Bemusement gives way to amazement in this small city

by Shane Dillon

THERE is one feeling that Nantes seems to invoke in Irish people, and that is mild bemusement. Tell someone that you’re headed off to France for the weekend and you’ll be met with a friendly smile and the inevitable question – whereabouts? Tell them Nantes and watch their brow closely; you should be able to see a crinkle forming.
For the geographically oblivious (among whose ranks I am often at the forefront) Nantes is Europe’s green capital; a little city that sits on the Loire River, about 50km from the Atlantic coast. Officially part of the Pays de la Loire region, it was historically the capital of Brittany and still retains a strong connection to the Breton language and Celtic culture. And while Anne of Brittany – who went on to become Queen of France – left a mark on her birthplace, perhaps the biggest cultural imprint comes from Nantes other eminent enfant: Jules Verne.
Verne’s novels embraced a particularly Victorian lust for adventure and invention, and it seems that this outlook is still very much alive and well on the streets of Nantes. Take a walk through Nantes’ Bouffay district and you’ll find a hectic blend of markets, bars and restaurants crammed into the tight medieval hub.
There’s a chaotic blend of the old and new, a butcher’s shop front along one of the streets sits unchanged for decades – boucherie spelled out with painstaking detail in well-maintained tiny red mosaics, while above the mantel, white plaster busts of a cow and a sheep are adorned with pink neon wigs. “This is part of an art installation,” explains Chloe, our guide. She delivers this information politely despite it being the umpteenth time she has done so. It is a line that seems applicable to practically everything in Nantes, which feels like a university town that grew up and prospered, but never lost its idiosyncratic, artistic spirit.
On the other side of town, new and strange buildings continue to spring to life from disused dockland shells.
Nantes had relied on shipbuilding and trade for centuries, until the nearby Saint-Nazaire became the main port on the Loire. Much like in Dublin, recent years have seen an injection of massive investment and an overhaul of the old shipyards.
But the overhaul has kept that keen creative spirit intact. Now you can find an architect’s office with a massive measuring tape unfurled around its gardens. It adds to the feel that the city is a giant playground, just waiting to be explored. Very little in Nantes is purely functional, huge attention is paid to the aesthetic value of things as well.
Across the road from the architect’s office there’s an upmarket furniture store, but the building it is housed in is clad in lightweight aluminium shreds, and discreet outdoor speakers play an ongoing loop that blends birdsong and metallic melodies. It sounds beautiful, and as people cycle by nonchalantly on their way home from work, it becomes evident how normal it is for things to be extraordinary. “This is part of an art installation.” The mantra repeated, we continue on.
Across the river at the incredible Parc de Chantiers, the originality of Jules Verne’s vision is fully realised through a huge three-storey steam-punk carousel that allows you ride on lobsters, whales and other underwater beasties using antiquated joysticks and switches to make claws grab, tails swish and eyes spin as you whizz around.
Les Machines De L’Ile Nantes is a collection of incredible machines that has to be seen to be believed. Le Grand Elephant is 45 tonnes of wood and steel that can carry 50 passengers on its back – at 40-foot high the view from the top may be impressive, but the view from the bottom, watching the giant feet move, and eyelashes blink as water gushes from the trunk, is far better.
Getting to see all the cultural highlights of Nantes is very simple. A 10-mile trail is marked out across the city that will take you from historic chateaux and churches, to pop up bars and restaurants along the Loire, and across the river, where the little clustered fishing houses with communal backyards has become one of the most popular spots to live in Nantes. It is not only marked out on the map you can pick up at the tourist office, but literally marked out as a painted green line that stretches all across the city. There is a wholesome sense of relaxation that comes from walking Le Voyage a Nantes, knowing that if your eye is caught by an interesting cafe or gallery, you can explore away, safe in the knowledge that you will easily find your way back onto the green line.
Like any bustling city, there are plenty of options for accommodation, including some that embrace Nantes quirkiness. The four star Okko Hotel forgoes the usual bar and restaurant set up in favour of a communal living room, where guests can eat together. You won’t be disappointed by the cuisine in Nantes but really this is a place where culture is at the helm.
Nantes is a beautiful, strange and wonderful little city to explore.
You may arrive in Nantes bemused, but you’ll return amazed.
Aer Lingus fly three times weekly from Dublin to Nantes; Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Flights operate to September 12, 2015. Fares start from €59.99 one-way, including taxes. For more information on fares and schedules visit aerlingus.com

Everything you need to know about Nantes can be found at
http://www.levoyageanantes.fr/en/
http://in.t.rendezvousenfrance.com/

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