Nantes, France

Nantes didn’t meet my expectations, but only because I didn’t have any. This curiosity of a city has leapfrogged the magical Bordeaux to move to the top of my France list.

Nestled on the banks of the Loire River in western France, it’s perhaps most famous for its restored Château des Ducs de Bretagne, the medieval home of the Dukes of Brittany. This imposing edifice is quite something but it wasn’t what sold me on the city. I’m blessed to live in a part of the world that does medieval and does it well. Old is old. I’m not jaded by any means but it takes more than castles and stories of dukes and royalty to get my blood running.

Entry way to a edieval castle with a moat and a drawbridge - the outside walls are brick with the gable ends of the rooftops painted white and slated in black.

I was all about the 12-km thin green line.

Snaking through the heart of Nantes is a green line that is begging to be followed. Better than any tour book, it takes to you places you didn’t know about and shows you stuff you didn’t think you needed to see.

Photo of a cobbe street flanked with four-storey terraced buildings on the right and a stone wall on the left. In the distance are a couple of strollers one in a red coat, the other in navy or black. In the centre of the cobble is painted a thin green line that runs into the distance

We were lucky to happen upon the end of Le Voyage à Nantes, the annual arts festival that runs from 1 July to 3 September. This year, more than 100 art installations popped up throughout the city, some of which will stay for a year or two or three. It was a veritable voyage of discovery.

Street sculpture of a line of Greek statues standing in the middle of a pedestrianised shopping street. They're standing one behind the other, most likely characters from Greek mythology. They're all in white.

Two photos side by side. On the right is a night photo of a statue of a seated woman, in profile, with a walled fortress in the background, the top of the building peeping over the wall, lit up. The right photo is all text: NANTES Public statues can be found everywhere in our fair city. Whether they’re standing tall in squares, parks, or on top of public buildings, they watch us and communicate the messages and values their makers had imbued them with. But what would happen if they left their pedestals and shook up the town?Olivier Texier devotes his time to drawing absurd illustrations and comics filled with bizarre and unreasonable characters. Armed with only a pencil and a battalion of sculptors, he plays a game of “copying” some of our statues to a life-size scale of 1:1, thus freeing Generals Cambronne and Mellinet from their martial posturing. He also offers the feminine allegories of Nantes and the Loire a chance to come down from their monumental fountain in Place Royale and discover a city and river they’ve been embodying for nearly 160 years. Olivier Texier was born in 1972 in Natnes where he lives and works. He has collaborated with almost all French-language graphic novel publishers from Les Requins Marteaux to Delcourt, by way of Cornelius and Les Dernier CRL. DO NOT CLIMB ON SCUPTURE By the same artist alongside Quentin Faucompré and Pascal Lebrain 'De l'art des enseignes" viva las Vegas (2013)
A photo of a large metal sculpture depicting a man in a hurry set in a park. Inset bottom right corner is text: Thomas Houseago is a renowned and prolific sculptor and painter. With his raw and expressive portraits of characters in unexpected shapes and postures (gaunt faces, angular bodies, flayed skeletons…) the artist presents figures that are powerful yet fragile, and somewhere between the abstract and figurative. For materials, he combines less traditional ones – like steel rods, concrete or burlap – with the more conventional stuff of sculpture. L’Homme pressé (“man in a hurry”) represents a giant, 5-metre (16 ft.) hybrid of man, monster, and robot that walks with a determined gait, whose irresistible forward movement seems to stem from its incompleteness.

