Life

Nantes, France: Expect the unexpected

Robin Robinson.

By Robin Robinson, Toronto Sun

Part of a project called Les Machines de Ile, this giant mechanical elephant takes visitors for a slow spin around a former industrial island in Nantes. ROBIN ROBINSON/TORONTO SUN

Part of a project called Les Machines de Ile, this giant mechanical elephant takes visitors for a slow spin around a former industrial island in Nantes. ROBIN ROBINSON/TORONTO SUN

NANTES, France -- A giant, lumbering mechanical elephant that carries people on its broad back and sprays water from its metal trunk. A larger than life yellow measuring tape that sprawls over a building and across a courtyard. A three-storey merry-go-round populated by strange sea creatures. A steel climbing tree topped by herons and hanging gardens. An office building that looks as if it's right out of the film Ice Age.

Such fantastical creations seem more likely to have been plucked from the pages of a Jules Verne novel than found adorning the streets of France's sixth-largest city.

These unexpected discoveries, plus many more, are part of A Journey To Nantes, an 8.5-km discovery trail -- literally a green line painted on the sidewalk -- that guides visitors to city sites, from the avant- garde to the historical.

Earlier this spring, I arrived in Nantes for a river cruise aboard CroisiEurope's new Loire Princesse, the first ship to offer overnight cruises on the wide but shallow Loire River.

The hi-tech paddlewheeler was docked at Ile de Nantes, a former industrial island that is being redeveloped into a new eco-friendly creative quarter where some 20,000 people will eventually live, work and play. Many of Nantes' arty and edgy new attractions are found there.

But many other discoveries await those who follow the Green Line across the river and into the heart of town. Some are temporary, such as art installations or seasonal events, while others are permanent. These include:

-- The magnificent castle of the Dukes of Brittany, a fortress with buildings dating back to the 15th century, complete with moat, curtain walls, seven towers and a sentry walk. A one-time capital of Brittany, Nantes is now the capital of the Pays de la Loire region.

-- The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery. During the 1700s, some 45% of French slave ships sailed to Africa from Nantes. This dark chapter in the city's history is remembered through plaques set along a quayside promenade. Some 1,791 glass plaques detail the slave ships and dates they sailed from Nantes, while another 290 name the slave-trading ports, stopover ports and sale ports reached by the ships.

-- Beautiful squares, the elegant homes of shipbuilders and captains, ornate fountains, impressive churches and narrow medieval streets.

-- The Passage Pommeraye, an elegant newly renovated 19th-century shopping arcade with an ornate main stairway decorated with sculptures and three storeys of boutiques.

-- Le Lieu Unique, a former cookie factory that has been transformed into the National Center for Contemporary Arts, a venue for exhibitions, concerts, special events, etc.

TRAVEL TIDBIT

Nantes is the home town of Jules Verne, author of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in Eighty Days. Verne is sometimes called the "father of science fiction."

MORE INFORMATION

-- For information on Nantes, see en.nantes-tourisme.com, levoyageanantes.fr and ca.rendezvousenfrance.com.

-- For details on cruises with CroisiEurope, contact croisieuroperivercruises.com or 1-800-768-7232.


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