The artsy city of Nantes

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The docks in Nantes, with their emblematic 18th century buildings
France's sixth largest city, lying on the banks of the Loire river, is one of the main north-western metropolitan agglomerations. Nantes' historical, architectural and cultural heritage is written all over its posh facades and renovated industrial warehouses. Throw in a cup of great museums and art galleries, a splash of 15th-century historical buildings, and a slice of giant mechanical contraptions and you have yourself one of France's most exciting cities to discover.
Nantes' center seen from the Tour de Bretagne.

If you set out on a road trip with the plan to follow the Loire river from the history-filled city of Amboise all the way to the Atlantic ocean, chances are you'll end up doing a pit stop in a city called Nantes. You might then be struck by the vibrancy, the liveliness that emerges from the place, and you wouldn't be the first one to fall for the culturally-rich region capital. Nantes is attractive, creative, thriving. All good reasons to get off the bike for a while and start exploring.

The moats of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany.
The colored facades of the Trentemoult district.
The rich buildings of the city center.
The lively commercial district.
Nantes' city center.
A view from the castle's rampart walk.

It's the Celts that founded Nantes back in the '70s (BC). In a typical European fashion, Nantes then successively passed into the hands of the Romans, the Germans, the Bretons, and even the Vikings. In 850 AD, Nantes became the main hub of the Duchy of Brittany, a medieval feudal state that spans over modern-day Brittany. By the 14th century, Nantes started taking advantage of its prime location as a port on the Loire and began to trade with other countries, paving the way to its first golden age in the 15th century. In 1700, Nantes was France's largest port and became a major industrial city by 1850, notably for its thriving shipbuilding industry, with shipyards among the largest in France.

The old shipyard warehouses are now a hub for the artistic activities.
Nantes' main nightlife district is also vibrant during the day.

As the ships became bigger and bigger, it got more and more difficult to route them from Nantes to the ocean by the Loire river, and new rival shipyards emerged in Saint-Nazaire, at the mouth of the estuary. In the 1970s, during the global recession, Nantes' last shipyards closed down, and a few decades later, a couple of demented visionaries turned the place into a fantasy workshop, inspired by Jules Verne's novels, Leonardo Da Vinci's mechanical creations and Nantes' industrial history. This extraordinary experiment is baptized Les Machines de l'Île.


The mechanical heron from the Machines de l'Île.
The dreadful spider, from the Machines de l'Île.
The articulated chameleon, from the Machines de l'Île.
The mechanical heron can take some passengers.
The mechanical sloth, from the Machines de l'Île.

If you wander on Nantes' island, near the shipyards, you'll probably bump into a 40-feet high mechanical elephant, made from 45 tons of wood and steel. Get through the door of the Machine Gallery and meet the heron, the sloth, the ant, and the dreadful spider. A few hundred yards away, the Marine Worlds Carousel lets you ride 35 moving creatures on three different levels. Later on, take a peek inside the workshop from the footbridge, and observe the machinists as they breathe life into their latest creations. The Machines de l'Île never cease to amaze. 

The Great Elephant, the mot emblematic contraption of the Machines.

If you want to see the unique contraptions of the Machines de l'Île in action, have a look at Totem Moto Tours' short video France's Finest | The City of Nantes

If you'd rather discover Nantes with your own eyes, check out Totem's Heritage Tour. Bookings now open for 2023! 

Vincent Martinez
CEO & Founder Totem Moto Tours

Photo credits

Vincent Martinez & Julie Ledru