I am what’s known as a “seasoned traveller”. This means that I pack light, sleep upright and can mime meaningful conversations in any language. It also means that I do the absolute minimum of research when I go to new places; it keeps my schedule (and my mind) open wide enough for adventures to fall right in.
This is why, arriving in Nantes, I had no idea that I was walking into what Time magazine declared “the most liveable city in Europe” of 20014. Less than a decade later, in 2013, it also won the title of “European Green Capital”. It was the first French city to successfully reintroduce electric tramways. Pair this with reduced vehicle traffic in the city centre and a great public bike-sharing system and it starts to look like what I imagine Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson might have pinned to the top of the vision board in his home office.
I loved it immediately, and here are five reasons why:
Built alongside the Loire estuary, beneath the sidewalks, a series of angled glass plates bear quotes about human rights by poets, philosophers, politicians and former slaves. The only sound comes from the quiet river behind us. The memory of the terrible history that initially brought this city its wealth is respected on all levels; in a city overrun with graffiti, this space has remained pristine since its opening day three years ago.
It’s an all-ages steampunk paradise. Massive mechanical creatures built by professional machinists wander the area, posing for photographs and being ridden by ticketholders. They’ve had a fire-breathing dragon (shipped off as a gift to China), a giant (whose daily waking and sleeping schedule took over the locals’ lives) and an elephant (12 m high and sprays water from its trunk). There’s also a two-storey carousel featuring fantasy creatures from Nantes’ very own Jules Verne.
Originally conceived as a temporary addition to the 2012 Journey to Nantes, the 32nd floor bird-themed pub at the top of Nantes’ tallest tower proved too popular to get rid of. The 360-degree view of the city from the wraparound patio was impressive, as were the broken-egg-shaped chairs and the larger-than-life half-stork-half-heron draped across the floor. It’s a great stop if you want to make a passive-aggressive point to your kids about the importance of growing up; the walls make the view inaccessible to anyone under four feet tall.
This incredible Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral checked off every box on the “beautiful cathedrals” list: vaulted ceilings, white marble statues of dukes, saints, soldiers, virgins and stained glass windows. These last were particularly memorable because many of them were more like modern art than the classic Biblical scenes I’d expected. As if that wasn’t cool enough, I was just about to photograph the organ player when a choir of elementary school kids poured onto the stage next to him and filled the air with their young voices.
Anyone trying to rationalize their shopping habits as historically significant needs to check this out! This is where the French learned to window-shop. Not kidding: locals claim that the covered passage of luxurious shops was the first to feature attractive window dressings. By some miracle (almost certainly the work of a protective consumerist deity), the passage escaped the heavy bombings of WWII; the cherubs, torches and wrought iron details that make it such a beautiful walk are still intact.
It was hard to leave Nantes, but I let myself be consoled by the fact that I was traveling onward to Madrid by way of Paris. Beauty and adventure await!