STEPHEN DAVY-OSBORNE heads to Nantes for a weekend of culture

A JOURNEY deep under the sea, a ferocious serpent emerging out of the waves, and a voyage around the world through hundreds of different artworks.

There really is no better place to go on an adventure beyond your imagination than the home-town of Jules Verne himself where the past unashamedly collides with the future. And the city affectionately known in the 1980s as Sleeping Beauty has truly awoken to become a destination for art connoisseurs and artists alike who continue to be inspired by Nantes’ industrial and creative edge.

Stealing all of the headlines this year and affirming the city’s artistic credentials is The Musee D’Arts De Nantes. It has been six years in the making, costing in the region of €88m. And this summer it threw open its newly renovated doors for the first time to welcome thousands of art lovers eager to see how the gallery had been transformed since its last visitors passed through in 2011.

Here, old meets knew with the striking 19th century façade of the Palais contrasting with the newly built Cube, a 2,000 sq m building dedicated solely to contemporary art. Alongside masterpieces by the likes of Kandinsky and Monet is a vast collection of post1900 artworks, making up around half of the entire collection, and setting the feel for a truly contemporary museum for the 21st century. The ambitious project, which saw the museum closed throughout the renovation, has created an exhibition space around 30 per cent larger for the 900 works currently on display. The museum’s vast collection is thought to number more than 12,000 pieces, making it the largest in Western France, and home to one of the most beautiful collections of contemporary art.

This year also marked a milestone birthday for the former shipbuilding yards now home to Les Machines de L’île. Far from falling into rack and ruin following the collapse of the city’s main industry in the late-20th century, the former industrial heartland of the island began an awe-inspiring transformation in 2007 when a 12metre-high, 48.4 ton elephant took its first mechanical strides along the banks of the Loire. Fast forward 10 years and you can still take a ride atop the magnificent elephant (just steer clear of its trunk, which sprays water!) as well as a veritable bestiary of mechanical birds and insects in the Galerie des Machines dreamt up by François Delarozière and Pierre Orefice. You can even take a voyage under the sea (Verne would most certainly approve of this!) aboard the 80ft high Carousel Des Mondes Marins.

Plans are now afoot to take this blend of mechanics and art to new heights with the unveiling of the ambitious Heron Tree. This 105ft tree will be made up of 22 wood and steel branches home to all sorts of magnificent creatures and is expected to be completed by 2021.

But Nantes’ artistic streak is by no means confined within the walls of the museum, or restricted to the île de Nantes – the city itself has become a canvas for countless artists who transform the city into its very own spectacle each and every summer.

The Voyage à Nantes is a seemingly inconspicuous green line painted on the streets of the city that lead guests on a remarkable 12km winding walk around town taking in some truly spectacular sights. During July and August the trail truly comes to life with a number of sculptures taking over key points in the city’s open spaces and parks, such as Baptiste Debombourg’s 1,200 café chairs formed into a rollercoaster during the 2015 trail, right down to something as subtle as a mischievous street sign.

On a larger scale, and taking your out of the city itself towards the Atlantic at Saint Nazaire is the Estuaire modern art trail, a 60km route along the Loire taking in some exceptional pieces of permanent sculpture. Expect to come face to face with a giant tape measure, a melting sailing ship and the vast Serpent d’Océan along the way.

What many find most inspiring about the Nantes of today is the fusion between historic and contemporary. One of the skyline’s more striking outlines which really embodies this idea of past-meets-present is the Château des Ducs de Bretagne – an elegant palace built behind robust fortress walls, brimming with multimedia facilities to bring the story of the château to life.

And it’s a story that is constantly being updated, just as the city itself writes its own future in a creative way that Verne could only have dreamt of.

Where to eat

La Cigale is one of those restaurants that will make you catch your breath the moment you walk through the doors. Classified as a historic monument in the 1960s, the beautifully tiled walls and intricately decorated ceilings almost distract from the delicious meals cooked up by the hugely talented chefs making this the must-dine destination in the city. Booking ahead is essential.

If you’re looking for something a little more laid back, take a short boat ride along the Loire to Trentemoult, where the colourful, narrow streets of the former sailor’s village have captured the hearts of a new generation, having once inspired Verne’s Captain Nemo. Here you will find La Civelle which offers a menu of pan-fried lobster, scallops, tiger prawns and fillet of lamb, as well as an impressive wine list. With the option to dine al fresco, there is no better place to enjoy a relaxing afternoon in the sun.

If cocktails are your thing, take the elevator to the 32nd floor of the Tour Bretagne where you will be greeted by a vast white bird - half heron, half stork, whose long neck snaked around the top floor helpfully doubles up as a bar. Don’t forget to drink in the unrivalled views of the city and beyond from the outdoor balcony.

Where to stay

Stepping on to the gangplank that leads through the doors of the boutique Hotel La Pérouse in central Nantes is like stepping aboard a luxury vessel setting sail across the Atlantic. This avant-garde hotel was drawn up by city architects Bernard and Clotilde Barto, and features rough-cut wooden designer furniture made at the ship-building yards of Chantiers de LAtlantique, with each of the 46 cabins inspired by 1930s sea-faring style.

How to get there

Easyjet fly daily direct from Gatwick to Nantes, as well as operating flights from Bristol to Nantes.

For more information