Article by Antoine, the creator of Free Walking Tour Nantes
You may have heard that France is the number 1 world tourist destination, but I’ll agree that Nantes is not its most touristy city, by far. However it’s the sixth in terms of population, so it must be attractive in some way, don’t you think?
Actually, Nantes has always been a rather large city, but it started to become a pleasant one only a few decades ago, and is now becoming incredibly trendy. Which officially makes it the hidden gem you don't want to miss out! But more about that later, now let’s answer the first question:
Nantes is in the western part of France, not exactly on the Atlantic coast but close by, in the Loire river estuary. The most heated geographical debate is still raging among the locals though: is it in the Brittany region (Bretagne in French) or not?? I guess you’ll need to take my free tour to figure this out, but rest assured that you will find excellent crêpes, galettes, and cider anyway.
Now, why isn’t Nantes famous compared to other French touristy cities? Well, basically because it used to be too focused on business to develop anything else. From its origin before the Roman Empire, the city took advantage of its geographical position to develop the commerce of many goods. It made the city more and more prosperous with the expansion of the naval routes to new horizons, unfortunately culminating in a very dark period in the XVIII century when inhuman practices were the norm…
In parallel, the naval industry logically became very important and Nantes hosted some of the country’s most important shipyards. Now you’ve got the general picture: a buzzing city, economically flourishing, with a huge industrial neighbourhood - the kind of city you go to when you want a job, but maybe not to relax on holidays.
Well, the only things left from this industrious past are a few iconic vintage cranes by the river banks. Warehouses and shipyards were turned into services companies, creative cultural centres, bars and nightclubs. Walking on the former quays, you won’t hear sounds of hammering anymore but rather glasses clinking and joyful chatters (that is, when there is no pandemic ongoing). So yes: Nantes did overcome its inevitable de-industrialization in a brilliant way. Often a few steps ahead when it comes to urbanization policies, it appeared in the top 10 of the most bike-friendly cities in Europe as early as 2013 for example. Some welcome additions keep appearing every now and then such as the reflecting pool in front of the Castle “des Ducs de Bretagne”.
A giant exhibition happens every summer throughout the city and even expands into the neighbouring countryside - it is called Le Voyage à Nantes or "The Journey in Nantes". While strolling through the old town, you may stumble upon an opera facade transformed into a literal waterfall, or maybe find out that a movie screening is going on from the rooftop of the architecture school. Some works are performances, some are temporary installations, and some are even definitive - such as this mini-hotel suspended in a narrow alleyway to which you can access only with a ladder.
The huge spaces cleared from former industrial wastelands or filled-up rivers leave vast openings to develop space-intensive projects and public spaces, which is a rare opportunity for a city of 300,000+ inhabitants. How not to mention the Machines de l’Ile, and its notorious moving mechanical elephant?
As soon as this terrible pandemic is over! Everybody wants a piece of the city, whether to come live and work or just spend the weekend. You’ll find fun things to do all year round for sure! Although you’ll have better chances to enjoy good weather during summer (and the Voyage à Nantes in July and August), keep in mind that the oysters are best during the months that contain an ‘r’ in their name...
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