Every now and then, I get to see another side of France by tagging along on one of mon mari’s business trips. And this time around Nantes was my oyster! With 48 hours to kill on my own, Nantes was a revelation of arts, culture, and open spaces. And just a little over two hours away from Paris by train, Nantes is an unexpectedly vibrant weekend trip.
Driving into Nantes late from the last leg of our vacation on Brittany’s remote Belle-Ile-En-Mer, we checked into the très design La Perouse Hotel (3 Allée Duquesne, 44000 Nantes). Considering our last hotel’s walls were plastered with seahorses, this ecologically responsible boutique hotel requires a little bit more than my humble liberal arts education to navigate. There is no line that defines where the shower begins and where the wet floor ends. And before I hopped out of bed in anticipation for the organic continental breakfast, I pondered “Why is there an ice-cube tray on the wall?” It was just a fancy design lamp. It’s never too late to sign up for grad school. After circling a few sights on my map with a complimentary biodegradable pen, I was off.
The first thing circled on my map was Les Machines de l’île. Since 1999, La Machine, a monumental collaborative production company has evolved with the urbanization of île de Nantes, an island surrounded by the Loire River, just South of the city center. And Les Machines de l’île, the fantasyland of enormous puppets and installations create a surreal participatory amusement park. Le Carrousel de Mondes Marins, a three-story carrousel christened in July, takes La Machine’s ingenuity under the sea. Crab claws can pinch, fins can flap, boats can steam, no detail is spared on this mesmerizing whirlwind for all ages. After a week in Brittany, although I was not able to stomach another plateau de fruit de mer, I certainly could not resist a ride on a conch shell carried by flying fish. What Nantes lacks in a skyline, La Machine’s ubiquitous animatronic elephant has become a synonamous symbol of the city. 3 times the size of the real deal, La Machine’s elephant casts like a ship delivering passengers between the museum and the carousel, as passengers jump off and others get on. Additionally, La Machine’s workshops are open to the public where artists, designers, and technicians painstakingly collaborate and craft as they continue to urbanize
Another Nantais institution which has evolved with Nantes creative pulse is LU, the brains behind the buttery biscuits. Brittany, where all things either smell like fish or butter, depending on how the wind blows, LU is slightly responsible for the latter, with their headquarters in Nantes. In 2000, the LU biscuit factory was converted into an immense contemporary arts space, le lieu unique. A perfect peruse through the well-stocked bookshop in route for a coffee on the riverfront terrace, I spent a perfectly content rainy afternoon.
“La Cigale!” was the very first thing out of everyone’s mouths when I was compiling a Nantes to-do list. Everyone mentioned the celebrated brasserie with sparkles in their eyes. And I was instantly enamored by this powerhouse, Art Nouveau resto: the warm woodwork, the mosaic lobsters on the walls, the uniformed garçons and the overall theatrics of fine dining. It was as if mon mari and I were dining in a gilded Kilmt painting. I was easily tempted by the complete prix fixe menu at a cool 17 euros (cold zucchini and mascarpone soup, onglet, et crème brûlée).
La Cigale’s animal mosaics had me so charmed, I penciled it in for a very luxurious breakfast service the following morning. Caramel au beurre salé on toast was a sweet sendoff to Brittany.
What ended up being a two-day detour wrapped up into 48 hours of discoveries. Being spoiled easily strolling Paris from Left Bank to Right, I was at the good graces of my own two feet when exploring Nantes. But the streets welcomed me with their open public gardens and the Place Graslin planted with pumpkins. I was one happy tagalong.
. . . . .