Imagine a city full of spectacular artwork where, in the course of a few hours, you can explore a reinvented shipyard from the back of a 40-foot-high animatronic elephant, whirl past weird and wonderful sea creatures on a surreal carousel, explore the dark story of 19th-century slavery inside one of the Loire's most spectacular castles, wander the narrow streets of a medieval old town and take in the stunning 18th-century architecture of an elegant neoclassic district.
Welcome to Nantes, birthplace of writer Jules Verne and, arguably, the most unusual and fun city in France. Plunged into depression when its long-established shipbuilding industry relocated to Saint-Nazaire in 1987, the city gave itself a shake, refused to bow to a gloomy fate and reinvented itself as a haven for artists and architects and a melting pot of new ideas. As a result, Nantes has been transformed into one of the most creative, innovative and vibrant cities in France (and, indeed, Europe).
Now a gateway for cruises along the Loire River, this delightfully offbeat city certainly justifies a pre- or post-cruise stay, to allow time to discover treasures like the artists' quarter on the quirky island of Trentemoult, the funky restaurants and galleries of Ile de Nantes, and the elegant 19th-century Passage Pommeraye shopping arcade.
CroisiEurope's paddle-driven riverboat Loire Princess -- which was specifically designed to navigate the shallow waters of the Loire and is the only riverboat regularly operating cruises along it -- docks at Ponton Belem on Quai de la Fosse, which lies opposite the Chantier Navals tram stop. This is an ideal spot from which to explore Nantes, as the 18th-century center is only a five-minute tram ride (or about a 20-minute walk) away to the right, while the railway station and the city's lovely botanical gardens are a further five minutes down the tramline.
Ponton Belem lies right next to the Anne de Bretagne Bridge, which takes you straight across the river to Ile de Nantes, home to the spectacular new law courts, the revived dockyard areas and the fascinating Les Machines de l'Ile (see Don't Miss). It's also within very easy walking distance of the Abolition of Slavery memorial (also to the right, when you stand with the boat behind you). If you head in the opposite direction, a five-minute walk takes you to the ferries that cross the river to charming Trentemoult island.
Traffic! As well as trams, cars, taxis and buses, Nantes is home to legions of cyclists, so -- as in Amsterdam -- you need to keep your wits about you and look out for zooming cyclists. Also look for art installations; follow the green line on the pavement and it will guide you round the Ile de Nantes and the city's main artworks. Museums and attractions are closed on Mondays -- the departure day for river cruises. But if you have a late-ish flight after disembarking on Friday, you'll have time to see the nearby Machines d l'Ile in the morning. Also bear mind the variable weather and cobbled streets -- wear sensible shoes and carry an umbrella.
On Foot: You'll find Ile de Nantes and Les Machines d l'Ile an easy 10-minute walk from where the boat is moored, while the Place Graslin at the heart of the 18th-century city center is about a 20-minute walk (turn right outside the boat dock and keep going, then head inland at Allee de la Bourse (home of the old Stock Exchange).
Invest in a Pass Nantes if you want to go sightseeing, as this not only offers unlimited access to the city's trams and buses, but also free admission to museums, monuments and the TAN public transport network (excluding the airport shuttle). You also get discounts at some shops.
By Tram: Line 1 trams run to the right from Chantier Navals to the city center and beyond that, to the Botanical Gardens (which are just opposite the main railway station). Trains run regularly from the airport to the main station. From the station, catch a tram headed left and disembark at Chantiers Navals, where your boat is moored.
By Taxi: Taxis are freely available around Nantes. A taxi from the airport to Quai de la Fosse costs upward of €30, depending on when you travel (prices are higher on weekends and other off hours, so check the fare before you get in).
The official currency is the euro (for the latest exchange rate, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com). There are no ATMs near where the boat docks but you will find plenty in town, around the main Rue de Strasbourg (near the Natural History Museum) and there's also an ATM at Nantes Atlantique Airport.
English is widely spoken and understood in Nantes, particularly at attractions and in restaurants. But don't assume everyone speaks it, as the French can take offense at people treating English as the universal language. Keep the locals happy with a few basic phrases, like...
|Good morning / evening ||Bonjour / Bonsoir
|My name is... ||Je m'appelle...
|How much is this? ||Combien est-ce?
|Do you speak English? ||Parlez vous Anglais?
|How can I get to...? ||Comment puis-je obtenir de...?
|Where is...? ||Ou est ...?
|Can I have the bill, please? ||L'addition, s'il vous plait?
|Thanks (very much) ||Merci (beaucoup)
|Goodbye / See you later ||Au revoir
|Pleased to meet you ||Ravi de vous rencontrer / Enchante
|Pier ||Le port
|Ship ||Bateau de croisiere
Deliciously creamy Normandy butter, traditional Breton crepes and a vast panoply of foodie goodies from both land and sea, washed down with lashings of crisp Muscadet -- the cuisine in Nantes really is something to write home about.
To eat like the locals, tuck into fresh-caught monkfish, pan-fried and smothered in sauce Nantais -- a hyper-local version of beurre blanc made with butter, white wine and herbs. For a light snack, try prefou -- cheese-stuffed garlic bread -- with an aperitif. Or, if you're a real wine lover, try Muscadet-flavored sausages. To finish, a slice of Gateau Nantais, a rich almond and rum cake, should hit the spot. And don't forget to sample one of those marvelous sweet or savory crepes.
Creperie Heb-Ken: An award-winning family-run business near the Passage Pommeraye is one of Nantes' top spots for pancake lovers, and you'll be astounded by how much fresh local produce they can pile into one crepe. Better believe your eyes, though; Heb-ken is, apparently, a local saying, which roughly translates as "what you see is what you get." (5 Rue de Guerande; +33-2-4048-7903; open Monday through Saturday, 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6:45 to 10:30 p.m.)
La Civelle: A funky indoor/outdoor restaurant on the banks of the Loire at Trentemoult, La Civelle serves spectacular seafood, including tasty monkfish and gigantic platters of shellfish. It also offers good steak frites and poultry dishes, and serves wonderful pudding, including a chocolate and salted caramel confection that has to be tasted to be believed. (21 Quai Marcel Boissard; 33-2-4075-4660; open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.)
Restaurant Le Nouveau Monde, which lies in the building where Nantes' most famous son, sci-fi writer Jules Verne, was born in 1828, serves classic French cuisine in an historical setting. (4 Cours Olivier de Clisson; 33-2-4048 -0304; open Tuesday to Saturday, 12 to 1:30 p.m. and 7 to 10:30 p.m.)
La Cigale Brasserie: This utterly gorgeous eatery is located on Place Graslin at the heart of Nantes' neoclassic quarter, right opposite the imposing 18th-century Theatre Graslin. Opened in 1895, it features five high-ceilinged dining rooms, each elaborately decorated with mosaics, tiles and vast, shimmering mirrors. A longtime haunt of politicians, film stars and other glitterati, it serves good local seafood and classic French dishes. It also opens early and is open all day, so is a popular venue for a stylish breakfast or a delightful afternoon tea. (4 Place Graslin; 33-2-51-84-9494; open daily, 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.)
A bottle or two of the local vino -- Muscadet -- should go down well with the folks back home. Or raid the offbeat shops in the beautiful Passage Pommeraye for unusual gifts, from Hermes silk scarves to handmade jewelry, artisan chocolates and arty teapots.