France gets full marks for its grace in combining the old and the new. Ancient cities are easily accessed without carving them in half, and the most amazing (and often harrowing) parking lots are tucked away under cobblestone streets through some miraculous engineering process. Old buildings are tastefully re-purposed and the most medieval of buildings can house the most chic of chocolatiers without being jarring, somehow.
Nantes is a perfect example. It has quite a history as a port city, and actually played a major role in the slave trade with the new world. But ships and shipbuilding have left this part of the world, and other things have taken their place.
In 2004, Time named Nantes as “the most liveable city in Europe,” and it’s easy to see why. It has everything you would want in a French city (e.g., food, charm, history, etc) along with a youthful energy and confidence we have not seen everywhere. In 2010, Nantes was named a hub city for innovation across multiple sectors of the economy, and as of 2013, holds the title of European Green Capital, for its efforts to reduce air pollution, for its high-quality and well-managed public transport system, and for its biodiversity. It just feels like a city of today, with a real future ahead of it.
There is also a sense of whimsy. Across the Loire in what had been a major industrial zone, some very creative types created a fantasy world, Les Machines de l’île, that pays homage to that past. In their words, “It is at crossroads of Jules Verne’s “invented worlds”, of the mechanical universe of Leonardo da Vinci, and of Nantes’ industrial history, on the exceptional site of the former shipyards.” (Makes even more sense when you learn that Jules Verne was born in Nantes.) The highlight is a mechanical elephant that lumbers around the old shipyard with as many as 50 people on it. Remarkable and fun.
And then there is older Nantes, as evidenced by the 15th century Château of the Dukes of Brittany, begun by François II. It is the familiar fortress with a palace, but little remains to evoke the medieval interior. Instead, the building serves as the museum of the city of Nantes, with its long and complex history on display. Again, a building saved, but wearing new clothes. And once more, we see that half of the school children in France are on field trips. Lucky them.
Lunch today was a change of pace – Chinese food, which was delicious, before I headed off to some necessary personal grooming appointments. My hairdresser announced, “Now, you look French.” Will report how that works for me in the coming weeks.