Saturday, July 21, 2012

Nantes of many faces

I've been in Nantes this week to write a profile for London City airport. It's three years since I last visited and I'd forgotten the extraordinary vibrance and energy of this dynamic place. The city has had to reinvent itself several times and has done so with panache. Much of the exceptional 18th century wealth still so visible today in the merchant's houses with their iron balconies and sculpted 'masks' came from the 'triangular trade' whereby ships left Nantes for Africa, took slaves on to the Caribbean and returned to France laden with sugar and spices. This difficult theme in the city's history is in no way played down. The chateau museum graphically depicts the material benefits and the unspeakable cruelty of the practice, and a new Memorial to the Abolition of the Slave Trade has been established beside the Loire, including a long subterranean tunnel full of facts and quotations about the struggles of the abolitionists all over the world. A bold strategy, making virtue out of necessity!
Despite having magnificent heritage in the restored Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany and the gleaming Gothic cathedral, greater emphasis is placed these days on more innovative offerings, and many strategies are in place to lure visitors from the medieval centre to one bank or another of the Loire. Le Lieu unique is an arts centre set up in the old factory where the famous LU brand churned out biscuits in their millions. The interior remains a rude mass of concrete and metal, carefully made over in a minimalist kind of way - the underground toilets are deliberately awash with graffiti - to satisfy some criteria of the current craze for industrial art. The lone remaining blue and red tower with its gyroscope is now open for a panoramic view over the city.
On the Ile de Nantes the vast former ship-building works is now a centre for machines of a very different kind, like a larger than life mechanical elephant that will take you for a ride. With the decline of the port, as the Loire silted up and St-Nazaire developed to the west, Nantes has niftily adapted its maritime legacy to meet the service demands of a new age of tourism.
As to the fact that Nantes was capital of Brittany for a thousand years until the Vichy government severed the tie during WWII and the city became head of the new region of Loire-Atlantique soon after the war - what better opportunity than to shift identity once again (and totally avoid the complex political issues of reintegration with the four provinces of new Brittany - over Rennes' dead body) and become Nantes of many faces - Breton in some undefined way, but mainly top city of the Loire, commercial centre of all the surroundings territories, focal point of north-western France.
It's all done very cleverly, like a conjurer's sleight of hand, with the visitor so taken by the razzledazzle of festivals, initiatives, colourful street life, building developments and fluvial activities that there's really no time for analysis, just pure fun and enjoyment.

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