Long considered one of France’s best places to live, Nantes has gone from a heavily industrialised port to becoming one of the country’s most stylish, creative and unquestionably quirky urban hubs. Built around the banks of the River Loire, just a few hours’ drive south-west of Paris, Nantes has everything you’d hope for from a French city: excellent food, history and culture aplenty – with fantastic architecture from Gothic cathedrals and elegant 19th-century squares and arcades to cutting edge contemporary showstoppers, as well as museums, parks and a grand château in the middle of town.
TEXT: EDDI FIEGEL | MAIN PHOTO © PIXABAY
Elephants might not be the first thing you’d associate with a French city break but in Nantes, it’s all about the elephant. Or almost. It’s not just any old elephant however. Standing some 40-feet-high, the elephant in question is a wooden, mechanical mammoth who struts its stuff spraying water from its trunk whilst passengers enjoy spectacular views of the city. Children meanwhile frolick around, vying with each other to see who can get the most drenched.
Created by the same Nantes-based studio who built a similar elephant a few years ago, the beast, who gets its swagger from a recycled combine harvester engine, has been a huge hit with visitors of all ages. But there’s more to Nantes than mechanical animals.
Les Machines de L’Île de Nantes. Photo © Pixabay
Historic treasures and futuristic hotspots
Kick off your weekend with a wander through the medieval streets of ‘Le Bouffay’ as locals call the central neighbourhood, which is essentially Nantes’ Old Town. The narrow, pedestrianised streets are lined with quirky, timber-framed shops, selling everything from kitchenware to handmade clothes, toys and books as well as tantalising chocolatiers, patisseries and fromageries.
Le Bouffay is also where you’ll find two of the city’s key sights: the 15th-century Château des Ducs de Bretagne – an impressive moated and turreted affair, and the equally impressive Gothic cathedral. Unusually for a château, this one sits right in the heart of the city and is home to the Nantes History Museum – a detailed tour through the history of the region. Spread over several floors, detailed displays take you from the Middle Ages to the present day. Along the way we discover the area’s maritime glory years and learn about its involvement in two world wars, as well as its historical heyday as a biscuit making centre, with a fascinating display of decorative Art Nouveau biscuit tins and advertising posters.
Less than five minutes’ walk from the château, you’ll find the 15th-century Gothic Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. Built in white stone with a double towered façade and one of the highest naves in Europe, it’s well worth a visit.
Carrousel. Photo © Pexels
When it comes to lunch, there’s no shortage of choice. Le Bouffay is filled with quintessentially French pavement cafés and brasseries and if you enjoy a spot of people-watching, look no further than Café Le Pilori on the cobbled Place du Pilori, where you can tuck into steak frites and salad washed down with a glass of chilled rosé or beer.
After lunch, hop on a tram or take a 15-minute stroll along the banks of the Loire to the Île de Nantes – home to the aforementioned elephant. Spanning around three miles, the area was once home to Nantes’ naval shipyards but has recently become reincarnated as a hip, family-friendly hangout. Things to see include a former shipbuilding warehouse which now houses ‘Les Machines de L’Île’ – the atelier which created not only the elephant but an eight-metre-wide heron hanging from the roof and several other giant mechanical creatures including a hummingbird, spider and ant.
Elsewhere on and around the Île, you’ll find a surreal carousel inspired by Nantes native Jules Verne as well as contemporary French architectural star Jean Nouvel’s imposing black courthouse.
From here, amble across one of the bridges back over the Loire and head into to the Graslin district. With its elegant, mid-19th-century avenues, this is where you’ll find Nantes’ most elegant shops, as well as fountained squares and the ornately galleried, shopping arcade – Passage Pomeraye, which is almost worth the trip alone.
Filled with upscale boutiques, the arcade runs over three galleried levels flanked by neo-classical statues, a grand staircase, topped off with a sky-skimming railway station-style, glass roof.
Left to right: Le Nid. Photo © Marc Domage, LVAN | Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. Photo © Pxhere
For dinner, wander five minutes north to the Place Graslin, home to Nantes’ grandiose opera house as well as La Cigalle – a brasserie with one of the most impressively elaborate Art Nouveau interiors you’re ever likely to find. Seafood is their speciality so you can enjoy platters of super succulent prawns and briny oysters amidst florid tilework, leafy parlour palms and a ballroom-style beamed ceiling.
Round off your day by gazing out at Nantes by night with a drink at Le Nid (the nest) – a cocktail bar with spectacular panoramic city views, designed by French graphic designer and illustrator Jean Jullien. Set on the 32nd floor of Nantes’ tallest building – Le Tour Bretagne, the bar is designed in the shape of an outsized stork, whilst the tables and chairs take the form of its eggs.
Le Signe du Triomphe show. Photo © Puy du Fou
A trip through time
You could easily spend at least another day in the city but for something a little different, albeit still very French, head an hour’s drive out of town to Puy Du Fou – France’s second most popular attraction after Disneyland Paris.
Set amidst more than 120 acres of forest and lush parkland, Puy du Fou is a theme park with a difference and there isn’t a ride in sight. Instead there are spectacular shows and historical re-enactments on an epic scale. (Day passes from 36 euros for adults and 26 euros for children).
Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantômes. Photo © Puy du Fou
You’ll get the most of out of your visit if you plan your day. There are seven principal daytime shows running for about half an hour each and they all run punctually several times a day, so you can easily fit in four in a day. Each one is differently themed, ranging from the Roman circus style Le Signe du Triomphe set in a 7,000-seater amphitheatre, complete with lions, leopards and tigers, to the First World War (Les Amoureux de Verdun – a love story set amidst the trenches). Elsewhere, you’ll find Viking longboats appearing from beneath the sea, Knights of the Round Table, sword-brandishing musketeers or, in the case of Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantômes – horseback knights and Medieval maidens as well as some 330 birds of prey from falcons and vultures to eagles and owls soaring just above your head.
In between the shows, stroll through the park where you’ll find fountains, rose gardens, waterfalls and animal pens, as well as reconstructed historical settlements like the Iron Age and Medieval villages.
There’s also plenty of choice when it comes to lunch from Medieval-themed buffets and picnic areas to Le Bistrot – a Belle Époque style brasserie with servers in 19th-century bustles and waistcoats.
As the sun sets, you can either return to Nantes or catch one of the two spectacular evening shows at Puy Du Fou. Check the schedule for which one is on but if you get the chance, don’t miss La Cinéscénie. Unfolding before your eyes on the world’s largest stage, spanning some 56 acres, the show tells the story of France’s Vendée region, taking you on a journey from the Middle Ages though the Renaissance and French Revolution to the 1940s. Featuring 2,500 actors and over 4,000 volunteers, it’s an astounding spectacle with mesmerising lights and special effects, as well as dazzling costumes and hundreds of animals. The grand fireworks extravaganza at the end makes for the perfect finale to the weekend.
La Vallée Fleurie. Photo © Puy du Fou
EasyJet flies to Nantes from London Gatwick and London Luton, with one-way fares from €30.
Nantes is compact and easy to get around on foot or tram. The Nantes Pass gets you not only discounted fares but also entrance to the major museums and attractions in the city. For full details on this and on Nantes in general, visit: www.nantes-tourisme.com
Where to stay:
The stylish and excellent value Mercure Passage Pommeraye is in the heart of the Graslin district and less than ten minutes’ walk from the Old Town, cathedral and château. Doubles from €86.50 room only. Puy Du Fou also has five historically themed hotels on site with double rooms from €160, including breakfast and one day’s access to the Park.