Experience Nantes: the many faces of Nantes

There has been one big ocean of emotion between our beloved (France) and our port of safe harbor (home). We’ve long lingered in daydreams of returning. Isn’t it high time to JUST DO IT? Yet, you may feel a bit apprehensive contemplating the crowds of Paris. So why not try another city, one where you can feel a little more at ease, unencumbered by throngs of tourists. Bonus: You can train straight to this city from Charles DeGaulle Airport. This could be the perfect time to Experience Nantes...

Could Nantes be your Paris alternative—but different?

A city with a character distinctly its own, Nantes inspires with its visionary spectacle, a taste of what’s both new and old. The city of the moment is Nantes, a devastatingly clever French city with too many charms for just a day trip. Nantes is a destination, a plunge into the quintessential heart of France.

Nantes, as the Capital of the:
Loire Atlantique, is close to
chateau country,
Brittany, and the
Atlantic Ocean.

You may have already journeyed to The Loire Valley with its abundance of riches, chateaux, and royal history. But Nantes is a star of a different kind.

There are too many charms to count in this city with a population north of 292,000. Nevertheless, I remain spellbound by one distinctive feature.

Nantes greets you with a throng of faces that animate the city from dawn until dusk.

Yes, Nantes shows its face – literally – on nearly every corner of the city. Whether sculpted, painted, or creatively assembled, this city bares its soul through the eyes and expressive character of each face. Rarely repetitive or predictable, these faces represent this small metropolis that’s Instagram-ready.

How do I find these faces in Nantes?

Naturally, let’s start at the castle. A Renaissance courtyard leads you straight to Anne of Brittany whose magnificent face helped make her queen two times over. At the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne, you’ll see how architecturally and culturally this part of the world once belonged to Brittany; Anne hoped to keep her royal realm autonomous within the kingdom of France; it was only during the mid-20th Century that the borders were re-drawn and Nantes became part of the Loire-Atlantique.

From the castle, immerse yourself into the cozy medieval-flavored Bouffay quarter. Half-timbered houses and narrow cobbled streets buzz with youthful enthusiasm. Young people are enamored with this quarter, drawn by its rollicking bars and mouthwatering creperies that line the old streets. Art is the queen of the ball here, a mix of contemporary and traditional, well enjoyed with a beer in the mid-afternoon sun. The faces in Nantes’ oldest quarter are young and hip.

The elegant 19th-century arcade, Passage Pommeraye, isn’t just for shopaholics. Its Grecian statues and elegant columns are worth a look, a cross between an art gallery and a grand Paris address. Nantes’ most famous squares, Place Graslin and Place Royale compete with each other, each more elegant than the other.

La Cigale, a Belle-Epoque-styled brasserie, has a stunner of a dining room loaded with expressive faces on its tiled walls and decorated ceilings.

Fun, funky, unconventional Nantes is a sea of faces

A good place to root around is on the Ile Feydeau. Monumental mansions feature look-at-me stone faces alongside pretty, ornamental wrought-iron balconies. Popular in the 18th century, these uncommon icons seem more suited to today’s exhibitionist look-at-me century.

Search for your favorite ugly mug on rue Kervegan.

The Allee de Turenne is rich with architectural beauty and historical context. Sea monsters and creepy seafarers bring it to life. In truth, real monsters used to live behind these decorative doors – aka slave traders of the 18th century – but more on that later.

Experience les Machines de l’Ile in Nantes

Experience Nantes - MyFrenchLife.org

The biggest draw in Nantes is the mind-boggling landmark called Les Machines de l’Ile. It’s Nantes’ version of ‘The Biggest Show on Earth’, a spectacle of innovation and daredevil design. Who but the sons and daughters of local visionary Jules Verne* would dream of and design a 40-foot elephant who strolls around town carrying captivated visitors? You have to see him in action to believe it.

Experience le Carrousel des Mondes Marins in Nantes

On a personal tour of Le Carrousel des Mondes Marins – a 3-tiered interactive merry-go-round of sea animals, visitors can enjoy a “ride.” This isn’t a kiddie carousel though the kids and the kid-in-you will enjoy every minute of these encounters. Coming eyeball-to-eyeball with hypnotic faces – a bulging-eyed crab and other SpongeBob-like creations will help cultivate your own Captain Nemo fantasy. Made only with natural materials such as wood and leather, the bewitching sea creatures are unforgettable.

Unforgettable faces

Speaking of unforgettable faces, make sure you stop by the Cathedrale de Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul. Construction began in 1434 and didn’t end until over 450 years later. The center within these beautiful and sacred walls is the tomb of Francois II and Margarite de Foix.

