Brittany’s largest city
www.nantes-tourisme.com. Brittany’s largest city, though now technically part of the Pays de la Loire, Nantes lies 50 km inland from the sea. In 939, it became capital of the Duchy of Brittany, and during the Middle Ages shared the title by turns with its great rival Rennes (see Inland Brittany). A considerable face-lift is currently underway in the city centre around place des 50 Otages, and the city council must be congratulated on their efficient, ecologically-sound tram system.
Despite severe wartime damage, Nantes has preserved pockets of its 18thC character, and the monumental Château des Dues. The present edifice was founded by Duke Francois II in the 15thC, when jousting tournaments were held in the vast courtyard and the infamous Bluebeard (Gilles de Rais) was a captive in the dungeons. The buildings house three museums (all open daily Jul-Aug, closed Tues Oct-May): the Musée d’Art Populaire Regionale, with its costumes and crafts; and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, contemporary textiles in this case, which is also used for temporary exhibitions.
A short distance away, the Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul should have disappeared years ago. Plagued with dreadful accidents, the most recent a fire in 1972, its austere facade (the canopied niches of the Flamboyant portal swept clear of statues) looks rather forlorn. Inside, cleaning operations have revealed a soaring, light-filled and elegant building with restrained decorations which heighten the dramatic effect of Michel Colombe’s tomb for Francois II and 9 Marguerite de Foix. Commissioned by Anne of Brittany, the couple’s daughter, the marble tomb in the south transcept is one of the finest Breton masterpieces of the Renaissance period. A free bonus is the cathedral treasure, on display in the crypt, and a history of the cathedral site from its 6thC Gallo-Roman origins.
Carvings rescued from the cathedral are on display in the Musée Dobrée place Jean V, (closed Tues) together with the diverse collections amassed by 19thC shipowner Thomas Dobrée, and those of the Musée Départemental de Loire-Atlantique, which extends to the Musée Archéologique, and 15thC Manoir de la Touche. Other museums include the Musée Jules-Verne, 3 rue de I’Hermitage (closed Tues), in the crumbling 18thC lle de Feydeau district, which commemorates the popular science fiction novelist born in Nantes.
There is good shopping in Nantes, and smart rue Crébillon gives access to the 19thC Passage Pommeraye, a glass-roofed Victorian shopping mall on three levels. A handful of parks and gardens provide an escape from the bustle, including Grand Blottereau with its exotic greenhouses (open wetkends). The helpful Office du Tourisme has details of boat trips on the Erdre and Sèvre, visits to Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse across the Loire, and summer season guided walks.