When suggestions begin to fly about travelling to France, move over Paris and shove-off Provence, naturally, one considers a visit to Nantes!
Before I rattle on sarcastically as I enjoy my own wit, I’ll simply say that Nantes never really ranked on my list of places to visit in France. Prior to December 2019, my only exposure to the country had been a week stay in the south. Provence remains one of my favourite travel destinations in Europe.
As for Nantes, I admit that I knew little about the city. One of my favourite bands titled a song after it, but the song reveals little in terms of travel details. A little research tells of the city’s once bustling history as an inland port and trading centre. Much business was done in this now-smallish city, creating an important artery which brought goods, industry, and trade to the Loire region.
The reason it popped up on our radar at all was thanks to one of my oldest friends. This friend being the person almost solely responsible for inspiring me to travel.
Following high school, he was the friend who threw caution to the wind and opted for adventure, in favour of an endless cycle of education.
His choices worked out really well and earned him the quintessential gap-year-and-then-some experience. His accounts were as inspiring as they were jealousy-inducing. The intervening years would see him schlep across Europe, cross our own home country – several times – and end up on a protracted tour through Japan.
Somehow he managed to meet an incredible French lady, set up roots and start a family. It’s thanks to his better half that France became an option in 2019.
Kat and I like to try to escape the bustle of London during the holidays. Usually this involves finding a cheap flight and making a brief getaway to someplace that is decidedly not-London. As soon my friend announced that he’d be in France with his family, the choice became a no-brainer.
Which brings us to the medieval town of Nantes
For starters, we met up with my friend in a quaint countryside village to spend a night with his wife’s family. Paragraphs could be dedicated to the experience, however, it all amounts to being a masterclass in down-home French hospitality.
Nestled in a lovingly reconstructed farmhouse – mostly courtesy of my friend’s father-in-law – we were treated to welcoming company, incredible food and more than a little reminiscence. Quite frankly, we could’ve happily rung in the new year sipping French wine and enjoying the countryside… Alas, a Bnb awaited.
Now for Nantes
I’m not sure what most folks hope to experience on first arriving in a new city. I know I used to expect mind-expanding memories from the moment my foot alited foreign soil. I’ve since learned the error of my ways. Afterall, it’s not the responsibility of a place to live up to your expectations. Perhaps it’s better to allow an opinion to be the culmination of a few hours of experience. You know, give a destination time to reveal itself before ladling judgement against it.
To be honest, Nantes did not get off to a good start.
Within our first 20 minutes we were treated to several crowds of idle young men in tracksuits – the sort who sport suspiciously furtive glances, rather than give any impression of sport. I hate to jump to conclusions; however, having witnessed 2 of these track-suits attempt muggings (1 successfully), I don’t regret snappy judgment.
It would’ve been easy to write off the city after those first 30 minutes. Sights included a man openly peeing against the bus terminal, a partially boarded-up McDonalds, overt vagrancy, tracksuits (so many tracksuits), a woman shouting directly into a small child’s face and more shite graffiti than I’ve seen in a singular place, even in deepest, darkest Croydon.
But fuck, if you’ve lived in any major urban area, you know all too well how easy it is to judge it unfairly. I still know plenty of folks who absolutely hate Toronto. They hate it with a deep, fiery, passion that forever solidifies it as a gun-toting, concrete-locked, unwelcoming bag of assholes. Tbh, I was one of those people until I lived there for a decade.
If a person wants to find things to hate, if they really want to plunge their face into that bag of assholes and motorboat the bezeeus out of them, they’ll no doubt find those things. In doing so, however, they completely overlook the vibrant, green, creative, walkable, and beautiful city that it actually is.
So, Nantes, we gave you time to simmer
We looked beyond your bag of tracksuits and disillusioned youth and, you know what, we found a pretty awesome little gem.