Two p[hotos side by side. On the left - text: Like a curious archaeologist, Marion Verboom is inspired by architecture, geology and art history from prehistory to the Middle Ages, excavating images composed over millennia. Verboom created Achronie 39 specifically for the Place Sainte-Croix, which she designed in response to the church that majestically towers above the square. Achronie 39 is composed of eight fragments each inspired in turn by a bestiary, an aquatic pattern, a flute, a Bruegelian character, clockwork, a tent and a mother-goddess nursing two infants. This last statuette is the work of the famous Gallo-Roman potter and coroplast Pistillus, who lends his name to the title of the exhibition. In the Passage Sainte-Croix garden, she has transformed its small fountain into a ceramic sculpture. Playing with the site’s unique traits, Marion Verboom has placed Tectonie in the courtyard. The sculpture and its 13 juxtaposed fragments rise nearly 8 metres high, with a finish that recalls the golden shadows of a bronze patina. Marian Verboom was borni n1983 in Nantes. She lives and works in Paris. She is respresented by the Pill Gallery (Istanbul). On the right is a totem pole in eight sections. A red and whie barrier around the base keeps people away.
And, given that the city is the home place of Jules Verne, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. But it did. Because I don’t know the first thing about JV other than being able to name three of his books – Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), the latter being the only one I remember reading. Science fiction isn’t my gig. The JV connection literally smacked me in the face when we happened upon a massive mural dedicated to him on rue de l’Échelle. If you’re interested, though, Chloe Govan does him justice in her article for France Today.

This master of adventure was also a poet and a playwright and one of France’s most prolific authors of all time, whose works have been translated more often than Shakespeare’s. Dubbed ‘the father of science fiction’, only Agatha Christie beats him to the title of most translated author in the world.

A large mural to the glory of the city's most famous child in the center of the city of Nantes, on the wall of a building along the staircase of Rue de l'Echelle. It is part of the already existing “in the footsteps of Jules Verne” route. We are also a stone's throw from Saint-Nicolas, a church that Jules Verne's father helped rebuild in the 1840s. Created by the muralist Jean-Yves Jodeau, this fresco measures fourteen meters wide and twelve meters high. It depicts the port of Nantes as little Jules knew it, but also the Albatross, the Terror, as well as a Jules Verne with a white beard (even if Nantes is rather linked to his childhood). Work to prepare the wall began in November 2007 and the fresco was completed at the beginning of 2008. (Source:

The JV connection sent us chasing down Les Machines de l’île. Again, I had no clue what to expect. I knew there was a carousel of sorts and lots of fantastical machines – the latter was more for himself than for me.

When we got to where we were going, we were met by a 12-metre-tall elephant that was 8 m wide and 21  long made from 48.4 tons of steel and wood and lubricated with 2500 litres of oil. It lumbers at a speed of 1 to 3 km/h and…it’s something else. It’s a tourist attraction of course and with its indoor lounge with balconies and a terrace your ticket will get you a 30-minute ride.

Collage of four photos of a large mechanical elephant carrying people on its back.

Fascinated but not interested, I was hell-bent on having a go on the Carrousel des Mondes Marins. On three levels, fantastical sea creatures do all sorts of stuff at the pull of a lever.

This giant carousel, almost 25 m high and 22 m in diameter, is a reinvention of fairground art. Three carousels are stacked in concrete lacework, crowned by a Big Top that is itself adorned with pediments, and guarded by 16 fishermen from all the world’s oceans.

And yes, we were the oldest kids on the carousel and the only adults without a child or three in tow. Magic.

Collage of three photos showing (1) a carousel (2) a large metal fish with its moutn open (3) A pair of colourful seahorses. The latter two are rides on the carousel.

What was left was the Galerie des Machines. I wasn’t convinced but himself is mechanically minded and when in Nantes and all that.

The brainchild of François Delaroziere and Pierre Orefice, these mechanical creatures are Gulliver-like in size reducing all around them to Lilliputian level.

High up in the rafters of the Galerie des Machines, you can see a heron with an 8-meter-long wingspan soaring gracefully and a mechanical spider awakening and climbing along his threads. Two giant hummingbirds gather nectar from a blossoming flower. Then it’s giant ant’s turn to make his entrance.

Himself got to operate the massive spider and I got a go on the ant. This time, it was the adults having fun. Unbridled fun. Aside from the wow factor of the creative genius that goes into making these things, seeing a room full of adults release their inner child was uplifting. Refreshing. Giddying. And Fun. Pure, unadulterated fun.

