The French city that’s a little Britain
Chalkmarks Nantes

THERE are people line dancing in a shop window.

Then I find two pensioners pulling off their shirts while playing cuban songs. Next I pass a ping pong competition in the street.

And then there’s the earth – it’s hanging from a crane. It’s all a bit random but this is the buzz in France‘s emerging city. Nantes is where only new rules apply.

Somewhere there’s even a mansion submerged in the Loire – all in the name of art.

This is how art should be – fun!

Not so long ago this was the industrial centre in the north west, yet you’d have no way of knowing this today. The shipyard, the factories and the fishing villages are now more in touch with the future than the past.

So let’s start with the history. The region is famous for producing Muscadet – the traditional white wine that’s has been making people happy for five centuries.

There are at least 800 vineyards with trails to follow and tastings available.

I visit Domaine de la Vinconniere to try a few golden bottles. I can be certain of a good night when I’ve had four glasses of wine but when the day starts out this way then things get very interesting. Within two hours I’ve seen the grapes on their vines, poked my head down in the cellars and tried three Muscadets and one sparkling. It’s fruity and light rather than aromatic and oaky like a chardonnay.

 

It’s just gone one in the afternoon and I’m already yawning. I could nod off quite happily but I grab a baguette for lunch and head for an afternoon stroll.

Nantes is located on the Loire – the longest river in France – which splits the city in two with a small island in the middle. It’s well planned and easy to get around especially when you follow the green line. This is an almost six-mile circuit that takes in the highlights.

I’ve come during the summer arts festival Le Voyage a Nantes where anything goes. Visitors don’t have to go to the art galleries, the exhibition comes to them. In the heart of the city, the squares, avenues and parks are filled with eccentric pieces. There are chairs creating a loop the loop roller coaster design called Stellar in Bouffay Square.

There’s a giant sleeping green chick – shaped from a huge hedge – in the botanical gardens Jardin des Plantes. And there’s an enormous moonscape trampoline to give a sense of weightlessness. This is how art should be – fun.

Even outside festival time, the city doesn’t do regular attractions.

The former shipyard on Nantes Island is home to mechanical animals called Les Machines. I watch a life sized elephant walking, a giant heron fly, and a massive ant go for a march. The kids go crazy for them. The machines are good enough to be in some kind of sci-fi film where they would take over the city – and here they already have in the nicest possible way.

And once you’re here you want find more. I seek out the old grey Lu biscuit factory which has been turned into a restaurant and concert venue.

Then I go up the only skyscraper, the Brittany Tower, which hasn’t escaped the artist’s hand. The 32nd floor has opened as a bar called Le Nid (The Nest) offering 360 views and designed with egg shell seating and the serving bar shaped into a great white bird.

I wish I’d found this place earlier as I needed to stop for a drink. Everyone seemed to be sipping on neon green water, which I found out was called Perrier mente so I have one of those. While I was sure I’d glow in the dark later on, it was minty fresh.

I decide to call it a day and carry on tomorrow. I have dinner at the smart Le Bouchon gobbling up my black Angus beef and potatoes followed by a local biscuit based dessert called Sable Breton topped with strawberries.

While the food makes me feel pretty good and the night is just beginning, I still want to kick off my shoes for an early night. I’m a lightweight.

I was glad I’d based myself at La Perouse. It’s a central and casual hotel joining in with the arty theme with a colourful mannequin in the hipster lobby and a serve yourself bar. It has comfy beds with large windows giving a great view of the city with the trams bustling below. And best of all, it’s on the green line.

The next day I’m keen to see the Old Town and get on the river.

In a earlier life, Nantes was the historic capital of Brittany and locals say they still have more in common with Britain than the rest of France. At just an hour from the UK, it’s said to be Little Britain in contrast to Great Britain across the Channel.

I start at the showstopping Castle of the Dukes of Brittany built in the 15th century. This medieval quarter has wide avenues and grand squares with plenty of open space making shade difficult to find in the middle of summer. But it’s not so busy there are crowds to avoid.

My walk then takes me across to the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Peter and Paul that took 457 years to complete.

I stop for a naughty long lunch at La Civelle in the old fishing area Trentemoult, which has been transformed into a waterfront hangout lined with colourful restaurants and cafes. I have the best dessert I think I’ve ever had in my life.

It was profiteroles filled with ice cream and it came with its own saucepan of warm melted chocolate. If I’d had known how amazing the pud was going to be, I would have cancelled the mains and ordered this twice.

After a coffee, I head out for a two hour cruise along the Loire. The boat chugs across the water revealing the countryside dotted with huge mansions and their impressive gardens. I take a seat inside where I can have one eye on the quiet scenery and keep the other on the Muscadet queue.

I keep thinking about that dessert though. As soon as word gets out about this city everyone will want to come.

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