We were making our way up the west coast of France on our 30-day campervan tour; we had to visit as many gorgeous places on the way with the condition that we return our van to London within our monthly time limit. This meant that our visits to cities like Nantes gave us a one day window of opportunity and we had to make the most of our limited time. We had booked ahead at Nantes Camping and on arrival discovered that they had no standard sites left so we had to upgrade to a ‘fancy’ site. This meant that there was a small ‘cubby’ in the corner of our plot that housed a washing machine and some BBQ equipment! However, there was no time for washing or BBQing; we hauled our bikes from the back of the campervans, checked the maps and headed towards the centre of the old town. Our camp site was not far from the River Erdre which originally was a tributary of the Loire River and it was easy to link up with a bike path next to the university that headed towards the centre with easy riding and great views of the river. This route enabled us to cross over onto the Isle de Versaille, an artificial Island created in 1831 and was turned into a Japanese Garden fifty years later when its industrial use had finished. Who doesn’t like a good Japanese garden? Its rockeries and water features were a great welcome to Nantes. Lovely boat shed with Ile de Versailles in the background, further along the river L’Erdre
Ile de Versaille was just one of the changes to the waterways of Nantes that has taken place over the last 100 years. Being on the Loire, down-river from Paris, Nantes became the largest port in France in the 18th century, particularly involved in the slave trade from Africa to the Americas. Like all European cities it had to adjust to history’s demands, particularly after the Revolution and in the twentieth century, after World War I. The city decided to fill in canals that linked the Erdre to the Loire from 1926 onwards. It was not far downstream from Ile de Versaille that the Erdre runs into a tunnel which carries its waters to the Loire and the above ground became a road. We were on dry land at the start of our tour of the old town but didn’t realise the story behind the end of the river we had been following. This was just one example of how understanding the layout of a city demands a consideration of its history. Another example of this was exemplified by the memorial we encountered at the edge of the old town. It is called ‘Monument aux 50 Otages’ and in the image below, the Erdre can be seen in the background. The memorial was designed and completed in 1952 to commemorate one of the horrifying events that occurred during the NAZI occupation of Nantes beginning on the 18th June 1940. The NAZI Governor put in control over Nantes was Karl Hotz and he was assassinated on October 20, 1941 by Communists sent from Paris. In reprisal, many of the 50 hostages were executed on the site of this memorial two days later.
The map on the right (courtesy of Wikipedia) shows the pre 1926 waterways of Nantes in brown. The buildings marked in red on the map were those damaged by American bombing during the war. For French towns and cities on the west coast between 1943-45, it was a little hard to decide which was worse, the damage inflicted on the citizens by their liberating friends or their German enemies. In two days of bombing in September 1943, over a thousand people were killed by allied bombs.
From the end of the River Erdre, it was just a short bike ride down to the staggeringly beautiful Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. We approached the Cathedral via Place Saint Pierre, the view which is captured in the two images below.
Like so many other Churches in France, this Gothic Cathedral replaced an earlier Romanesque basilica in the middle of the 15th century. This earlier basilica was built on the site of an even earlier church built when the Romans occupied this area. The second church on this site lasted until the 9th century when it illustrated the fate of churches in territories subject to the dangerous envy of marauding Viking neighbours. It was burnt down after these uncouth types torched the church, killed the bishop and at another nearby Church in Nantes, threw the relic of St Semilien down a well! (Thank you to Jonathan Baker for this detail!) It was rebuilt and then burnt down again by another generation of Viking visitors who this time decided to stay for keeps, settling down in the area of France that took their name, Normandy. The Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul took 457 years to complete after its foundation was laid in 1434. In an event reminiscent of the destruction of the roof of Notre Dame in Paris in 2019, the roof of this Cathedral was engulfed in flames in 1972 and the whole Cathedral had to be completely restored.
This church has a number of famous names associated with it that we would encounter elsewhere in the city. Anne of Brittany, whose statue we ran into later in front of the local castle provided some magnificent stained-glass windows for this cathedral. Her father, Francis II of Brittany, is buried in this church and his tomb is a highlight of a visit inside. For those fans of Alexander Dumas, the real-life version of d’Artagnan, one of his three musketeers, is known in 1661 to have arrested Louis XIV’s finance minister in front of this cathedral.
Travelling along the west coast of France, it is noticeable that the big cities have lost their medieval walls and the smaller towns, such as Dinan in Brittany, have retained them. Pressure of population growth and involvement in territorial warfare in the bigger cities brought about the removal of inconvenient walls that had lost their ability to protect the citizens inside them. Bordeaux is a classic example of the loss of walls over the centuries but, when we visited, it was difficult for us to get an overall sense of where they had originally stood (No map with these details!) This wasn’t the case for Nantes where at least archaeologists have been able to produce a map of the route of the old walls. Most of the town walls were destroyed in the 18/19th centuries but there is a remnant of the old walls beside the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. The old Romanesque basilica was built just inside the city walls and when they began building the new Cathedral, the ruins of the old church and the section of the town wall were inconveniently in the way; both were destroyed to complete the new cathedral. The only thing that survived was a section of a town gate, Porte San Pierre and its associated tower that was once part of the city wall.
