an island set in the middle of the Loire River that used to be an industrial site. In the years 2000 after the closing down of its huge shipyards, the island was totally transformed to give place to an entertainment zone with restaurants, bars and the “Machines de l’Île”. Theses machines are part of a new art project inspired by Jules Verne’s “invented worlds” and Leonardo’s mechanical universe. Made of wood and steel with big gears the machine are impressive animals that can walk, fly and makes noises. Under the high roof of an immense gallery a mechanical bestiary comes to life. A heron with an 8-meter wingspan, a spider, an ant and other jungle animals move through a garden of mechanical plants! The highlight of the show is a tour on board a huge elephant. Its figures are impressive: 12 meters high, 8 meters wide and 21 meters long. Fifty passengers can board the elephant for a tour on the island and explore the insides of the monster that trumpets and throws water through its trunk. More at www.lesmachines-nantes.fr/en/
“La Cigale”, an iconic restaurant of Nantes since 1895
Built in the 1890’s in a genuine Modern Style, “La Cigale” is an architectural masterpiece made historic monument in 1964. Located on the Place Graslin in the heart of the pedestrian area the brasserie faces Nantes theatre and has been since the beginning “the place to be” for actors, artists and the good society who met there to enjoy good food in a magnificent decor. Under the moulded ceilings tables with immaculate white table-clothes wait for their guests, the walls are covered with colourful ceramics and wood panelling, statues and sculpted clocks complete this extravagant decor!
“La Cigale” is open from 7:30 am till half past midnight every day of the week. You can start your day here with a typical French breakfast made of fresh croissants and baguette bread, fresh orange juice, organic jams and stewed fruits, homemade crème caramel and hot tea, coffee or chocolate (16 Euros). You can also enjoy a hearty brunch every morning for 28 Euros. In the afternoon you can also have a delicious high tea with homemade cakes, tarts and ice creams.
Lunch and dinner are served in the beautiful restaurant rooms or under the white parasols on the Place Graslin. You can simply have the “dish of the day”(such as a blanquette of veal) and a coffee for 16 Euros, or a 2 or 3-course menu or make your choice through the à-la-carte menu. Seafood platters, homemade foie gras, plates of tapas, steak tartar prepared at your table are a few examples of the brasserie’s cuisine. Don’t forget to make your choice in the tempting desserts menu and why not have a Kouing-amann, a typical sweet from Brittany rich in salted butter and sugar that is to die for! The wine list will meet your expectations with a wide choice of wines from the Loire Valley vineyards as well as wines from all French wine areas. All menus and booking at www.lacigale.com
“Maisons du Monde hotel & suites”, a brand new hotel in Nantes
Before being a hotel name “Maisons du Monde” was a well-known brand in France founded in Brittany in 1990. They sell furniture and decoration objects in many stores set in France main cities as well as in other European countries including the UK with stores in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leicester. The company’s head office is in Nantes and it’s only logical that their first hotel should open in the same town.
The hotel is set in the pedestrian zone, just a few steps away from the Place Graslin and the Passage Pommeraye. As you can expect the hotel’s decoration has been carefully chosen and is a successful mix and match of styles, exotic and design decorative objects and soft colours. The first floor is an open space gathering a lounge with comfortable velvet sofas, a dining room and a kitchen where the morning breakfast buffet is open from 8 till 11 am. The place is open non-stop to the hotel guests and to anyone willing to work on his laptop enjoying a drink and a snack with free WiFi. An innovating concept that attracts many young people who come here to work on their laptop and meet friends.
The hotel rooms propose five different bedroom styles. “Classic chic” rooms with a hushed atmosphere of greys and white, “Exo Chic” rooms with a green wall behind the king size bed, “Jagger” rooms with a glam-rock atmosphere… Every room has an Expresso machine, a kettle, a 43′ TV screen, complimentary mineral water, free WiFi… even small dogs and cat are welcome! And if you like anything in the hotel you can simply order it on “Maison du Monde” website.
Practical information and booking at www.maisonsdumondehotel.com/en
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes