You can see why Nantes has twinned with Cardiff. They are both busy ports who, after tough times, have rebuilt and reinvented themselves. Though when it comes to hours of sunshine, classic French boulangerie, timbered medieval architecture and sophisticated local wines, the capital of the Loire-Atlantique region may well have the advantage. And, as the creator of the irresistible petit beurre, Nantes undoubtedly takes the biscuit.
Perhaps, the elegant Place de Graslin and its fountains is the place to begin an exploration of Nantes. Back in the 18th century, the affluent city had plenty of francs to spend on a grand Opera House. From the tall classical columns, an amphitheatre spreads out. Then avenues, named after France’s great arts figures, such as Racine and Voltaire, radiated outwards. Today, chic locals sipping an expresso and dissecting a croissant, take their petit dejeuner overlooking the Place de Graslin.
For a taste of the architecture of those affluent merchants of yesteryear, book a stay at the Hotel Voltaire Opera. A warmly welcoming 3* hotel within a two minutes’ walk of the Place de Graslin. Owner Patrick, prides himself on perhaps the most authentic breakfasts in the city: home-baked brioche, prune cake, crepes and locally made preserves. He will also talk you through his quirky collection of Voltaire quotes in which the great philosopher displays a liking for DayGlo sunglasses.
Since April 1 1895, Le Cigale Restaurant on the Place de Graslin has been one of Nantes’ must visit destinations. As guests enter, a refrigerated barrow of oysters, mussels and prawns sets the gastro tone.
Decor is gloriously Belle d’Epoque, extravagantly fin de siecle. As much an art gallery as restaurant, Cigale features, intricate blue mosaics, extravagant tiled portraits and intricately carved woodwork. Waiting staff in traditional black waistcoats, black bow tie and white shirt, weave through the aspidistra to deliver classic French cuisine. Between courses, flick through the glossy pages of a history of the restaurant for a catalogue of VIPs who have dropped in.
Scratch beneath the glossy veneer of prosperous Nantes and you will find a city with a scarred conscience. By the river a semi-subterranean monument to the abolition of slavery exists. Recalling the dark horrors of the passage from Africa, the monument is shaped like the bowels of a ship. Waves lap from the adjacent River Loire. Historically, the region is troubled by statistics: 43% of France’s slaver voyages departed from the city and 10% of slaves died on board.
Although France abolished slavery in 1794, Napoleon eager to build an empire, reversed the legislation in 1802. When slavery was finally abolished, Nantes turned to petit buerre biscuits to reinvent itself. Sugar still arrived from the Caribbean empire whilst local farms provided butter and wheat.
Another identity crisis arrived in 1941 during the Second World War. Marshall Petain, collaborating with occupying Nazis, transferred Nantes from Brittany to the Loire-Atlantique region. Today the city nostalgically flies black-and-white striped Breton flags, voraciously consumes Breton crepes known as galettes and sells tons of Breton pottery. But it is only a superficial nostalgia, running the Loire-Atlantique region provides jobs and wealth.
Again, in the 1980s Nantes’ identity was challenged. The docks and shipyard relocated to St Nazaire. There is no better symbol of the city’s super-cool regeneration than Le Hangar à Bananes, a former banana warehouse that now hosts bars, restaurants, art gallery, nightclub and hundreds of deckchairs.
Another colourful legacy of Nantes’ overseas exploration is the Jardin des Plantes. Over seven hectares of botanical gardens have been planted with the seeds and cuttings that nautical travellers brought back to the city. At the heart of the city, it is a relaxing place for a walk. Another Nantes surprise is the city’s second river and quieter river, the Erdre. A speed limit of 8 kmph and a ban on creating waves makes the Erdre ideal for a scenic cruise.
But the first thing to do in Nantes is to acquire a city pass. These cards are available for periods from 24 hours through to 7 days. The passes give free access to some attractions as well as discounts on transport, tours and cruises.
Nantes fact file
For more information about visiting the city see the Official website of the tourist office of Nantes
La Cigale – (booking recommended if visiting in high season).Michael Edwards, Nantes, Travel Last modified: August 1, 2022