First mouth of the river city in France

Costa Rica

Follow the long line of proud châteaux down the river Loire and you reach Nantes at the mouth of the river, boasting the greatest castle of them all. Lured by a born-again biscuit factory, a monster mechanical elephant, a decorated restaurant from the Belle Epoque, and the spirit of Jules Verne, Gareth took a high speed train trip and found so much to do in this handsome old maritime city, voted the best place to live in France in a recent survey. Photo - Gareth Huw Davies

Jumbo jaunt

“You must see the elephant,” my guide insisted. I imagined some sad circus specimen. But this is probably the world’s greatest, proudest, loudest and most public-friendly pachyderm. The mechanical beast, 40 ft high, 24 ft wide, emerged trumpeting from its hangar for a 45 minutes circuit of the old docklands, with 49 people aboard. It makes even those computer-generated mammoths in Lord of the Rings look small.
It moves at a quarter of a mile an hour, so there’s ample time to trail alongside and marvel at the scale of this £1.5m, 45 tonne behemoth made of American tulip wood.
Complicated gears allows it to lift its feet in a convincing way. Stray too close and people on board will spray you from the creature’s swinging trunk. Book ahead.

Easy riding

The most conspicuous expression of Nantes’s vision and ambition, as it picked itself from industrial decline, is the tram system. Sleek streetcars snake through the wide pedestrianised city centre, and head along the banks of the Edre, Loire’s pretty tributary lined with parkland and colourful houseboats.
Use the Pass Nantes, the go-anywhere card (ride all public transport, and boats on both rivers, with free entry to 25 attractions, including the marvellous art gallery.) I took the new guided busway, to the old Lu biscuit factory, now an arts centre, gallery, bar and hammam.
Then across the river by Navibus to the gentrified fishing village Trentemoult – lots of waterside eating. Finally back to the Museum of Jules Verne, in a C19th mansion on the hill (Butte Saint Anne), where he was born in 1828.

King of the castles

The sumptuous Castle of the Dukes of Brittany in the city centre is the last and greatest of the chateaux of the Loire, recently restored to high pomp (entry free). It is for locals as much as for visitors. I saw city workers and students spread out on the grass in the deep moat, taking their ease. I joined the parade along the top of the colossal battlements, 1500 feet long, studded with seven mighty towers, with wide views over the nearby cathedral and rest of the city. (The gorgeous old quarter, Ile Feydeau, has many grand houses from the 1700s.) In the castle’s inner courtyard is the dukes’ 15th century palace, and a very high-tech museum, telling the city’s story from the Romans, via the Nazi occupation, to its self-confident present.

Feast for the eyes.

Two of the finest buildings in the city face each other across the wide Place Graslin. On one side is the gracious Théâtre Graslin, power dressed with eight Corinthian columns topped by muses in classical costume. Opposite is the remarkable La Cigale brasserie, little changed since it opened in 1895. It has five high-ceiling dining rooms from the extravagant Belle Epoque, tiled walls and ceilings decorated with succulent fruit and fabulous creatures.
The seafood is good too. Nantes, on the fringe of Brittany, serves crepes, the Breton national dish, in 50 restaurants. Creperie Heb-Ken (Rue de Guérande) expertly demonstrates how to fit an entire meal into a pancake ¼ inch thick. Try the cider in the big ceramic cup.

High Speed Loire

I went to Nantes by TGV, in two easy stages from London. I prefer to change in Lille, but if you choose Paris, there is a thrilling non-stop sprint back, 200 miles in just two hours, flashing past tantalising glimpses of the Loire Valley. (
Nantes is good for a comfortable weekend away. I stayed in the Hotel Pommeraye. The clocks behind reception showing other time zones feature, quirkily, only Valparaiso and Zanzibar. It’s a smallish, comfy city-centre hotels with an excellent buffet breakfast. You are in the pedestrianised shopping street in a minute – look for half timbered houses, and 19th C arcade Passage Pommeraye, boutiques under a Crystal Palace-style glass roof, with a wide wooden staircase lined with statues. In Chocolaterie Gautier, traditional chocolate shop on Rue Fosse, you sit at a green circular seat while they pack your order.

Fly the flea

This ambitious, resurgent city is transforming the old docklands and shipbuilding area in the Ile de Nantes, in one of largest urban projects in Europe. Two massive cranes - one yellow, one grey - honour the old port heritage. In the Machines de l’Ile programme (the elephant was its first creation) Jules Verne meets Leonardo da Vinci.
They are building a carousel of fantastical Verne-inspired dream machines. Try out the giant water propelled flying flea. And the first trial branch (stuffed with living plants) of a simply enormous tree. Don’t miss the gigantic metal rings spaced out along the north bank, next to the cafes on the promenade.

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