A few noteworthy incidents happened in Nantes that endeared the city to me.
At the Abolition of Slavery Memorial, a stranger from Ghent and I cried hugging each other as her husband looked on uncomfortably. I blame my tears on not haven’t slept properly for three days.
Also at the memorial, I learned a new word in my native Akan language, Ahofadi – freedom. All my life (up to that point), I essentially mistook the words for peace and well being for freedom. How could I not have known the word for freedom in my own language and why did I discover it in Nantes of all places?
Nantes was a delight to explore, from its fairy-tale botanical garden and whimsical public spaces, the splendid Jules Verne-inspired Les Machines de l’ile to the charming yet helpful green line trail for discovering the city’s major sites and attractions. It’s quickly climbed to the top of the list of my favourite European cities.
A two-hour train ride from Paris Montparnasse, Nantes is a port city on the Loire River in Upper Brittany (Western France), and the sixth largest city in France. Now, everything I’ve read says Nantes is part of Brittany region, but the guy at the Breton crepe place in Paris (who gives me free salted butter caramels!) says Nantes is technically no longer part of Brittany.
I went to Nantes without any expectations; I knew it was the birthplace of Jules Verne and home of the original LU biscuit factory. I didn’t know about Nantes’ colourful history, that it was once the biggest hub for human trafficking in France; over half a million slaves were traded across the world from the port of Nantes between the 17th & 19th century. The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery is one of the largest slave trade memorials in the world, it’s a moving, informative and thoughtfully designed tribute to the victims of the Atlantic slave trade and a courageous act of commemoration acknowledging the city’s dark past.
Nantes today is picturesque pedestrian-friendly, artsy city filled with parks, green spaces, quirky art installations and historical sites. With a drive towards culture, arts and environmental sustainability, it was named the European Green Capital in 2013. The cityscape is of historic French architecture with hidden squares and alleyways, and dramatic modernist architecture, set against the backdrop of the Loire River.
There are over a hundred public parks and gardens in the city, but the one that stands out the most is the city’s first botanical garden, the Jardin des plantes de Nantes. It’s tranquil well-maintained unique park, and easily one of my favourite places in the world.
A day isn’t enough to explore all of Nantes’ fascinating nooks and crannies. I hope to go back soon and visit the sites I couldn’t get to, rediscover the places I fell in love with and explore the food scene some more. In our rush to take everything in, we forgot about food; crêpes, galettes and other local cuisine, Muscadet wine, salted butter caramels and LU biscuits… and many more.
I have a few recommendations for things to do in Nantes below (after the photos); a list I hope will grow as I discover more.
Things to do in Nantes:
A small shopping mall from the 1800s, beautiful, photogenic and historic monument
Les Machines de l’île
The Machines of the Isle is inspired by the industrial history of Nantes, as well as from the creations and worlds of Jules Verne and Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s must if when you’re in Nantes!
Jardin des plantes de Nantes
Peaceful beauty of nature, fantastic design with a variety of plants, ponds and water features, animals and unique works of art
Chateau de ducs de Bretagne
The city’s most important historic building, it’s now Nantes History Museum, used to be the residence of the Dukes of Brittany.
Mémorial de l’Abolition de l’Esclavage
Memorial to the abolition of slavery
La Tour Lu
An iconic Nantes Landmark, converted LU biscuit factory now hosts Le Lieu unique, a cultural centre with bars and restaurants
Dine at La Cigale
This restaurant dates back to 1895 with an out of this world interior décor that can only be described as “ornamental exuberance”