The first city wall of Nantes was built around 270CE and its route is indicated by the dashed line on the above map. This Gallo-Roman wall eventually fell into disrepair and was replaced by a bigger and wider wall at the start of the 13th century. The old gateway, Porte St-Pierre, that led travelers towards Angers is still standing with a modern footpath going through it. The photo to the left shows the conglomeration of different shaped stones at the bottom of the wall, showing remnants of the first wall and later additions.
There has been some extensive archaeological work done around the tower associated with the St Pierre Gate and the visitor can inspect what was uncovered of the original foundations of the site. In the large square behind Porte St Pierre there is a statue of Louis XVI of France, a rare commodity given he was the king executed at the start of the French Revolution.
When you look at the map of France and its regions, you will find Nantes is one of the largest cities in the Pays de la Loire. However, when we headed from the Cathedral down a few blocks to the castle, determining its official name was initially confusing. On one map it was called the “Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne” and on the other map we had, it was called “Duchesse Anne Chateau”. It seems that over the millennia, Brittany has lost a few of its major strategic sites to other regions. Mont St Michel is geographically part of Brittany but is officially in Normandy. Nantes has always been historically and culturally part of Bretagne but is officially in the region of Pays de la Loire. The two names for this splendid chateau capture Nantes complex history.
As you approach the chateau, a remarkably life-like statue is to be found in a small square near the entry way and it looks like Duchesse Anne of Brittany (1477-1514) approaching her chateau in peasant clothing. Her dress appears to have reflected the artist’s decision but as one of the richest women on the continent, she is unlikely to have been seen in public in this kit. Her short life captures the who’s who of Western Europe in the late 15th century and encapsulates how royal women were merely a bargaining tool in the hands of scheming politicians on all sides of the complex conflicts of the time. Here is a list of her less than voluntary personal relationships.
- Promised in marriage to Edward IV of England in 1480 before he disappeared in the Tower of London, presumably disposed of by the confirmed ‘crookback’ Richard III.
- Married (at a distance) to Emperor Maximilian of Austria (never consummated).
- Proposed to by Alain d’Albret looking for an alliance with Brittany but she made her own decision on this match; he was too ugly.
- Her first marriage was to Louis Duke of Orleans in 1491. The only impediment was that he was married to the sister of the King of France at the time of the proposal. She became Queen of France and her new king had her previous ‘marriage’ to Maximilian annulled (as well as his own!)
- Part of this marriage contract with Louis was that if the King died before Anne, she had to marry his successor. Louis died of course and his successor had to get another annulment from a busy Pope and she married Louis XII in 1499. The historical irony of this wedding ceremony was that Anne wore white, thus creating a fashion necessity that has passed down to the brides of the last 500 years.
- Sadly, in all these formal relationships, she was pregnant 14 times in her 36 years of life with only two children surviving to adulthood. Her goal of maintaining the independence of Bretagne from the wolves on both sides of the English Channel meant a hard life for Anne; she deserved more than having a Chateau named after her.
The origins of this castle in the walls of Nantes was in the 13th century and was developed as the attacks of the 100 Years War between France and England developed. It grew to its current size under Anne of Brittany’s father, Francis II of Brittany who needed a secure fortress to protect his city and his region’s independence from the demands of the English and the French. All his efforts were in vain as his daughter was forced through her marriages to cede authority over Bretagne to France and this Chateau became a royal French castle. It survived reasonably intact until the time of the revolution where it was turned into a gaol; revolutions need large gaols as well as storehouses for gun powder and its equivalents. The Parthenon is a good example of why you don’t store gunpowder in national treasures. The same fate fell upon the “Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne” in 1800 when a ceiling collapsed in a tower where gunpowder was stored, exploding and destroying large sections of this old chateau (and Nantes itself). The polygonal tower shown in the image below on the right is the oldest surviving section of the castle and would have been familiar to Anne of Brittany, having survived here since the 14th century.
Luckily for us the chateau was completely restored and we spent a lovely afternoon walking its walls, admiring the castle as well as the views out over the city. There is a museum of the history of Nantes in the castle which time didn’t permit us to visit but is apparently extensive and well presented. Standing on the ramparts of the Nantes castle we could look out further into the city, particularly to the park across the way with the beautiful mirror pool in the centre. Unfortunately on such a quick visit we couldn’t do justice to the rest of Nantes so we decided to head for the centre of the action in the narrow streets of the old centre, try the local wine before jumping back on the bikes and heading back to our camping ground before sunset.
Appendix 1: Nantes Blog
Anybody interested in the history of Nantes should visit “historicalnantes.blogspot.com; Travels in Nantes”.
Appendix 2: Biscuit Factory as Nantes tourist hotspot.