Area: 50 km sq
Famous for: its timber-framed architecture and buzzing atmosphere thanks to its large student population.
Area: 65 km sq
Famous for: its street art installations, fascinating chequered history and riverside setting.
Boasting over 2,000 years of combatative Gallic, Roman and Medieval history, Brittany’s administrative centre has a feel of a mini-capital city complete with a parliament building in its own stately square. A fire destroyed much of the city in 1720, after which it was rebuilt with Haussmann-style apartments and elegant avenues. The compact oldest district, however, still has crooked timber-framed buildings towering over such squares as Place des Lices and Place du Champ Jacquet.
Although it is now in the Pays de la Loire region, Nantes was the capital of Brittany for centuries in the Middle Ages, and as such still has a very Breton identity. The exhibits inside the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne tell the story of its tumultuous past, which includes its role as a major ship-building hub in the 18th century and early 19th century. It’s also famous as the birthplace of Jules Verne and for the being the home of LU biscuits, as well loved as McVitie’s is in the UK.
Take a walking tour to see the sights, including Rue Saint-Michel, known by locals as Rue de la Soif – ‘thirsty street’ – thanks to the number of bars squeezed into its 87m length. Stroll the elegant boutique-lined streets and stop off at Place de la Mairie to admire the concave Hotel de Ville and the rotunda of the opera house opposite. Rennes’ most modern area is south of the La Vilaine river where you’ll find Les Champs Libres arts centre, complete with exhibition space, library and planetarium.
A green line painted on the pavements leads you between all the major sites, from its chateau to the parks and a host of street art installations, whether they be permanent or new for each season’s Voyage à Nantes art project. The most impressive creations, however, are the Machines de Nantes on the Ile de Nantes. Admire the 12m robotic elephant as it stomps around the concourse, or the three-storey steampunk-style carousel or venture into the gallery to see future machines being crafted.
The city’s Parc du Thabor is a beautifully landscaped park complete with rose and dahlia garden, waterfalls and bridges, as well as its own orangery gallery and outdoor theatre space. The park covers ten hectares in the north-east area of the city. Nearby is the wilder but equally attractive Parc Hamelin-Oberthür, the garden of the residence of a famous Rennais printmaker. It has a lake which is home to abundant birdlife and ancient trees.
The art installations continue along the River Loire to Saint-Nazaire, so cycle out along the leafy track to see the Villa Cheminée, a tiny cottage set atop a giant red-and-white-striped chimney; a giant serpent in the water; and ‘Misconceivable’, a yacht that appears to be taking its own nose-dive off the quayside. The Machines de Nantes’ latest creation is taking shape in a former quarry that has been transformed into the Extraordinary Garden with waterfalls, lakes and exotic plants.
The city has a huge variety of restaurants with cuisines from all over the world. The Rue Nantaise is a hub of great places to eat and has embraced the ‘bistronomy’ scene, which means top class gastronomy in a more casual bistro setting. At the restaurant Coquille, chef Arnaud Guilloux uses local produce for his seasonal dishes, which incorporate global influences thanks to his years working around the world. Don’t miss the Saturday market in Place des Lices, it’s one of the best in France.
From the art nouveau brasserie La Cigale, with its exotic frescoes and tiles, to the summertime La Cantine on the Ile de Nantes, which creates a daily dish with ingredients from its own garden, Nantes has something for everyone. Having a Breton heart, Nantes does galettes very well, so try a light lunch at Crêperie L’Optimiste. For somewhere more sophisticated, head a little way from the centre to Ici, a chic bistro led by chef Xavier Rambaud, who settled in Nantes after much globe-trotting.
The four-star Le Coq-Gadby is a ten-minute walk from the centre and adopted eco-friendly operations in 2008, including solar panels, rainwater harvesting and efficient waste management. Rooms are individually designed with striking feature wallpaper, and there’s a small spa, too. Room-only doubles from €119.
The four-star Hotel Sozo is set in a converted chapel near the Jardin des Plantes. It blends ancient and modern well, with fresh white decor set off with pops of colour and the original features of the chapel, such as stone arches and stained-glass windows. Room-only doubles from €250.
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