Pays de la Loire Atlantique is an oft-forgotten part of France, overlooked by many international travelers, but the diversity of its attractions and scenery makes it a region well-worth visiting. Here are four ways to enjoy an area that is a mere two-hour train journey by TGV from Paris.
Situated in the Loire Valley, a 50-minute drive from the ocean, Nantes is one of the most innovative and dynamic cities in France — qualities that become obvious upon entering its central tourism office. Here, open-plan seating means visitors receive guidance from officials in a more personal way. Servane Le Neel, one of the city guides, is lively and inventive, conducting a most informative and entertaining city tour.
Being the birthplace of famed fantasy author Jules Verne, it’s not surprising his creations — including a giant, mechanical elephant — form part of the city’s comprehensive tourism offer. Known as Machines de l’Ile (Machines of the Island), the riverside space of warehouses from the former shipyards have been transformed into an open fairground with various Verne-like attractions. One such sight is the nearly 40-foot-high, 26-foot-wide, 45-ton wood and steel mammal that takes up to 49 passengers for a 45-minute walk around the area. Other attractions include a Marine Worlds Carousel and a tall, branching Heron Tree that visitors can walk up for a fine aerial view.
Le Voyage a Nantes is the name given to a 10-mile-long green trail that provides tourists with a weaving physical guide through 30 of the town’s most interesting sites from the downtown area to the western tip of the île de Nantes. The route includes the Museum of Fine Art, Opéra Graslin, the Palais de Justice and the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany (the city’s most important historic building), and to contemporary art displays in various public places. With leading surrealist, Andre Breton, having once lived here, expect some interesting surprises.
A visit to Nantes is not complete without eating at its most famous downtown brasserie, La Cigale (The Cricket). Designed by the ceramist architect Émile Libaudière, it is a landmark of classic art nouveau. Boasting several salons with original gilded tile-work and frescoed ceilings, guests are attended by white-aproned waiters. The brasserie opened in 1895 and serves delightful food, with starters that include crab meat wrapped in zucchini and goat’s cheese with strips of Serrano ham. Try the duck magret with pepper-sauce as a main — it comes pink, not red, and deliciously soft and tender, with a crispy skin.
There’s no better way to understand the history of Pays de la Loire Atlantique than with a drive through its rolling rural countryside, made especially luxurious when behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz which can be rented through Avis Rent A Car.
Start in historic Clisson with its medieval castle standing guard over the key bridge spanning the Sèvre Nantaise and Moine Rivers. Another remnant of the Middle Ages is the town’s impressive covered market which hosts a lively affair every Friday. During the French revolution much of the town went up in flames, but in the early 19th century wealthy art patrons, the Cacault brothers of Nantes, and their sculptor friend Frédéric Lemot, rebuilt the town in the architectural style they admired so much in Italy. Highlights include a central church and La Garenne Lemot, a graceful Palladian villa now used for contemporary art exhibitions.
Try lunch at the recently-renovated Villa Saint Antoine overlooking the castle where starters include homemade foie gras with a red berry jelly on toasted brioche or snails à la Provençal with grilled croutons. A menu highlight is the delectable rib of beef for two with homemade bérnaise sauce and grenaille potatoes, washed down with a red wine from Domaine du Château de Marsannay.
Wine tasting is a must in the Loire Atlantic and the Château de La Cassemichère, with the more than 100-acre vineyard in the heart of the Muscadet region, is an excellent place to start. A bridge-engineer by profession, Daniel Ganichaud purchased the vineyard in 2005, but the first Muscadet grape was planted here in 1740. Built in the early 17th century, the chateau, surrounded by five acres of woodland, also offers elegant accommodations. Plans are now underway to build an on-site museum. There’s nothing quite like sipping on its gold-medal-winning offers with titbits of trout and fois gras crostini.
To top off a perfect day in the countryside, dine at the two Michelin-star restaurant Thierry Drapeau, located within the Logis de la Chabotterie, a restored Bas Poitevin manor house. Chef Drapeau serves up a superb Carte Blanche tasting-menu with course names a lesson in pure simplicity: asparagus, egg, scallops, salmon and guinea fowl. The names may be sparse but their creation and presentation border on the surreal, with, for example, the asparagus browned with marrow and ham of Vendée, truffle jelly, rosemary flower Mouron des oiseaux and savory cromesquis
Les Sable d’Olonne and Les Chaume, its neighbor across the river, are delightful towns in historic La Vendée. In the former in 1876, Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), designed the first casino in Sables d'Olonne and a nearby fish market reflects the same metal and glass style. Historic artifacts lying around, reflecting the town’s evolution, include a stone anchor dated BC and another nearly 20-foot anchor from an 18th century French galleon. More than 200 fishermen live in Les Chaume's quaint Spanish hacienda-style homes, many of the seamen being descendants of 16th century Basque whalers.
Lovely 19th century villas and chalets line the promenade which also serves as a fine place to watch the Vendée Globe, the world's most prestigious single-handed, around-the-world race which departs from here in November. A must-see is the delicate, artistic wall mosaics created by Danièle Arnaud-Aubin, using only shellfish. Lunch is best enjoyed at Lea Mouettes (The Seagulls) looking out on to the harbor. Start with the local apéritif, Trousseminette, followed by the seafood platter, which includes scallops and hake served up with Jerusalem artichoke, rutabaga and potato tarte Tatin.
The heart of Saint-Nazaire’s history is its port. Though there is nothing left of the myriad of trans-Atlantic goods and passenger services it provided to Cuba, Mexico, Panama, and other exotic places, the city has converted its nautical heritage into a tourism benefit. With the creation of Ville-Port designed by Catalan architect Manuel de Sola, various attractions have been created, including Escal'Atlantic, the Ocean Liner Experience, by which visitors wander around inside a stationary cruise liner, imagining it’s out on the high seas.
Another intriguing tour is inside the submarine Espadon, a reminder of how the occupying Nazi Third Reich turned the port into a base for U-boats. After enjoying the nautical sights (including a one-hour coastal boat ride with Les Croisières-Découverte), a meal at the nearby Skipper Restaurant is highly recommended. Its diverse menu satisfies most tastes but don't leave without tasting its version of Mouleaux with salted caramel ice cream.
With an intriguing history, a landscape of rolling hills, many covered with vineyards, long sandy beaches and pretty towns that are magnets for creative arts, Pays de la Loire Atlantique is a tourism destination that deserves much attention.
Sean Hillen has been an international journalist and editor for more than 30 years and is also a published author. His experience spans several continents - in Ireland, for the national daily, The Irish Times in England, as foreign correspondent for The Times and Daily Telegraph. In the US, Sean worked at the United Nations Media Center in New York, Scripps Howard Broadcasting and regional new...(Read More)