“It isn’t what it used to be,” my professor told me upon learning I’d be visiting Nantes for the first time. To be fair, he had just been reminiscing about his own experience as a young history student thumbing through manuscripts in the city’s archives in the 1990s.
His comment made me acknowledge that I knew little about Nantes, to say nothing about how it used to be. In fact, before my wife proposed that we visit Nantes, the only other time I heard the word “Nantes” was in history class a decade earlier and in the context of the Edict of Nantes. And apart from these two declarations, my understanding of the city’s past and present was nil.
One of France’s largest and most vibrant cities, Nantes is nearly 30 miles off the Atlantic coast and along the economically important and navigable Loire River in northwest France. It has long been an important industrial and port city, a fact the Nazis understood well when they took the city in 1940. Though it fared better than nearby Saint-Nazaire, which the allied air raids of World War II completely destroyed, the bombs fell on the city’s industrial and shipping centers, killing and injuring thousands and displacing even more.
Mechanical Animals, the Heron Tree, and the Extraordinary Garden
Some of the industrial and shipping targets were on L’Île de Nantes, the Island of Nantes. Just as the Seine does in Paris, the Loire snakes through this city and flows around a central island. Unlike Paris, however, there is no medieval church on the Île de Nantes. The main attraction here is a post-modern, cyberpunk menagerie known as the Galerie of the Machines de l’Île built on the ruins of old shipyards. Its relics include giant mechanical animals, like the aptly-named Grand Elephant, that come alive to roam the Island of Nantes carrying happy children on their backs.
In part inspired by the city’s most beloved son Jules Verne and his novels of fabulous adventures—Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousands Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in Eighty Days—the machines evoke the same sense of futurist wonder that Verne did some one hundred and fifty years ago.
The Galerie of the Machines de l’Île, which you can visit for less than €10, is also a living atelier. In the gallery, visitors can interact with the machines and see workers developing new projects like the Arbre aux Hérons (Heron Tree).
The Heron Tree, envisioned to be a massive steel tree upon which thrill-seekers ride on the backs of mechanical herons that soar above and around the tree at nearly 150 feet in the air, is scheduled to open across the river and in an old granite quarry in 2022. “It will be the Eiffel Tower of Western France,” declared an associate of the project on a promotional video.
Next to the future home of the Heron Tree is the newly-opened, but not quite finished, Jardin Extraordinaire (Extraordinary Garden). The public gardens, when completely finished in 2022, will feature over 25,000 plants, footpaths, and an 80-foot waterfall that you can admire from a heron’s-eye-view. Entrance to the gardens is free.
Nantes also has an artsy vibe in the city itself, especially on the Voyage a Nantes—a self-guided itinerary through the city – just follow the green line – that leads to about 100 contemporary art installations throughout the city
Now I know what my professor meant when he said that Nantes “isn’t what it used to be.” Nantes is more than a city trying to hold onto its past. The city is looking towards the future, redefining itself as a vibrant and creative city of tomorrow.
Rennes, the Youthful City of Arts
About an hour and a half west of Paris by train and in the historic region of Brittany, Rennes is one of the “Top French Cities” to explore. Long considered the cultural capital of Brittany, Rennes evokes a bygone era with its high concentration of timber-framed houses with exposed beams that were built during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Don’t let the old-school aesthetics fool you into believing this town is stuck in the past, however. Quite the opposite. Rennes has a booming university population, estimated at around 60,000 students, and is home to a contemporary arts scene driven by the pocketbooks of French philanthropists and the passions of the city’s youthful population.
French billionaire and contemporary art collector François Pinault, native of Brittany, last displayed a portion of his art collection in Rennes in 2018. The exposition, called “Debout!” was staged in the 43,000 square-foot Couvent des Jacobins. More than 100,000 visitors came to see it.
Now, energized by his $170 million investment into a new contemporary art museum that is set to open in 2020 in Paris, and of course by the success of “Debout!”, Pinault it is bringing his collection back to the Couvent des Jacobins in Rennes in the summer of 2020.
But Rennes doesn’t solely rely on the affluent to satisfy its fix of contemporary art. It has its own permanent contemporary art museums, the Frac Bretagne and the Criée centre d’art contemporain, to say nothing about the major contemporary music festival it hosts each year known as Les Trans.
Chief among the contemporary arts institutions in Rennes, however, is the National Theatre of Brittany, a performing arts center whose program isn’t limited by plays written by the old masters of French theater like Moliere, Racine, and Corneille. The TNB, as it is called by the Rennais, stages Europe’s most provocative performances and offers a variety of entertainment like independent films, contemporary dance, and concerts. With 26 being the average age of the TNB’s audience, this isn’t your mother’s Shakespeare theater.
And Rennes has a young population eager to enjoy the arts, that is when they’re not partying on the Rue de la Soif (literally, the Street of Thirst). To be sure, Rennes’s young demographic helps sharpen the city’s contemporary edge—nearly 50% of the city’s 210,000-plus residents are under 30, and over 25% are students.
Rennes has as much tradition as it does contemporary edge, making it an ideal city to visit for those looking to explore France beyond Paris.
This French cities article is from Jeremy Bassetti, a writer, educator, and podcaster based in Orlando, Florida. He received his PhD in 2014 and teaches at a small college. Jeremy is the host of ALL OVER THE PLACE Podcast. In the podcast, he interviews writers on travel and place, and on the business and craft of travel writing. All photos by Bassetti except where indicated.
This post was made possible with sponsorship from France Tourism. As always, all opinions are our own.