Nantes: French leave... and toast
Eleanor Goggin takes one of the new Aer Lingus flights to Nantes, and finds a surprisingly beautiful city break.
My previous trips to Nantes had been fraught with tension.
Purely because I had three very spirited kids all fighting in the back of the car as I tried to negotiate roundabouts on the wrong side of the road. I used a lot of foul language and threats. Our camping holidays used to regularly take us to Brittany but visits to cities mainly consisted of creperies and Lego shops.
This trip, however, was going to be through the eyes of a calm adult. Aer Lingus has put on a new route from Dublin to Nantes, so it's ideal for a city break. And here was my chance to see the real Nantes.
And what a beautiful city it is. We based ourselves for two nights at the Okko hotel, right in the heart of the medieval city. The hotel claims to have torn up the rule book and has a trendy hostel feel to the downstairs area -funky couches, high tables, low tables and a kitchen area with tapas-type food on hand all the time. Cheeses, meats, breads and a glass of wine. A fridge full of soft drinks and yoghurts and coffee on tap. All included.
What more could you want?
Les bords de l'Erdre, Nantes
The night life in the area is buzzing. There's a university in the city, which accounts for 50,000 of the population, so young and old sit outside the cafes and pubs, creating a great atmosphere. One of the pubs we stopped at was run by an older lady who could have been Nora from Galway rather than Genevieve from Nantes. Two poodles who came out to bark occasionally added to the ambience.
The following morning, we were off exploring with Sandrine, our guide. There's a green line painted on the pavements which takes you to all the top spots. The Bouffay, or medieval district, is a maze of small streets with cute little boutiques and pubs. It's a small enough city, and easy to get around, so a short stroll to the Graslin quarter only takes a few minutes.
Named after Jean Graslin, a Parisian barrister who came here to seek his fortune in the 18th Century and developed this area, it's full of elegant buildings, and the Place Graslin is home to a beautiful neo-classical theatre.
A short stroll away is the Passage Pommeraye, a beautiful shopping arcade built in 1843, decorated with lamps and statues, on three levels. It was here I saw a toaster in a shop window that was to become an obsession for the rest of the trip. I lived in raw and abject fear that I wouldn't get the opportunity to go back to buy it as there is so much to visit in the city - churches, the 15th-Century castle which is now a museum, a cathedral ...
It was very hot while we were there, and it was fabulous to be able to hop on the Navibus which takes a few minutes to cross the Loire and deposit you at the gorgeous little village of Trentemoult. Originally a fishing village, it's now a busy marina, with bars and cafes serving their fare at the river's edge. Behind the marina is a maze of brightly painted houses with tiny gardens and painted picket fences, which were originally the homes of the fishermen. We stopped for lunch on the marina in La Civelle, where I tucked into Terrine of Campagne and Coalfish with lomo risotto. Divine.
Eleanor Goggin at Clisson
No trip to Nantes would be complete without a visit to 'Les Machines de l'Ile' (pictured top). A piece of wasteland on the banks of the Loire has been used to house this fabulous project with merry-go-rounds and a huge articulated elephant which is also a ride. They are for adults but kids are accepted. You sit into a suspended fish or bird and work all his bits while he is going around. We had great fun, shrieking like kids.
'Estuaire' is a project of very funky art works such as the industrial chimney with a little house on top, which is available to rent. Or the house built on stilts in the middle of the river. They run all along the river, some of them accessible only by car, but they are well worth the trip. For our last night we checked into the Radisson Blu, housed in the old law courts and again very central. A beautiful building, with its integrity maintained, the decor is divine - deep pinks and greys - and the bedrooms are vast.
What's good enough for Catherine Deneuve is good enough for me, and she is one of the many famous folk who has eaten at La Cigale on Place Graslin A stunning brasserie, it opened its doors in 1895 and is adorned with wood carvings, ceramics and mosaics. A beautiful environment in which to partake of Carpaccio of tuna as my starter and turbot in a buttery sauce for my main course.
It's a great idea to hire a car and get out and about to the surrounding areas. We visited the town of Clisson which is 20 kilometres away. It's also possible to get a train from Nantes. Two brothers from Nantes built themselves an Italian-style villa here in the 19th Century and this started a whole new look for the town. Houses in the Tuscan style came to be the order of the day here. There's a beautiful chateau here, although now in ruins, and 26 acres of beautiful gardens to wander around. And then it was on to one of my favourite pastimes - wine-tasting. Madame Menard of the vineyard Menard Gaborit hosted us for canapes and tasting of the many Muscadet-based wines grown on her land. Her son is living in Ennis and loving it there.
A river cruise down the Loire that night, passing stately homes and lush vegetation, with a sublime meal of langoustine ravioli and Sandre (a white fish) with a divine sauce was the end of a fabulous trip to a very hospitable and accessible city.
And I got the toaster.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies three times weekly from Dublin to Nantes; on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Flights operate to September 12, 2015. Fares start from €59.99 one-way including taxes.
For more, see Le Voyage a Nantes (levoyageanantes.fr/en/), int.rendezvousenfrance.com, estuaire.info/en/, lesmachines-nantes.fr/en/ and chateaunantes.fr/en.
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