Anne of Brittany forever memorialized her parents with the tomb, long considered a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture. Surrounded by angels and trusty greyhounds, the artist also created an amazing sculpture with two faces – an old man who represents wisdom and a young woman who looks fearlessly toward the future. The cathedral has suffered mightily over the years. Severely wounded by WWII bombing, Nantes had later suffered yet another catastrophe, a massive fire in 1972. Lucky for us, a massive restoration effort has brought it back to life.

Painfully the sad faces of Nantes exist too

Experience Nantes - MyFrenchLife.org

The chilling Memorial de l’Abolition de l’Esclavage – the Abolition Memorial – is a monument to Nantes’ unsettling history of the slave trade and the world’s continuing struggle to end it. In the 18th century, Nantes was a major center of the slave trade in Europe. Over half a million slaves passed through its port on 1800 individual expeditions. Nantes’ riches grew as its shipping community made a killing from its evil practice. The memorial museum, set inside a re-creation of a ships’ hold, retraces the history of the slave trade as it slowly reveals the slow progress of abolition. Visitors see and hear from famous leaders who spent most of their lives fighting for freedom. Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, Bob Marley, and Nelson Mandela are a few of the freedom fighters who lead us to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the word FREEDOM spelled out in dozens of languages.

It’s an amazing walk through history; Nantes has turned its ugly past into another reason to be proud of the city.

Henri the Navigator and Jules Verne are two of the most famous faces of the city. No need to travel “Around the World in Eighty Days” to see the very soul of Nantes. Action, adventure, and unlimited imagination are the calling card of the city. Don’t miss the museum dedicated to Jules Verne, his fictional characters, and their daring adventures.

The Green Line of Nantes – so easy to follow

Nantes is exceptionally easy to visit since it’s ideal for walking. Just follow the Green Line around town. Literally, they have painted a green line to lead you from one great venue to the next. How easy is that?

Before long, you too will discover your own favorite face of the city. Imaginative Nantes will fire up your love of all-things-France and in no time at all.

Have you experienced Nantes? Do you have any experiences or comments you’d like to add? Please share in the comments section below.

Further reading:
1. The unexpected side of France via MyFrenchLife.org
2. Travel Guide – Nantes, the creative via AirFrance
3. Nantes ‘Must-see’—’Must-do’ via Nantes.Tourisme
4. Nantes via Wikipedia
5. 10 reasons to visit Nantes at least once via theculturetrip.com

Credit images and reference to the many faces of Nantes:
A. Panorama depuis Butte Sainte-Anne.jpg by Eric Brosselin via Wikipedia
B. Ile de Nantes.JPG by Jibi44 via Wikipedia

All remaining images in Experience Nantes are copyright Michelle Moggio
1. Anne of Brittany (near the castle)
2. Bouffay Quarter architecture
3. Bouffay Quarter bronze by Philippe Ramette
4. Street-art-in-the-Bouffay-district
5. Tree carving
6. Passage Pommeraye
7. Chocolate Shop Maison Larnicol in Passage Pommeraye
8. La Cigale – The Grasshopper decoration
9. Typical architectural mascaron in Nantes
10. A mascaron – stone face on Ile Feydeau
11. Violin repair Shop sign
12.Le Carousel des Marins
13.The famous elephant of Les Machines de l’Ile 
14 – 15. Le Carousel des Marins
16. St-Pierre-et-St-Paul
17. Cathedrale-St-Pierre-et-St-Paul
18. Two-faced at Cathedrale St-Pierre et St-Paul
19. The Memorial to the Abolition of Slaves
20. Henri the Navigator
21. Young-Jules-Verne
22. Captain Nemo (near Jules Verne Museum)

A wonderful series exploring the magic of this region.
1. Experience Nantes: the many faces of Nantes
2. Experience Le Croisic: Breton charm in Loire-Atlantique
Many more to come— watch out for them
Subscribe to be notified.

About the Contributor

Michelle Moggio

I've been experiencing the joys of Paris since the ripe old age of eleven. As a fan of duck fat, raw oysters and bad French movies, I'm forever busy planning my next blog and/or my next trip. My novel is called "The Paris Effect" and I write a monthly blog by the same name. KEEP IT FRENCH!

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!

One Comment

  1. Jackie Walraven Jul 6, 2021 at 11:14 PM - Reply

    Oh Michelle Loved that town and I have wonderful memories of it. Hope that some day we will go again. Thank you so much!!??

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.