With vibrant culture, stunning art and fantastic food, Jim Gallagher says it is time to plan your visit to Nantes

IN the 1980s many young people fled Nantes as soon as they left school or university believing there was little future in the French city.

he shipyards had closed, a vast amount of land was derelict and future prospects were bleak.

Today the capital of the Loire-Atlantique region has been utterly transformed into a thriving metropolis where art and culture are at the forefront of an astonishing recovery and where the streets bustle with life.

The areas of wasteland are now covered in space age buildings, massive art projects, trendy cafes and bars, high-tech university departments and modern chic apartment blocks. Nantes is so popular 8,000 new residents move to the city every year boosting its 300,000 population.

Part of the rebirth and the city’s new-found confidence is down to the annual arts festival, Le Voyage a Nantes, where artists from all over the world are invited to create something visionary, imaginative or challenging for the streets and surrounding districts. This year’s event runs from July 2 to September 11.

Most of the artworks are temporary but many are retained, becoming part of the fabric of the city.

They must have significance to the Nantes area and some are spectacular such as Le Porte-Vue, a metal walkway stretching out hundreds of feet above a deep canyon in Chateau-Thébaud outside the city.

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Machines of the Island’s famous Grand Elephant

The former shipyards themselves have been converted into a creative district including the spectacular Machines de L’Ile, a futuristic playground of hydraulic machines such as the Grand Éléphant, a massive tourist attraction which can take 50 passengers on an unforgettable ride.

A giant carousel lets families jump on board a whole range of wild beasts and strange contraptions merging the imaginary world of Jules Verne, who was born in Nantes, the mechanical universe of Leonardo da Vinci and the industrial history of Nantes.

The Gallerie des Machines lets you get up close to yet more hydraulic wonders while you can look down from a balcony at a vast workshop where artefacts are made that would be at home in any Mad Max movie.

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Art installation, Misconceivable, in Nantes

Finding your way around Nantes could not be easier. All you have to do is follow the green line – literally, a line painted on the pavement which passes all the major sights in Nantes, an ingenious but simple idea.

The beautiful city center is compact and almost completely pedestrianized making it a joy to stroll around.

Many of the major attractions are within easy walking distance, including the magnificent Castle of the Dukes of Brittany where the buildings date from the 15th to 18th centuries and which went through a massive restoration program in the 1990s and 2000s.

Another gem of the medieval quarter is the city Cathedral – begun in 1434 and not completed until 1891 – which sadly is currently closed following an arson attack in 2020.

Nantes is home to one of France’s most important botanical gardens while in a back street the artist Evor has created an amazing urban garden called Interior Jungle. We were lucky to meet him while he was hard at work.

The city is proud of its unique Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery, a solemn reminder of Nantes’ history as the largest slave-trading port in 18th Century France.

Many towns like to forget their involvement in the brutal trade but Nantes has built one of the world’s most important memorials to its abolition. Sitting along the Loire, it lists the ships that traveled to Africa to pick up their human cargo and features heartbreaking testimony of many victims. Nantes ships were responsible for carrying over half a million slaves to the New World.

Close by is the Anne of Brittany Bridge which brings you to the Ile de Nantes, the former former dilapidated industrial heartland sitting on an island in the Loire, now transformed into an architectural, design and art hub.

Walk to the very western end of the island, passing newly opened galleries, cafés and bars, and you can take the water taxi, or Navibus, to the Bas Chantenay section of the city.

A day trip along the Loire estuary towards Saint-Nazaire 60km away on the coast is also recommended and a picturesque cycleway allows everyone to do at least a section of it.

The dramatic 33 art installations along the river include The House in the Loire, literally a house dropped into the river; The Pendulum, a giant 7m swinging structure attached to an old industrial building; and Misconceivable, a bent yacht “being dragged back into the river.”

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Exploring the castle grounds

Another great day out can be spent in Clisson, one of the most stunning villages in France to the south-east of Nantes.

Home to a magnificent 13th Century castle – its size will amaze you – the beautiful village sits on the Sevre River and was largely built in the Tuscan style. A magnificent 14th Century covered market is still intact stretching 800 sq meters.

Nearby we also visited the vineyard of Jérémie Hucket, which produces 500,000 bottles of mostly organic Muscadet a year, for some enjoyable wine tasting.

Visitors to Nantes can get free access to most sights, museums and attractions, as well as free public transport, bus tours and river cruises, with the Nantes Pass which costs € 26 for one day, € 35 for two, € 45 for three and € 90 for a full seven days. The pass will also cover the train journey to Clisson and entry to the castle.

Where to eat in Nantes? Not to be missed is the gorgeous, century-old La Cigalle on Place Graslin, one of the most beautiful squares in the city.

The brasserie oozes French charm and booking is essential. It was right opposite our lovely four-star accommodation, Hotel de France Océania, and yards from the stunning Opera House.

We also had lunch in La Passagere in the famous Victorian arcade, Passage Pommeraye, and on another day in the Little Atlantic Brewery after catching the Navibus water taxi to the Bas Chantenay area.

We tried out local delicacies in Le Coin des Crepes one night and the very chic restaurant Le Bouchon on another.

In Clisson we ate in the gorgeous Restaurant de la Vallée overlooking the river and castle for a memorable last day in France.

NANTES, FRANCE
See levoyageanantes.fr

■ Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) both offer direct flights from Dublin to Nantes fives times weekly.
■ Oceania Hotel de France Nantes has a range of bedrooms starting from just € 80 per night. See oceaniahotels.com.
■ The Voyage to Nantes art festival runs from July 2-September 11, 2022.

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