Having stopped off in some of our favourite parts of Europe – like Lapland, Vilnius and Toulouse – last week we paused this column to highlight a few key movements here at Midnight Trains. Now, to mark its return, we’ll be switching things up a bit and sticking to our native France, and specifically the city of Nantes. Nicknamed ‘the city of the Dukes of Brittany’ and ‘the Venice of the West’, this small city of around 300,000 inhabitants is famous for its relaxed pace of life and architectural heritage. But attentive travellers on the lookout for cultural treasures in particular won’t be disappointed. Far from it. So go on, hit the road – just make sure not to ask whether Nantes is or isn’t part of Brittany. It’s a pretty thorny debate and it’s probably best not to get involved.
Start your trip at the historic Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul Cathedral. Besides the exceptional beauty and history of the place, we’d definitely recommend checking out the tomb of François II, Duke of Brittany, and Marie de Foix. As well as representations of the two people buried inside, it also has four statues representing the four cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance – filled with all sorts of details and symbols you might be able to identify. The most remarkable of those sculptures is no doubt Justice, a strange thing with an old face on one side and a young woman’s face on the other. Ideal for fans of history, young and old.
Next head to Lieu Unique, whose initials refer to the former LU biscuit factory that was located on the same site. This multidisciplinary arts venue hosts more than 100 spectacles – theatre, philosophy, documentary, literature, dance, circus, music, sculpture, architecture – and loads of big exhibitions each year. Whenever you go, in other words, there’s to be something pretty decent on. If none of the arts programme is to your taste, you could also pick up a book in its reading room, kick back in the on-site hammam or order a drink (or three) at its bar, which stays open until the early hours.
For lunch, hit up Un Monde Nouveau. On the ground floor of the hôtel particulier where Jules Vernes was born, this beautifully done-up spot serves up dishes inspired by the illustrious French writer. An example from the menu: white radish, tuna and lemon, whose Asian influence bears testament to the author’s global travels. All the products are fresh, largely sourced locally, and the wine menu is pretty decent too.
Once you’ve got your fill of spectacular international dishes, you should check out Nantes’s most famous attraction: the Machines de l’Îsle. This permanent exhibition allows visitors to discover, drive and interact with mechanical animals and plants of many different sizes. These industrial works of art have an undeniable poetry about them, and have become the most famous global symbol of the City of the Dukes of Brittany. After all, who hasn’t dreamt of straddling a robot elephant?
Your penultimate stop should be L’Atelier. Tucked at the end of a small path, itself hidden behind a wooden door with African motifs, this gallery sprawls out over more than 500 square metres. Its five rooms are arranged around a pretty patio, and host exhibitions across contemporary art and photography. The building itself is pretty dazzling, and well worth exploring. The venue was previously a wine store, a stable and the sculptor Gérard Voisin’s atelier, which was later donated to the city and turned into this gallery.
Round off your trip with a meal at L’Atlantide 1874 – Maison Guého. This Michelin-star restaurant serves up excellent, refined yet somehow very comforting fish dishes. Each mouthful will be a delight. Alongside your food, make sure to order one of the Loire wines. But it’s not just about the menus here. The huge bay windows offer epic views out over the surrounding area that will really take your breath away.