Depending on the length of the visit, the pleasure trek can be a simple one-day excursion to some nearby town such as St-Germain-en-Laye or Giverny or it can be a
more substantial look into the heart of France.
For these, it's especially fun and easy to go there pre-Paris,
straight from the airport via the RATP.
In years prior, we had visited many chateaux in the Loire Valley but had overlooked
the Western Loire completely. That was easy to remedy, starting with a trip to Nantes,
the capital of the Western Loire, referred to as the Loire-Atlantique. It's a mix of the Loire and Brittany (Nantes was once the capital of Brittany) and offers the best of both.
In just a little over two hours, we whooshed past villages and wide open fields on the TGV,
soon to be rewarded with a virtual paradise of initiative and discovery.
It's impressive in so many ways.
Famous for its historic past (the Edict of Nantes and the horrific French slave trade),
Nantes is banking on its future with Les Machines de l'ile, a fantasyland of
creative thought and enterprise, linking everyone's favorite master of imagination,
legendary local writer Jules Verne with the mechanical genius of Leonardo da Vinci.
This inspired ingenuity comes together via some of the best visionary craftsmen in France.
The miracle of the machines percolates with its star, a 40-foot tall elephant that roams the city. Onlookers squeal with delight while 40+ riders at a time get an
up-close peek at his mechanical skeleton.
You have to see it to believe it.
There's something for everyone at this cultural entertainment park, even for nerds like me. Visitors are allowed to observe the creative gallery of the workshop from a balcony up above and the process, though tedious, is heart-stoppingly magical.
Oh to be an artist or an engineer, you'll want to go back to school as soon
as you see these creative geniuses at work.
Their sweat is not in vain. Les Machines de l'ile also boasts the biggest carousel I've ever seen -- three different tiers of fun, a visual fantasy that has moxie, allowing riders to work the levers and pulleys in exchange for more laughs and learning. And that's just for starters.
Mark this stop with a giant red X.
Don't miss it!
Much like Paris, the neighborhoods are distinctly different and you'll want to take your time strolling the easy, mostly pedestrianized streets of the city center.
The contrasts are startling.
There's a castle for starters, of course, like any good city of the Loire.
The Castle of the Dukes of Brittany is huge with too many towers to count. Anne of Brittany is the star here as is the polished museum interior that serves as a regional vault of history.
Then there's the medieval Bouffay quarter, its charming cobbled streets lined with
crèperies and bars. A university town, Nantes boasts a huge student population that enjoys hanging out in both stylish and not-so-stylish sidewalk venues all along this quartier.
Much more elegant, the Passage Pommeraye is a 19th century arcade full of posh boutiques. Filled with grecian statues and elegant columns, you'll think you're in the City of Light instead of a small city built on the tears of the slave trade. Place Graslin and Place Royale both compete for elegant splendor. The island of Feydeau is worthy of a good look, too, as are the opportunities to cruise the river in search of magnificent 19th century mansions.
All of these neighborhoods are easily in walking distance of each other but if you
prefer public transportation, the city's trams can't be beat.
As the European Union's Green Capitol (2013), Nantes takes pride in providing excellent transportation services be it tram, cruise-boat or ferry.
Time Magazine once called Nantes the most livable city in France.
I can believe it.
novel or two by native son Jules Verne. "Around the World in Eighty Days" and
"Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" will get your mojo going.
Verne conjured up the most daring characters in fiction, virtually
inventing a new genre, now known as science fiction.
Whether submarine or space travel inspires you, Nantes should get some of the credit
for his ambitious adventures.
There is a museum dedicated to his life and works.
The distinct Muscadet-Sévre-et-Maine wine of the region is a pleasure, almost a relief, as it's easy to drink and a welcome new taste to lovers of white. That, naturally, brings to mind a large platter of oysters, fresh from the sea, as delicious as any you'll ever taste.
The place to find these pleasures is a carnival for the eyes as well as your tummy.
La Cigale is a head-turner and you'll marvel at its beauty and historically decorative
stage-presence even before you enjoy your first bite of dinner.
This must be where they came up with the expression "paint the town red" because
let me tell you, it's the perfect spot to do just that.
The Belle Epoque styled brasserie has a stunner of a dining room, with tiled walls
and decorated ceilings, bustling servers and happy diners.
I have wonderful memories of a particularly delicious steak tartare prepared tableside and a lovely bottle of champagne and .....yes, we painted the town red that evening....
It's the perfect place for a celebration.
History has a way of raining on a nearly perfect parade but Nantes has even turned
its ugly past into a reason to be proud of the city.
They have faced up to their dark history, a chronicle of shame that too many countries share.
The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery stands on the same wharf where
slave ships, loaded with European commodities like fabric and liquor,
set sail for Africa to do business in the slave trade.
The exchanged their wares for African victims turned slaves as well as sugar and coffee.
There was a triangle between Africa, Nantes and the Caribbean and at the time (1685-1817), it was all legal. Nantes became a rich town steeped with merchants and
wealthy traffickers who profited royally from the practice.
The new city of Nantes has faced up to its old crimes against humanity with the quiet memorial. Promoting human rights, the moving tribute displays the Universal Declaration of Human Rights along with the word Freedom expressed in nearly 50 different languages.
It's a moving portrait of a city that cares.
It's well worth the time and effort!
From Nantes, it's easy to travel by train to nearby Angers and Chinon --
but that's a story for another day.
Cheers to Nantes & the Loire Atlantique!