Over the last decade, the rejuvenated, go-ahead city of Nantes has transformed itself into a likeable metropolis that deserves to figure on any tourist itinerary. At the heart of this ambitious regeneration project stands a must-see attraction, the Machines de l’Île – home of the Grand Éléphant – but the city as a whole is also scrubbed, gleaming, and suffused with a remarkable energy.
As the capital of an independent Brittany, Nantes was a considerable medieval centre. Great wealth came later, however, with the growth of Atlantic trade; by the end of the eighteenth century, it was the principal port of France. An estimated 500,000 Africans were carried into slavery in the Americas in vessels based here, and even after abolition in 1817 the trade continued illegally. Subsequently the port declined, and heavy industry and wine production became more important. For fifty years now, since it was transferred to the Pays de la Loire in 1962, Nantes has no longer even been in Brittany.
Recent redevelopment schemes have shifted the focus of the city back towards the Loire itself. For visitors, nonetheless, once you’ve seen the machines, the main areas you’re likely to spend time in are the older medieval city, concentrated around the cathedral, with the Château des Ducs prominent in its southeast corner, and the elegant nineteenth-century town to the west.Read More
Château des Ducs
Château des DucsThough no longer on the waterfront, the Château des Ducs still preserves the form in which it was built by two of the last rulers of independent Brittany, François II, and his daughter Duchess Anne, born here in 1477. The list of famous people who have been guests or prisoners, defenders or belligerents, of the castle includes Gilles de Rais (Bluebeard), publicly executed in 1440; Machiavelli, in 1498; John Knox as a galley-slave in 1547–49; and Bonnie Prince Charlie preparing for Culloden in 1745. In addition, the Edict of Nantes was signed here in 1598 by Henri IV, ending the Wars of Religion by granting a degree of toleration to the Protestants. It had far more crucial consequences when it was revoked, by Louis XIV, in 1685.
The stout ramparts of the château remain pretty much intact, and most of the encircling moat is filled with water, surrounded by well-tended lawns that make a popular spot for lunchtime picnics. Visitors can pass through the walls, and also stroll atop them for fine views over the city, for no charge.
The incongruous potpourri of buildings that encircle the courtyard within includes a major exhibition space used for year-long displays on differing subjects; the pleasant Oubliettes café/restaurant; and the high-tech Musée d’Histoire de Nantes. The latter covers local history in exhaustive detail. Highlights include a fascinating scale model of the city in the thirteenth century, and a determined attempt to come to terms with Nantes’ slave-trading past, displaying pitiful trinkets used to buy slaves in Africa.
Les Machines de l’Île
Les Machines de l’Île
Inaugurated in 2007, and initially centring on the fabulous Grand Éléphant, the Machines de l’Île is a truly world-class attraction, which is continuing to develop and expand year after year. Part hommage to the sci-fi creations of Jules Verne and the blueprints of Leonardo da Vinci, part street-theatre extravaganza, this is the lynchpin of Nantes’ urban regeneration. The “machines” in question are the astonishing contraptions created by designer/engineer François Delarozière and artist Pierre Orefice; the “island” is the Île de Nantes, a 3km-long, whale-shaped island in the Loire, ten minutes’ walk southwest of the tourist office, that was once the centre of the city’s shipbuilding industry.
Twelve metres high and eight metres wide, the Grand Éléphant is phenomenally realistic, down to the articulation of its joints as it “walks”, and its trunk as it flexes and sprays water. Visitors can see it for free when it emerges for regular walks along the huge esplanade outside. Paying for a ride (see Machines de l’Île times and tickets) enables you to wander through its hollow belly and climb the spiral stairs within to reach the balconies and vantage points around its canopied howdah.
The latest addition to the machines, the Marine Worlds Carousel, is a vast merry-go-round on the banks of the Loire. Unveiled in 2012, it consists of three separate tiers of oddball subaquatic devices. As well as exploring the different levels, riders can climb aboard such components as the Giant Crab, the Bus of the Abyss, and the Reverse-Propelling Squid, each of which is individually manoeuvrable.
As well as riding the carousel or elephant, visitors can pay to enter the vast hangars where the machines are kept and constructed. Within the main hangar, the Workshop can be viewed from an overhead walkway, while the Gallery displays a changing assortment of completed machines.