What do you do when people consider your city dull, boring and grey – and won’t visit?
You try something different because you know, deep inside, that your home (in this case Nantes, France) is anything but non-descript. You just have to bring out its beauty.
Nantes did this with a single word: art.
“We decided to develop the town’s attractiveness through artistic creation. The idea is that culture will drive tourism, rather than the opposite,” explains David Moinard, the artistic director of Voyage a Nantes, the city’s cultural and tourism organization.
As we sat sipping a coffee near the fountain of the Place Royale, his stubbled face became animated and he waved towards the center of the square.
“Take the fountain,” he said. “In 2007 we invited a Japanese artist who surrounded the statue with scaffolding. You could go inside and even sleep there! It had a luxury hotel room with the fountain at its center. At nine each morning, the fountain would start – it was like an alarm clock.”
Locals hated it at first but as they visited and learned about the statue’s meaning – a Greek goddess representing Nantes, holding a trident, they rediscovered their fountain, retaking ownership of it. The trident has disappeared, by the way, because student faculties competed to steal it each year and the city, unable to stem this slice of prideful vandalism, simply gave up replacing it.
Another example is the Graslin Theater. Normally a handsome ivory-hued edifice with a row of elegant Corinthian columns, here’s what happened when a contemporary artist – in this case Elsa Tomkowiak – took over for the summer.
This is what Nantes does best: hands over part of the city to artists, local artists and artists from afar, like allowing creative visionaries into a large playpen called Nantes and letting them loose.
Its artistic revival – no, not revival, rebirth – isn’t just visual. The day I arrived, the Rendez-vous de l’Erdre was in full swing, an annual jazz festival that welcomes 150,000 visitors each summer. As one Nantaise told me as she rushed by, kids in tow, “It’s free, I take the whole family and it’s something we do together every year.”
It all sounds smooth and everything clicks, but it has taken time, since 1989 in fact, when a couple of far-seeing officials decided to take the boring bull by the horns and turn it into something snazzy and exciting. First came Les Allumées, lasting six years in the first half of the 1990s, when six artists from six global port cities spent six days from six in the evening until six in the morning ‘doing art’ – from performing opera to splashing paint on industrial walls.
Then came the Folle Journée, a yearly five-day classical music festival which covers a theme a day and has now spread to cities worldwide.
Then the old LU biscuit tower (LU petit beurres are those rectangular ridged buttery concoctions I ate at home growing up) was transformed into the artistic Lieu Unique (Unique Place) which now houses all forms of contemporary creation.
And on top of that the Ile de Nantes (Nantes Island) was consolidated, a scattering of islets right downtown, bordered by the Loire River. The island has become Europe’s biggest urban renewal project and a welcome solution to the closure of the city’s shipyards, which in 1987 sent the city into a tailspin of collective depression. Now, the island has become ‘creatives HQ’, its Quartier de la Création housing everything from traditional artists to architecture schools to web designers. Creatives, welcome!
Now that the ships are gone the shipyards are hosting a new kind of machine, a strange beast known as the Great Elephant, a mechanical contraption that stomps around spraying water from its trunk. It’s a paying ride and half the fun is chasing around the island looking for the huge machine. It trumpets its arrival from quite a distance but given the layout of the island, you could end up chasing your own tail rather than the elephant’s in your efforts to find it.
Once you get tired of chasing the elephant you can stroll along the Loire’s shores and yes, as everywhere, you’ll find art here too.
I was particularly taken by an intriguing set of rings, or anneaux, which some believe represent the shackles of the thousands of slaves once shipped to the Americas in the days when Nantes was France’s major slave port.
One artistic project I’d love to see (I ran out of time) is called l’Estuaire, the Estuary. It tries to bridge the chasm that has existed between Nantes and St Nazaire since the shipyards closed in one city and moved to the other. That rivalry has turned to solidarity around the series of sculptures that link the two along 60km of the Loire.
Nantes, not always about art
Today Nantes may be equated with art but that hasn’t always been the case. Known for its slaves and then for its shipyards, it suffered several waves of German bombing during World War II, which accounts for some of the strange new buildings abutting historical ones here and there.
Nor is Nantes your typical French ‘museum town’, where every corner hosts a medieval treasure (it does have some – this is still France after all) and every winding alley is suffused with unbearable quaintness (although there is plenty of that too). The town’s historical mainstay is the imposing chateau of the Duc de Bretagne, sitting proudly downtown, surrounded by strollers and baby carriages and picnickers.
Clearly the ‘artefaction’ of Nantes has worked.
What started out as a good idea turned into an economic bonanza. “For each euro Nantes invested in culture, there is a return on investment of 3-4 euros,” explained David Moinard. “It goes to show that spending money on art and culture does not mean throwing it out the window.” So yes, easy on the eyes, but profitable too.
“Each summer we invite people and institutions to submit creative ideas, and we invite new artists to come and work here for a while,” Moinard said. “We want to wake up the city, to surprise people, to prevent them from ever again becoming bored with their city.”
There’s not much chance that will happen again.
Brittany – dull and grey?
The region of Brittany may well be one of the darker, wetter parts of France, its weather map shaded out while great globes of cheerful sun shine everywhere else. In the popular psyche, not even the glorious craggy coast can make up for the pelting rain and bone-shattering humidity we’ve all come to expect when the weatherman describes this northwestern corner of the country.
I spent an entire week in Nantes and environs. While the rest of France was thundered and showered, we basked – with the exception of one day – in the brightness of outdoor cafés, licking ice cream.
Dull and grey?
Not quite. I’d say bursting with bright shapes that change with the seasons, creative, avant-garde, diverse and proud, energetic.
I’d say that because last year, Nantes again received France’s highest urban accolade: Best French city in which to live.
Well, dear Nantes, you’ve come a long way.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- Nantes has an excellent public transit system – in fact it may have been one of the world’s first. It’s easy to navigate and you’ll never need any other transport. The core of the city is small enough to walk around and I did spy a Hop On Hop Off bus.
- Your best bet is a Nantes City Card Pass for 1/2/3 days, which includes free admission to top attractions and all public transport within the city.
- Nantes is easy to reach from Paris – it’s a two-hour train journey. You can fly direct from many European cities, as well as from some cities in the USA and Canada. From the airport take the bus to the city center – it takes about 20m.
- Like any city, Nantes has its rough edges so use normal caution when you walk around, especially at night. I went everywhere on my own downtown and had no issues, but I was alert to my surroundings. Just as we all should be.