A collage of four photos showing oversized mechanical birds and beasts (1) a humming bird flies towards two red flowers. (2) a black and orange ant (3) A massive spider making its way out of a hole in the ground (4) an orange and yellow centipede. All are stores in huge warehouse with a glass wall at the end.

The city itself, once at the heart of the French Resistance, has a beauty of its own. Passage Pommeraye, a nineteenth-century covered walkway complete with Renaissance sculptures and Corinthian columns, is now home to boutiques and cafés on three levels.

Two photos side by side. The first has the sign VISITEZ LE PASSAGE POMMERAYE. Some tourists inside the arcade window show while two chat at the entrance. The second photo is of the interior with its glass roof and three floors of cafés and boutiques on either side. The marble floor reflects light and the wrought iron work on the ground floor facade is impressive

The Bouffay district was hopping. Narrow cobblestoned streets wend their way through a maze of bars, restaurants, and cafés. Medieval buildings house quirky shops and boutiques.  Haussmann-style apartments set you wondering what it’d be like to live in the heart of all this action. French was the language du jour with few, if any foreigners making themselves heard. Pure class.

Bustling street scene at night - narrow street with people seated at café tables eating and drinking. One shop front bears the word CREPERIE in gold on brown.

Along the river is a sobering reminder of the city’s past – a Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery. Nantes was France’s most important slave-trading port from the mid-1600s to the mid-1800s; more than half a million people were taken to the colonies in America on ships leaving from this port.

Two thousand crystal plaques are set into the quay inscribed with the names of slave ships and their departure dates, or the names of trafficking ports in Africa and America. Underneath is a long underwater passage is a  90-meter-long plaque (Nantes seems to be all about big) on which is inscribed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights abolitionist texts, and historical data on the slave trade.

The triangular slave trade was a commercial route established between Europe, Africa and America between the 15th and 19th centuries. The route began in the European ports, from where boats full of goods set off. Then, in the Western coasts of Africa, these goods were exchanged for slaves who were taken to America. Once in America, slaves were sold as workforce for plantations and the boats were loaded with exotic products to be taken to Europe: tobacco, sugar, cotton, among others. It is estimated that more than eleven million people were taken to America as slaves.

Four photo squares 1) a concrete block with steps down in front of it. White writing on brown metal spells out MEMORIAL DE L'ABOLITION DE L'ESCLAVAGE. 2) map on brown board backlit in red showing sea routes between AFrican and America (3) A long white black with writing in French. Readable are the words Intolérable, Oppression. 4) A crystal plaque set in the ground with the words LE SAINT RENÉ, NAVIRE NÉGRIER, PARTIE DE NANTES EN 1755

Sadly, the cathedral wasn’t open. And hasn’t been for a few years. It’s being renovated. That said, we spent some time marvelling at the intricacies of the facade.

Four photos of the detail of the intricate carvings on the front of a large cathedral with red doors.

We opted to stay near the train station, a perfect location with easy access to the city’s tram system. Our hotel, the Astoria, had a record shop in the lobby with record players and headphones – if we’d only had more time.

Right by the train station is les Jardin des Plantes  – seven hectares of gorgeousness in the heart of the city, the perfect place to wait for your train. Opens daily at 8.30 am till 7.45 pm.

Four photos of park (1) large bronze sculpture of a stag with two fawns. (2) lake with small islands of vegetation (3) view of the landscaped park across water (4) side profile of the stag statue

Public transport is free (for everyone) on the weekends. A bloody brilliant idea, Nantes. Thank you. We’ll know for next time. And there will be a next time.

Notes for next time

  • Place Royale
  • Art Deco café, La Cigale
  • City Cemetery
  • Go back to the garden to find the Magnolia d’Hectot
  • Check if the Cathedral is open
  • Visit the gift shop by the carousel to get those prints
  • Go back to the Japanese restaurant The Red and Luna
  • Explore Bouffay more

NANTES spelled out in large red letters sitting on a blue plinth bearing the words COUPE DU MONDE RUGBY FRANCE 2023. Green trees in the background and went stone in the foreground. Red umbrellas sneaking in on the left.


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