Rounding the corner from the bus station reveals a charming medieval inner city, brimming with winding streets, classic architecture and charming shops. Exactly what four young…ish folks would want to find to ring in the new year.
We quickly discovered that Nantes is a big University town. As such it empties substantially during the holidays. While this did mean that many shops would remain closed for most of our stay, it also awarded us with a much more relaxed, less tourist-infused, stay. As a nice bonus, it also meant that we had no trouble snagging hop-on/hop-off bike rentals. They were a nice escape from the drudgery of bipedal travel, like foolish tourists. Such fools, those tourists.
The university kids have also infused the city with a market for board games. Being nerds, ourselves, we were excited to find a healthy tabletop community. Many excuses were made to peruse gaming-related wares. It’s perhaps for the best that we were limited to carry-on for our return.
Outside of the main thoroughfare, where most shops reside, there’s a lot to see in Nantes. Of all the things on our lists, the one that topped them all was the Les Machines de L’îsle. Since the industrial shipping days of Nantes are behind it, it’s been left with an alarming amount of old port land to deal with. As one does with such things, some folks have decided to fill a chunk of it with cultural things. Cafés and galleries popped up to lure in the hipsters, who in turn enticed artisanal boutiques and studios, which lead to riverside redevelopment and footpaths and, well, now the city can boast an entire tourist attraction outside of the shop-aholic catering of the high street.
At the forefront of all of this is an ambitious project opened by two artists in 2007. Harkening back to the automata and animatronics that captivated the 19th century, the two have created an awe-inspiring theatre of robotics and puppetry in what was once a derelict shipyard. It’s really a sight to behold.
If you’ve ever dreamed in steampunk or been aroused by the retro-futures of HG Wells, you will be happy here, indeed.
We found ourselves dwarfed by a giant mechanical elephant, lost in wrought-iron treetops, mesmerised by automat-ants and entirely entranced by a multi-story carousel; a stacked diorama of fantastical sea-life and fire-breathing dragons. I can only imagine how magical the attraction would be for young children. As adults, we were smitten.
How about New Year’s Eve?
After nearly being locked out of our flat, we’d all but written off a traditional evening of public revelry and drunken behaviour. Leave it up to my buddy to pull a surprise save from the ether.
Hanging outside of our flat, he struck up a conversation with neighbours who’d overheard some of the cursing and lock-based struggles. This resulted in an offer to hide a key for us to access our flat from the neighbouring courtyard. The night was saved and it was time to celebrate the New Year in the only way the French are known for …
… with an Irish band and celtic dancers in an Irish pub.
When all is said and done, Nantes was a blast to visit. We rounded out our journey with a brief stop at Trentemoult: a quaint port neighbourhood located just outside of the city, across the Loire. It reminded me of the island community in Toronto, offering a relaxing respite to city life.
The only downside to the entire trip, I’d say, would be the holidays. Most European cities take the holidays seriously. This is especially true for the smaller ones, or school towns whose populations tend to dwindle whenever students head for home. As such, many business-owners take advantage and take time off. Had we thought of it earlier, we may have opted for a larger city. As it stood, even with many shops being closed, we found more than enough to occupy our time, only needing to change our plans a couple of times.
Nantes feels very much like a city that’s on the cusp of finding itself again. It knew what it was for quite some time. I don’t know if it revelled in that but, at some point, that all changed. It hit rougher times and found itself floundering for identity. In fact, I was stopped at one point by a couple of locals who had singled me out as a tourist. The fellow asked me, quite bluntly, why exactly I’d decided to visit Nantes. The question seemed to carry a bit of weight and perhaps some unspoken confusion.
That moment really captured my entire impression of Nantes.
The city seems to have rediscovered itself and started on a course of revitalisation (including plenty of truly inspiring street art). There are a lot of fascinating things happening that are inspiring an explosion of culture and creativity. Nantes seems hungry for change and I think the city that people find, even 5 years from now, will be quite different to the one that we visited at the start of 2020.