A visit to Nantes

Wow, what a great city, which needs more exploring, but one thing I wanted to do was see the mechanical elephant on this quick visit to Nantes on our road trip across France. However, I managed to fit in a few other sights!

So after our 24 hours in Montlucon, we continued on to Nantes. Nantes is a city on the Loire River in the upper Brittany region of France.  Nantes has a long history as a port and an important industrial area in France. The wonderfully restored Chateau of the Ducs de Bretagne stands proudly in the centre and is now a museum with multimedia exhibits and a walkway on top of the fortified ramparts.

Chateau of the Ducs de Bretagne in Nantes

Where to stay in Nantes

We stayed in a gorgeous small hotel that used to be an old chapel and has kept the stained-glass windows that feature in many of the rooms.  The Sozo Hotel offers secure locked parking on the premises and is conveniently situated in the city close to the station and within walking distance of the centre, the Chateau.  Although in a central location, it is on a quiet street right opposite the fabulous botanical gardens.

Visit the Botanical Gardens

A walk through the botanical gardens is a must do, to see the old greenhouses and The Palm House, lakes and flora and fauna.  These gardens cover a vast 73,280 sq metres and you can walk around it free, however a small charge is made to enter the greenhouses.  Nantes earliest botanical garden dates back to 1688 and the current garden was established in 1806. It resembles an English park with lakes, ponds, waterways and paths. You’ll find statues and fountains, pavilions and cascades. The gardens contain around 11,000 species and an excellent collection of Camelias and mature Magnolias among many other fine specimens. The Orangerie shelters citrus trees during the winter, and the dry greenhouse contains a good cactus collection, said to be one of the best in France.

Dinner in Nantes

Of course, no trip anywhere for me is complete without great food and although we were a little limited as our stop-over was a Monday, none the less we found a great little restaurant for dinner, having had a wander around the streets of Nantes and a glass of local Muscadet for an apèro.  Maison Bagarre is a delightful bistronomic restaurant on one of the side streets in the centre of the older part of the city with outdoor dining and a light and modern interior.

Maison Bagarre has a small but great menu with meat, fish and vegetarian choices. They also offer a degustation menu.

Visiting a market in Nantes

The following morning I headed off to discover one of the local markets. Marché de Talensac.  This under-cover market is open all year round and is open every day except Monday. 08:00 – 13:00 Tuesday to Friday and until 13:30 on Saturday and Sunday.  You will find colourful rows of local produce, fruit and veg, butchers, charcutiers, traiteurs with ready-made dishes, boulangerie and pâtisserie, fish and seafood, spices, honey and wines, cheeses, flowers and much more.

What to eat and drink in Nantes

On my travels around France, I love discovering the local foods and wines of a region.  Nantes and the Pays de Loire region is known for various local dishes including:

1. Filet de Sandre with beurre blanc – this local fish comes from the river Loire and is a favourite with the locals

2. Bretonnes crêpes – can be eaten all day, with either savoury or sweet fillings. These crepes are made with sarrasin (buckwheat flour)and typically filled with ham, cheese and an egg on top.

3. A local duck dish- Le canard de Challans cooked with Muscadet wine and apples.

4. Oysters from the Atlantic with Muscadet – as Nantes is close to the ocean you can get oysters every day

5. Gateau Nantais – a soft almond cake with a fine icing usually flavoured with lemon, rum or orange. Also known as travellers cake as the ingredients were introduced in the 19th Century from the Caribbean

6. Rigolettes Nantaise – a fruity jam sweet shaped like a shell and named after the cat of a local grocer who invented these sweets!

7. Le salade Nantais – is a light fresh salad normally served with smoked salmon, fresh shrimps and asparagus tips on a bed of mixed leaves. The Nante flavour is enhanced with the addition of the Muscadet vinaigrette.

8. Le Petit-Beurre is a world-renowned shortbread-type biscuit that has been made in Nantes since 1886. These distinctive little square biscuits traditionally have 52 lines decorating the edges depicting the 52 weeks of the year. There are several different producers but probably the best known is LU.

9. Muscadet wine – a white wine which pairs particularly well with seafood, maybe this is because you can find vineyards spreading out west from Nantes towards the ocean.

Muscadet - Vins de Nantes
photo Muscadet © copyright Emeline Boileau

The Grand Elephant of Nantes

Next stop…the mechanical elephant at Les Machines de L’ile, on the site of former shipyards on the bank of the river Loire.  This is what I came to see, an incredible feat of engineering which my father would have loved so much to experience.

The majestic enormous mechanical elephant goes for a walk several times a day along the quay.  He is 12 metres high, 8 metres wide and an amazing 21 metres long. 50 passengers can climb aboard and ride on his back on each trip, choosing to sit either inside or on one of the balconies.  Personally, I think you need to do both, first watch him parade around squirting water from his trunk to appreciate the enormity of this mechanical beast. Then take a ride to enjoy the views over the river and listen to one of the machinists tell you stories about the elephant.

Visit the Machines de L’ile

The Grand Elephant is just part of the spectacle to experience at the Machines de L’ile, there is the Galerie des Machines which is a huge glass and metal living space filled with plants and showcasing numerous machine creatures, birds, spiders and butterflies. These mechanical creatures have all been created in the theatre company workshops. It’s truly incredible to see.

Along the quay is the carousel des Mondes Marins. A sort of theatrical 360° mechanical aquarium. An amazing sculpture dedicated to the sea. This giant carousel is 25 metres high and is a reinvention of fairground art with 3 different levels depicting the scenes and creatures from the seabed, the abyss 5 metres above the seabeds and then the sea surface.

I would say no visit to Nantes is complete without enjoying this unique experience. There is something for the entire family!

Ten things to do in Nantes

1. Visit the Chateau of the Ducs de Bretagne
2. Walk through the vast botanical gardens
3. Visit a local market
4. Enjoy a glass of local Muscadet Wine
5. Try the local foods
6. Ride The Grand Elephant
7. Visit the Galerie des Machines
8. Experience the Carousel des Monde Marins
9. Walk the green line – this is a wonderful route – a green line painted on the ground leading you around the cultural heart of the city to discover monuments, works of art and other unique sites – find out more here from the tourist office of Nantes 
10. Take a boat tour along The Loire River

I hope you’ve enjoyed my post, things to do on my visit to Nantes and will get some good ideas for your trip. Have you visited Nantes, what did you do and see there? Let me know in the comments.

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