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WHY GO NOW?
The city's heyday was during the 18th-century slave trade, when it was the premier port in France for human traffic. This gave way to shipbuilding in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, but since that industry sailed away billions of euros have been ploughed into rejuvenation projects. For decades Nantes was known amongst locals as une belle endormie ("a sleeping beauty"). But after a massive regeneration programme, the birthplace of Jules Verne is blooming.
The second bi-annual Estuaire 2009 Art Festival opens this week (until 16 August). Thirty art installations from around the world line the banks of the Loire from Nantes to St-Nazaire; estuaire.info/009 . And 27 June sees the launch of the replica of Jules Verne's vessel St-Michel II, originally launched in 1876 (lacale2lile.fr).
Air France (0871 66 33 777; airfrance.co.uk) flies twice daily from London City, and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Liverpool and East Midlands.
Nantes airport is 11km from the city centre. Taxis cost €25 to €35 but the Tan Air bus has a timetable suited to meet scheduled flights. It takes 20 minutes to the city centre, fare €6.20. This journey is also covered by the Nantes Pass, which you can buy at the airport at the tourist information office and allows to you travel on just about any public transport in the city, including the excellent trams. The 48-hour Nantes Pass costs €28 per adult or €70 for a family of two adults and two children (4-18). You can pre-book online at nantes-tourisme.com to get a 10 per cent discount; the pass can be picked up at the airport or one of the two tourist offices in Nantes or mailed to your home address.
By rail, Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) will get you from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord; here, take the Metro Line 4 to Paris Montparnasse, and the TGV to Nantes station (1). The total journey takes around six hours, with a lowest return fare of £99.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
The heart of Nantes stretches between the Château (2), across the Cours des 50 Otages (named in honour of the hostages executed by the occupying Germans in 1941; in fact there were 48 of them) and into Place Royale (3).
The main tourist office (4) is at 3 cours Olivier de Clisson (00 33 2 72 64 04 79; nantes-tourisme.com), open 10am-6pm from Monday to Saturday (Thursday from 10.30am); there is also a branch beside the cathedral (5) at 2 Place St-Pierre, which opens the same hour but has a 1pm-2pm lunch break.
Wherever you are in the centre of Nantes, you find yourself "walking on water", or at least where there was some water before much of the city was filled in between the World Wars. For centuries, the rivers Loire and Erdre broke up the limits of Nantes into small islands, creating one of several claimants to the title "Venice of the West") and these were filled in between the two world wars. Do not be surprised therefore if an address suggests an island or quayside without much water in sight.
Close to the train station is L'Hôtel (6) at 6 rue Henri IV (00 33 2 40 29 30 31; nanteshotel.com). For a delightful view of the nearby castle, ask for a room on the top floor. Doubles start at €90; breakfast is €9 per person extra.
If modern architecture is your thing, you might enjoy La Perouse (7) on Cours des 50 Otages (entrance 3 allée Duquesne; 00 33 2 40 89 75 00; hotel-laperouse.fr). The design echoes the old sloping houses which once fronted the Loire, and fabric screw-on covers for curtains evoke Nantes's maritime heritage. A double room costs €138, including breakfast.
So renowned is rue Crébillon in the heart of the shopping district that it has even entered the vocabulary of the locals. Crébilloner means approximately "to dawdle along the thoroughfare, idly window shopping".
Halfway along rue Crébillon, and linking it to Rue de la Fosse is the Passage Pommeraye (8). This glorious neo-classical shopping arcade opened in 1843. The original three-tier staircase dominates the centre space. It has often been used by film directors, especially local-born Jacques Demy.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Nantes is the heart of crêpe and cider country, which is excellent for a quick and filling lunch. You can test your knowledge of Jules Verne's books when you have your crêpe at the Ile Mystérieuse (9) at 13 rue Kervegan (00 33 2 04 47 42 83), just off the Quai Turenne. Visitors here maintain the old Breton tradition of putting coins in between the bricks in the hope of making wishes come true.
The only thing that might delay you at the Crêperie Heb Ken (10) at 5 rue de Guérande is trying to make up your mind from the endless varieties. Another Nantes favourite is La Petite Épicerie (11) at 14 rue du Château (00 33 2 40 48 65 91). It is tiny, so try to book.
TAKE A HIKE
Start at the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany (2) which originally was completely surrounded by the Loire. This is the last of the châteaux of the Loire before the river reaches the Atlantic. After a 15-year renovation, the castle is now the venue for an excellent museum outlining the history of the city from the Middle Ages. The Château also houses Turner's painting The Embankment Of The Loire in the new Nantes History Museum. The ramparts have been restored so that you can walk the 500m circuit, which includes seven towers. Access to the courtyard and ramparts are free and open 10am-7pm daily, with late openings on Saturdays in July and August; the museum opens 10am-6pm daily except Mondays, admission €5. Look out for the wolves in the moat during the Estuaire 2009 festival.
