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.