Take a novel approach

As France prepares to celebrate the centenary of Jules Verne's death, Anthony Lambert looks at the influences on the pioneer of travel fiction

It is a curious coincidence that the first film to be shown in Jules Verne's birthplace of Nantes should have been screened in the apartment building in which he lived as a teenager. The new medium soon began translating his novels to the screen. Verne had done more to bring alive the experience of travel than any other 19th-century writer. His pioneering blend of science and travel captivated generations of readers across the globe, and elaborate theatre productions of his best-known novels earned him a fortune.

It is a curious coincidence that the first film to be shown in Jules Verne's birthplace of Nantes should have been screened in the apartment building in which he lived as a teenager. The new medium soon began translating his novels to the screen. Verne had done more to bring alive the experience of travel than any other 19th-century writer. His pioneering blend of science and travel captivated generations of readers across the globe, and elaborate theatre productions of his best-known novels earned him a fortune.

Since Verne's death in 1905, the cinema has done much the same, most recently in the remake of Around the World in 80 Days with Steve Coogan as Phileas Fogg and Jackie Chan as Passepartout. The slapstick approach may have introduced a new generation to Jules Verne, but for many it failed to match the 1956 production which won the Oscar for best picture; shot in 13 countries, its star-laden cast included Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, John Mills and David Niven as Phileas Fogg.

Having sat on the edge of a cinema seat as a child, enthralled by this epic race against the clock, I was curious to discover more about the man who wrote a series of 62 "Voyages Extraordinaires" and many other books and plays in 42 years. What had inspired him to write a new kind of fiction? How many of the countries he described had he actually visited?

Standing on the banks of the Loire at Nantes, watching a dredger struggling to keep the main channel open, it takes some imagination to visualise the busy port scenes into which Verne was born in 1828. His lawyer father's first two homes were both close to the river channels that flanked Ile Feydeau and both still stand, bearing plaques indicating their literary connection.

For the young Verne, the sight of exotic cargoes from the Far East and West Indies being unloaded on these quays instilled a love of the sea and ships that infused his books and was later indulged thanks to his royalties. A room in the Jules Verne Museum at 5 rue de l'Hermitage, a short walk from the Gare Maritime stop on tram line 1, is devoted to the way Nantes influenced Verne.

Walking east towards the castle, I passed the 17th-century church of Ste-Croix with its belfry housing the original town bell plonked on top of the tower. In its dark interior, Verne's parents were married and he was christened. Perhaps he was fascinated by the corrugated seashell, big enough for a baby bath, built into a column near the door, since he incorporated one in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

Nantes may have stimulated the imagination of Jules Verne, but he left the city for Paris when he was 20, initially to complete his law studies but soon to manage a theatre while writing plays. His marriage in 1857 to Honorine, a widow with two daughters, compelled him to earn more money so he became a stockbroker, reluctantly continuing to trade even after the success of his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, in 1863.

The search for a quiet house in the country for the summers led Verne to the village of Le Crotoy on the broad Somme estuary. The family spent many of the warmer months in rented houses, both before and after Verne's permanent move to Amiens in 1872. From Le Crotoy Verne would set sail in the first of the three boats he owned, culminating in a 92-foot steam yacht for cruises round the Mediterranean.

Honorine came from Amiens, and Verne settled into the life of the Picardy city to such an extent that he became a councillor. Their second home, on rue Charles Dubois, is now a museum on which €2.5m (£1.7m) is about to be spent to improve its facilities. From his study he turned out over two books a year, using his own books and the city's library for research. Verne consulted the writings of explorers such as Speke and Burton, since his only foray outside Europe and a few north African ports was to the United States aboard Brunel's colossal white elephant, the Great Eastern.

It was in the basement of the city library that I met Piero Gondolo della Riva, whose unrivalled collection of Verne memorabilia was bought by the city in 2000. Exhibitions of the collection and screenings of films based on Verne's books are shown in a converted cinema on rue de Noyon in the heart of the city. Piero became a Verne fanatic at the age of 13 and collected anything to do with Verne and his work for the next 30 years. Part of the collection will be displayed in Jules Verne's house.

Between the house and the large covered Jules Verne Circus which he planned and opened, visitors this year will see a re-creation of the Nautilus, from Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. Street lights in the vicinity will be turned off, and fibre optics will create the sensation of being underwater. The Circus was prompted by Verne's sympathy for the lot of itinerant entertainers. A permanent building for them was opened in 1889, the centenary of the French Revolution. The 16-sided polygon seats 2,018 . It has an elaborately decorated interior painted in intense tones of yellow, blue and white with maroon-covered seats.

From the Circus I walked into the city centre. Verne took this walk to his office in the City Hall while he was a councillor. Dating from 1600, the U-shaped hall witnessed the signing of the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, which brought to a close the French Revolutionary Wars.

Thankfully the Cathedral of Notre-Dame had been spared from desecration during the preceding Revolution, for the building is the glory of Amiens, described by Verne in An Ideal City. The largest building in Europe completed during the medieval period, the cathedral was begun in 1220. The entrance front is encrusted with statuary and decoration around the arches over its deeply recessed doors, and the early 16th-century choir stalls are a majestic display of carving - 3,650 figures populate 400 scenes from the Old Testament.

I took bus 5 to La Madeleine Cemetery where Verne is buried, passing the remains of the citadel - soon to be the site of the University of Picardy Jules Verne. I went not just to see Albert Roze's striking sculpture of Verne rising from the tomb, situated in a grove of yew trees, but the arboretum in which this museum of 19th-century funerary monuments is set. The birdsong is sometimes so loud that graveside orations can be hard to hear.

The main hope of the organisers of this year's events is that many new readers will discover the appeal of Jules Verne's distinctive writings.

Both Nantes and Amiens can be reached from London Waterloo with a change of train at Lille or Paris. You can book tickets through Rail Europe (08705 848 848; www.raileurope.co.uk). Both cities are easily accessible from Channel ports; Nantes is close to St-Malo, while Amiens can be reached from Dieppe, Boulogne or Calais. In Nantes, the writer stayed at L'Hotel (00 33 2 40 29 30 31; www.nanteshotel.com); doubles from €75 (£54) including breakfast. In Amiens, he stayed at Le Saint-Louis (00 33 3 22 91 76 03; www.le-saintlouis.com); doubles from €53 (£38) including breakfast. More information: Nantes (00 33 2 40 20 60 00; www.nantes-tourisme.com); Amiens (00 33 3 22 71 60 50, www.amiens.com/tourisme)

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