As Nov. 1 is a national holiday in France, and schools as well as many businesses are closed for two weeks, and everyone is 'en vacances', it seemed like a good time for us to take a holiday too.
We looked at train schedules and decided to visit Nantes, the sixth largest city in France. Only two hours away on the TGV, it is close to the Atlantic coast, situated on three rivers, the most important being the Loire.
France considers Nantes to be part of the Department of the Loire, and it is advertised to tourists as part of the Loire-Atlantic region (as opposed to the Chateaux of the Loire), although the people, food, customs, and architecture are more tied to Nante's long-standing history (up until Napoleon III) as part of Brittany.
Our hotel (supposedly one of the best in town, but with the smallest room we've ever stayed in)--note, I'm NOT complaining, just explaining--was located across from a beautiful 19th century three-storied shopping arcade known as Le Passage Pommeraye. We were at the top of a hill with narrow 19th century streets winding down towards the river, mostly housing top of the line shops and wonderful restaurants. However, we were also within walking distance of each layer of the city--medieval, Renaissance, 18th, 19, 20th and 21st century. The medieval city starts at the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany (Chateau des ducs de Bretagne)
, and the Gothic cathedral
next door, with its nearby charming narrow and winding streets like the Rue de la Juiverie (medieval street of the Jews)
. The streets are pedestrian-only and brimming now with restaurants, cafes, creperies and shops. Near the gothic structures are the ornate 18th c. neighborhoods built during a great amassing of wealth during the period Nantes served as a major port for the slave trade (a history the city has taken pains to acknowledge and use as a teaching tool in its historical museum). The streets in the old city continue reflecting other eras, 18th and 19th century town squares, buffeted by occasional 20th c. architecture, always close to 21st century trams, and at river's edge, the working docks on the Loire River.
The castle, which originally was surrounded by the Loire, has been in use for five or six centuries. It originally was home to Anne of Bretagne, Queen of France from 1491 to 1513. Louis XIV had part of the palace rebuilt after a fire, and the Governor of Brittany lived in the castle starting in the 17th century. Another part of the castle was constructed in the 18th century, a period during which the river moat was filled in as the city continued to prosper and land became valuable. Part of the castle was requisitioned by the Germans during the four-year period that the city was held by the Germans in WWII. The city was home to a large resistance movement during the war, and many quarters of the city were destroyed. The 'street of 50 hostages' honors the memory of some of the resistance fighters. Following years of deterioration and more destruction during WWII, the castle has recently been fully restored.
Although the city has an admirable and easy-to use tram system, it really is a walking city (it's also very handicapped-accessible), and mid-afternoon the streets become thronged with thousands of people of all ages, out shopping and taking their afternoon stroll. Everyone seemed to be carrying shopping bags, certainly indicating a vibrant retail environment. There are hundreds of restaurants and cafes, and many seemed full at all times of the day, but for the creperies (a Breton specialty)--which unfortunately were closing at 5pm-just when we thought it might be nice to stop for a snack along with a cup of coffee.
We ate dinner at La Cigale, an Art Nouveau masterpiece, saved from the wrecking ball by Beaux Arts students. It has to be one most extraordinarily beautiful Art Nouveau restaurants in France-as noted by its historic designations. I loved that the restaurant wrote an apologia to its clients explaining the necessity of modernizing the chairs and some of the fabrics in the restaurant, and how they had tried to stay true to original color schemes as well as the architectural merit of the furniture by hiring a Nantais architect to design a metal chair that would fit the surroundings but be more in keeping with 21st century needs. We were lucky to snag a 9:30 dinner reservation. The place was packed most of the evening, although diners who came in after 11p.m. did not have appear to have reservations. (The Opera house is across the street, so it probably has a large after-theater crowd.) The restaurant serves until midnight-and the wait staff, who worked incredibly hard, could not have been more professional or more likable. The food was superb, and Rob was in heaven as it had the largest (three pages) dessert menu he'd ever seen in France.
In the morning, we wandered down the hill to the weekend market, meandering amongst aisles of fresh fish and seafood-much of it still alive and squirming. We caught a tram at the market to the Navibus for a ten minute crossing to Trentemoult, a small village on the south side of the Loire.
There, we wandered through the town's charming narrow streets and painted houses, admiring the picturesque and quaint little fishing village. Artists seem to have taken over many of the houses, and if there are still fishermen living there, they were all out to sea while we visited..only one of two fishing boats were in sight. It seemed like we'd stepped back in time, and with cars unable to pass through most of the town's narrow streets, eerily quiet. We ended our trip with lunch facing the river, with one of the best meals I've had in France, a lieu noire (Pollack) with a risotto flavored with tamarind, washed down with a local Breton cidre brut (hard cider).
We returned to Paris a few hours early-we'd seen, tasted and enjoyed much of what Nantes had to offer, and were back 'home' by five p.m. on Saturday. We'd had a short, sweet trip to another world, with some of the friendliest people we'd met in France, and having enjoyed some of our best meals. We passed on visiting several museums (of note, Jules Verne was born in Nantes) and several gardens in town for some other day. Had we stayed longer, we'd have rented a car to travel the Atlantic coast to visit the salt marshes and famous beaches--an area which we will now have to explore on another weekend. One can also rent a canal boat and travel from Nantes north up to Brest.
Note that this blog site recently changed the way it handles photos, so be sure to run the slide show to see pictures of the houses at Trentemoult-- not only were they charming, but they eschewed a pure sense of 'shabby chic', achieved only through centuries of paint and weathering.