From here, head north to pass the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul (5) façade and then west into the heart of the old city via rue de Strasbourg. There are plenty of of meandering streets to explore here; look up to see the impressive belfry of Sainte-Croix (12). Keep moving west and you will find the Cours des 50 Otages which was once where the Erdre flowed before being filled in. Nowadays pedestrians share the space with cars and trams.
Head south for the smart Ile Feydeau, another former island. Along Allée Turenne (13) you can see several houses all leaning one way or another, a result of slowly sinking into what was the river.
Do not be put off by the age or orientation of visitors to L'Appartement (14) at 1 rue Gresset (00 33 2 40 73 11 51); be assured that within a short time the clientele is likely to change radically. From businessmen to petit jeunes, everyone comes to see Stéphane and Thierry mixing behind the bar. Try the Overdose: vodka, raspberry, lemon juice for €8.50.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Maison Baron-Lefèvre (15) occupies a converted hangar at 33 rue Rieux (00 33 2 40 89 20 20), just off Quai Magellan. Set menus range from €15 to €25 and offer good value. Closed Sunday, Monday and the first week of August.
For fruits de mer in the capital of Loire Atlantique, take the Navibus (the water bus, included on the Nantes Pass) from Gare Maritime (16) to Trentemoult, another venue favoured by film directors. Head for La Civelle (17) at 21 Quai Marcel Boissard (00 33 2 40 75 46 60); be warned that you may have to have an early supper, as the last bus back to the city leaves at 7.50pm.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
The cathedral (5) at Place St -Pierre (00 33 240 47 84 64) is the fourth place of worship on the same site, the first having been built in the sixth century and the last in the 19th. Recent renovations, including a new roof following a fire in 1972, highlight classic gothic architecture. For a curious sculptural phenomenon, look for the tomb of Francois II and his wife on the south transept. Designed by Michel Colomb, the figure on the right has a face on both sides of her head: this is Prudence looking into a mirror to the past in order to gain wisdom for the future. In the same chapel is a plaque to the British dead of the First World War. The cathedral opens at 8am on Sunday and 7.30am on weekdays; Sunday morning Mass is at 10am.
A WALK IN THE PARK
The tourist office (4) gives out a walking tour guide of open spaces: the Promenades Vertes. In the Jardin des Plantes stands France's oldest magnolia tree, planted in 1807 when it was already 20 years old; it should be in bloom in the next week or two.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Easy to find on the Place Graslin (18), right opposite the Théâtre Graslin, is the Brasserie La Cigale (00 33 251 84 94 94; lacigale.com). Have a look at the stunning Art Nouveau tiles and mirrors. Yes, film director Jacques Demy shot here too. Built in 1895, this is now an official national monument. The €20 brunch includes fresh orange juice, toast, chocolate croissant and house pastries, crème caramel, and coffee or tea.
TAKE A VIEW
The LU tower in the centre of town is one of two which once fronted the 1850 Lefèvre-Utile Biscuit Factory (19). In those days the river still flowed beside the factory gates, bringing cargoes of vanilla and spices from the East. In 1998, the remaining tower was renovated, given a new dome and opened as a tourist attraction. A lift provides an alternative to the 136 steps. At the top you can self-wind the "gyrorama" platform to change the view.
The factory (19) itself is now a buzzing and trendy arts centre: Le Lieu Unique (00 33 2 51 82 15 00; lelieuunique. com) at 2 rue de la Biscuiterie. Alongside a wall outside the main building is "the Century's Attic": half opaque and half transparent, it contains time capsules filled by locals. Sealed at midnight on 31 December 1999, it will not be opened until 5pm on 1 January 2100. Le Lieu Unique also has (curiously) a hammam. It is open every day, for women from 11am to 7pm, Monday, Wednesday, Saturday till 9pm. For men: Tuesday and Friday from 6pm to 10pm and for everyone Thursday 6pm to 10pm and Sunday 11am to 9pm, admission costs €20.
ICING ON THE CAKE
Forget the open-top bus, the horse-drawn carriage, even the ubiquitous petit-train; to recapture a thrill not experienced since childhood, visit the Machine de L'ile (20) for a ride on a 12m-high motorised elephant (€6.50). Take tram 1 to Chantiers Navals then cross the Pont Anne de Bretagne. The location (00 33 810 12 12 2500; lesmachines-nantes. fr/english) is open 10am-6pm daily except Monday. You can also visit the warehouse to see other machines in the making, including a carousel with underwater animals .
Additional research by Jessica ChandlerReuse content