Friday 20 September 2019

Green line goes to the art of Nantes


A collection of some 30 artworks has been installed all along the banks of the River Loire from Nantes to Saint-Nazaire including these colourful neon rings
A collection of some 30 artworks has been installed all along the banks of the River Loire from Nantes to Saint-Nazaire including these colourful neon rings
Trunk call... ride the 12m elephant
Eleanor at Philippe Ramette's 'sidestepping' statue in Nantes

Eleanor Goggin

Nantes has had a special place in my heart ever since my kids were small. Memories of happy holidays in the Pays de la Loire, combined with the fact that it's a fabulous quirky city a short plane ride from Dublin, make the city a good place to add to the bucket list. But recently, there is another very good reason to visit.The art.

Back in the 1970 and 1980s, though, recession-hit Nantes and the city wasn't such a fabulous place. Then an enterprising mayor, Jean-Marc Ayrault, along with culture lover John Blaise, reinvented the city by promoting outdoor art that would be free to the public and attract visitors. It certainly worked to create the cultural hub that is the Nantes of today.

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One spectacular innovation is a 12km green line painted on the ground throughout the city which leads you to all the sights, including the artworks, on a journey that would have incurred the envy of Dorothy and Toto. We met the man who paints the green line. Covered in green paint and with a big smile on his face. Why not? A happy job.

The city, which sits 50km from the Atlantic coast in north-west France, is rich in culture such as cathedrals and castles, not to mention churches, but now it is more renowned for its abundance of art. While it's an art lovers' dream all year long, it becomes an absolute hive of cultural activity in the summer months. Art for everyone.

Trunk call... ride the 12m elephant
Trunk call... ride the 12m elephant

Now in its eighth year, the 'Voyage a Nantes' is a festival that invites artists to display their art in random places throughout the city. And every year, some artworks become permanent pieces. So the amount of installations increases with every year. After eight years, the collection is pretty impressive.

This year, when I visited, the works of two Irish artists were in situ. Photographer Richard Mosse, from Kilkenny, has an emotive exhibition called Incoming. Using a military-style camera, he produces harrowing images of refugees throughout the world. Malachi Farrell, originally from Dublin and now living in France, favours electronic art and his Human Clock in Place Graslin opens its door at fixed hours during the day, when a human clockmaker goes into 'combat' with the clock. People gather on the hour in anticipation and there's a general sense of bonhomie. Each hourly performance is different.

In Place Royale, artist Stephane Vigny has created a museum of 'fakes' - 700 statues of varying sizes, such as you would find in a garden centre, take pride of place in the square. It's wonderful to see visitors wandering through them in amazement. Selfies abound.

A 15th-Century chimney on the side of a building in Place du Bouffay has been transformed by Flora Moscovici. Shadings of yellows and reds create the effect of a lit fire.

There is a surprise around every corner. Even the hotels and restaurants get involved. Our gorgeous, centrally located Oceania Hotel de France was home to one of video artist Pierrick Sorin's hologram performances. Seven other hotels have these performances in the foyer, in which Pierrick himself is the main character.

The River Loire runs through the city and branches around a wedge of land called the Iles de Nantes. The island is linked to the rest of the city by 13 bridges and is a lovely spot to stroll around. Three huge cranes in yellow, grey and black have been left in situ as historical monuments, a nod to the port's industrial past when shipbuilding and food processing were its life blood. This whole industrial area has been transformed.

The 'Hangar a Bananes', originally a banana warehouse by the riverside, is now a fun and family-focused area. La Cantine du Voyage, a huge restaurant, provides chicken, salad, potatoes and a drink of your choice for €11. You can see where the salad is grown in the garden next door - 'Le Potager de la Cantine'. Nearby, a huge barbecue area, with lots of seating, allows you to bring your own food and cook it for a sociable family evening. Kids can play on the 'moon' trampoline while the adults chill.

Since 2007, Estuaire, a collection of some 30 artworks, has been installed all along the banks of the River Loire from Nantes to Saint -Nazaire. Colourful neon rings, a tilted house on stilts and a sail boat bent over the wall, are just a few of those on display.

Les Machines de L'ile is another fantastic artistic adventure near the river. Described as "a blend of the invented worlds of Jules Verne, the mechanical universe of Leonardo da Vinci and the industrial history of Nantes", there are three different rides - a 12m-tall elephant who lumbers around spraying water, a carousel with moving sea creatures and the heron tree flying over the hanging gardens. Culturally, there is so much to see but that is not all there is to Nantes. For instance, there is the shopping. There are so many funky artisan shops here. In Passage Pommeraye, right in the centre, there's a shop devoted exclusively to tinned sardines with brightly patterned tins in every conceivable colour. My favourite shop, Pylones, once again sent me over the edge as I feverishly stocked up on quirky and colourful gifts and homeware.

The River Erdre flows down from the north to join the Loire, and a journey by boat is a lovely way to spend an evening. With an option to buy wine and local produce, Bateau Ouch Cruise does a €12 trip and provides a laminated card describing the many highlights on the river bank.

Muscadet wine is made in the region and a decent glass is a mere €3.50. One could lose the run of oneself. The cafe culture and the abundance of fantastic restaurants all make for a general feeling of bonhomie. Roza, in Place de la Monnaie, where I feasted on tender lamb and a tasty strawberry tart, was one such restaurant.

Richard Cornet, who worked in finance and then in psychotherapy, now runs the simple but sublime L'Amenite restaurant where he prides himself on serving fish straight from the sea. He also serves the nicest Gazpacho soup ever.

Fabulous food, funky art, culture galore and lovely people, it really is a city not to be missed.


Getting there

Eleanor at Philippe Ramette's 'sidestepping' statue in Nantes

Aer Lingus operates direct flights to Nantes from Dublin,

Le Voyage A Nantes is a two-month-long Arts Festival that runs in Nantes during July and August each year. Dates differ slightly from year to year as the event starts on a Saturday. This year, it runs from July 6 to September 1. While Le Voyage is just the festival, it also takes in other key cultural elements in the city such as the Château des Ducs de Bretagne, Les Machines de l'Île...

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