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Nantes inventing itself anew

Nantes inventing itself anew

Georges Rouzeau - 2009-12-14

Nantes, no doubt the French city that has most changed in the past century, is in the spotlight now.  Its chateau has just opened again and next summer you will discover 'machines on the island' and also 'Estuaire 2007', an artistic  enhancement of the Loire estuary imagined by Jean Blaise, director of the Lieu Unique.

The two most symbolic monuments of Nantes face one another in the town centre, a stone's throw from the station. The former LU biscuit factory, now dubbed Lieu Unique by Jean Blaise (creator of the Nuit blanche), has undeniably been one of the most active artistic centres in France since its opening in 2001. On the other side of the railway line, the Château des ducs de Bretagne, with its powerful ramparts and crenelated towers befitting a real fortress, has opened again at last to the public after several years' closure for restoration.
Rebirth of a chateau
Today, the former residence of Anne de Bretagne houses a magnificent museum of the city's history. Designed as a society project aimed at placing history and an historic awareness at the heart of the city, this museum also acts as a link between the cities of Nantes and Saint-Nazaire, which together form an agglomeration of more than one million inhabitants.
Visitors can follow a chronological and thematic route in seven sequences from the 13th century to the contemporary period. For the first time, the covered way, offering fine views over the city, is now open to the public. The architecture is often highlighted in the first rooms. You'll see large areas of the chateau that had remained closed for decades on end, for want of floorboards for example. 
The full history of the city of Nantes, between the Loire and Ocean, is told using carefully chosen items and multimedia tools. Among the finest items, mention is of course to be made of the golden reliquary enclosing Anne de Bretagne's heart or the tapestry of the States of Brittany. No chapter of the tumultuous history of this great port has been missed. The slave trade was the source of the city's prosperity in the 18th century and still remains a highly topical subject today, on account of the remembrance process. A blind room, entirely lined with wooden shingles, recalls the stifling hold where the slaves were chained.
Fortunately, more pleasant aspects of navigation are shown, such as magnificent figureheads or the Loire captured in a Turner watercolour. For our great pleasure Jules Verne is also presented in various rooms. Open to the sea and distant countries, subject to reverie induced by the deep blue, Nantes has always had a fertile imagination.
Machines on the island
The new project of François Delarozière and Pierre Oréfice,  the brains behind the company Royal de Luxe, fits into this background. The author of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea would feel at home here. From June 2007, the 'machines on the island' are going to make Nantes one of the world's most unusual amusement parks. What exactly is it? First, you'll find a hydraulically propelled elephant, 12 m high and 40 tons in weight! Made of steel and lined with Virginia tulip, it's a superb creature which we saw in early construction in a workshop of twenty decor creators, from carpenter to welder. From June next year, this imaginary proboscidian will embark in its belly 35 people for a one and a half hour trip around the Ile de Nantes.
At the same time, the 'machines gallery' will open as a living workshop and 'museum': the public will see decorators working directly on François Delarozière and Pierre Oréfice's future projects while waiting to embark in the elephant. Other projects, planned till 2011, will comprise a kiosk inhabited by submarine creatures, dubbed Mondes marins (2009), and a giant tree, a veritable steel cathedral weighing some 800 tons, the Arbre aux oiseaux. This latter machine will carry two giant herons, each perched on an artculated branch: after an acrobatic and secure trail through the greenery of the tree, travellers will climb onto the herons for a few rides in the air.
The Ile de Nantes, a new territory in the heart of the city
Opposite the historic centre, surrounded by two arms of the Loire, the Ile de Nantes has a surface are of 350 hectares which is changing before our very eyes. Those with an interest in town planning, industrial wasteland and modern architecture, should hurry to Nantes, which, one again, is inventing itself anew.
The eastern part of the island was laid out as an administrative complex in the 1960s whereas the western part suffered the closure of the large Chantiers Navals de l'Atlantique shipyards in 1987 and the delocalisation of the large canning factories, and was also in need of an ambitious planning project. Architect, Alexandre Chemtoff, and his team are supervising this work in accordance with a guiding plan that is updated every three months: this new part of the island will combine, in the future, chic and social housing, shops and creches, green areas and cultural infrastructures like the new Fine Arts school. Each time, the designers try to respect the history of the places: a former foundry for example will be transformed into an exotic garden and not demolished.
Threatened, at one stage, with destruction, the large crane Titan, whose cadmium yellow radiates all around and serves as an emblem for this part of the island, has been saved by defenders of industrial heritage. Work on the island is expected to last twenty years.
The Anne de Bretagne footbridge (located on Quai André Morice,  opposite the media library) allows pedestrians to access the island, directly opposite the new Courts of Justice that opened in 2000. Admire the outside and stroll through the hall of this black and majestic monolithic building by Jean Nouvel. While the rationality of the proportions dominates (symbolising the equity of justice according to the architect), the omnipresence of black, blood red and the grated walls are also highly striking.
The island machines will be located, for their part, in the former Dubigeon shipyards, currently being restored. A former banana ripening plant, a mere concrete rectangle for the moment, will be converted into a restaurant, bar, and gallery. Above all, it will be an integral part of the Estuaire 2007 project (see frame). To understand all the challenges of this project that is unique in France on account of its scale, visit hangar 52 to see the exhibition of aerial photographs, plans and models.
A walk on the Ile de Nantes is somewhat melancholic with the grey walls of its industrial past and the trace of all the future changes…
A feeling of the open sea: the district of Trentemoult
A former island, this little village bordering the Loire belongs to the borough of Rézé from which it was separated by a secondary arm of the river. It is a former fishermen's village, the place of retirement of seafarers and master mariners, with narrow streets huddling together and its Place des Filets (fishing nets square): Cape Horners lived in the fine dwellings located on the edge of the village while fishermen grouped together inside the village to protect themselves from the wind and bad weather. At the top of some houses, pulleys can be seen which were used to hoist the most precious goods to the safety of attics, bearing witness to the violence of the floods.  In the gardens, typical exotic shrubs flourish like magnolias and camelias, emblems of the city of Nantes.
The district became fashionable after the creation of the pleasure port in 1980. At weekend, many Nantais come here to feel the marine breeze. After a stroll down its narrow streets, you can have a drink in one of the two institutions, la Civelle and la Guinguette.
Today, a navibus connects the village to the centre of Nantes. In the past, this vessel, dubed 'roquio', took workers to the shipyards.
Practical information
Nantes tourist office:
Where to sleep?
Hôtel Pommeraye.
Located two minutes from the famous arcade of the same name, this hotel was entirely refurbished two years ago and offers spacious and comfortable rooms with warm and yet hip decor. Art exhibitions are regularly organised.
Hôtel Pommeraye
2, rue Boileau
44000 Nantes
Tel.: 02 40 48 78 79
Where to eat?
Brasserie du SNUC
This is the 'official' restaurant of the Stade Nantais UC Rugby, Nantes rugby club created in … 1904 ! Pascale Crimée is the proprietor and treats his regulars - tennismen, rugbymen, footballers, businessmen and gourmets - with delicious cuisine, a new version of luxury brasserie cuisine. Crete-style food as against the typical rugbyman's cassoulet: the dishes he lovingly prepares make broad use of olive oil and feature seafood. A warm ambience every day of the week. In the evening, it is also a bar. 
SNUC 'La Brasserie'
74, Bd des Anglais
441000 Nantes
Tel.: 02 40.76 42 62
Fax.:  02 51 83 01 17

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