Becoming Nantes: When an Art Trail Births New Purpose
From an open-air work of art that pops into view to a remarkable exhibition in a unique space — not to mention the steampunk elephant lurking on an island — Le Voyage à Nantes invites you to meander at leisure across a town full of wit and whimsy.
Often touted as one of the best places to live in France, Nantes has long made for an ideal city break. The incremental editions of Voyage à Nantes, however, and the consequent enrichment of the city’s cultural capital, means that this gateway to Brittany is now graduating into a full holiday destination in its own right.
Once a busy ship-building hub, Nantes was faced with the daunting task of finding a new purpose once the industry fell into decline. Enter Jean Blaise, a cultural entrepreneur of vision and mettle, who applied the soft power of art as the philosopher’s stone to the city’s transformation.
Following the success of a first test-run eleven years ago, the two-month summer festival Le Voyage à Nantes became a beloved fixture, investing public spaces with artworks, installations, and exhibitions, some of which stayed in place forever. A trail, fashioned as a green line drawn on the ground, now connects more than 100 works of art with places of interest, and an efficient public transport system of train, trams, and boats make the urban trek more enjoyable.
I am featuring here a handful of works that stood out on a recent trip. But my best recommendation is to just stroll along at your own pace, using the green line as your ‘yellow brick road’ to discover the art, the little squares, boutiques, restaurants and cafés. Look up as you go, as some of the shop signs are actually artworks playing with the name or the trade of the shops themselves.
Walking across a bridge to the Île de Nantes, discarded husks of naval workshops have given way to an architecture school, an art school, residential and office buildings plus the new Magmaa foodcourt, a friendly refuge with multiple street-food inspired choices. Venturing just a little farther, you transition into the mad-scientist world of Les Machines de l’Île where Nantes native Jules Verne himself would feel at home among the fantastical puppetry and imaginative gathering spaces.
Nantes has rekindled its relationship with the waterfront, and one excellent way to extend your stay is to experience Estuaire Nantes- Saint-Nazaire, a 60km riverside trail along the tidal mouth of the Loire river with 33 artworks to discover on foot, by bike, car, or boat.
You’ll need to set aside time to visit the renovated Château des Ducs de Bretagne that is now home to the museum of the history of Nantes, with its newly enriched collections casting an unflinching look back at the slave trade and the two World Wars, with a new extension showcasing the period from 1945 to the present day. And you don’t want to miss the memorial of the abolition of slavery. Nantes was once the biggest slave-trading port in France and 2,000 commemorative plaques recall the slave ships that departed from Nantes as well as the major trading ports in Africa and America, in dialogue with famous quotes and historical facts. A sobering promenade alongside the Quai de Loire.
See what I mean when I say that Nantes has grown into a full destination? You’ll need another extra day just to visit charming Clisson, in the heart of Nantes’ vineyards, with its stunning castle, 14th-century covered market and more Voyage à Nantes artworks. There’s too much to cover in just a couple of days, and with each passing year Nantes just keeps offering more and more.
GOOD TO KNOW:
- Only two hours away from Paris by TGV high-speed train.
- The ‘Pass Nantes’ gets you 1/2/3 or 7 days of free access to museums, free transportation, and discounts to dining and entertainment.
- Comfortable shoes. Comfortable shoes. Comfortable shoes.
- Try Muscadet, the local light-bodied white dry wine.
- Remember you’re never far from the sea; beaches await within just 45 minutes.
- Nantes airport has frequent flights to the UK served by mainline and low-cost carriers.
- Oceania Hôtel de France is smack in the pedestrian historical area.
For more information and a full programme of events visit www.levoyageanantes.fr
Lead photo credit : Héléne Delprat, Le Théâtre des Opérations - temporary installation - Le Voyage à Nantes 2022 © Photo Sylvia Edwards Davis
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