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.
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.
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|
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.