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Have a novel time in Nantes

The beautiful city of Nantes in France has a fascinating literary heritage  – here’s what you can discover there.

It’s not often you see an elephant walking through a city, especially a 40ft wooden one spraying water from its trunk at curious passers-by. But when you’re in the hometown of French novelist Jules Verne you can expect to see the unexpected.

The author who penned Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around The World in Eighty Days – recently made into a BBC series with David Tennant playing gentleman adventurer Phileas Fogg – was born in Nantes, north-western France, in 1828. In recent years the former shipyard was the focus of a truly fantastic regeneration project that pays homage to Nantes’ famous son known as the Father of Science Fiction.

The most head-turning sight at Les Machines de I’ile is the elephant which takes passengers on a 30-minute ride along the waterfront. Tickets sell out fast, so buy them online before you travel. Another attraction on a giant scale is the three-storey carousel where fanciful sea creatures replace the traditional merry-go-round horses, and mechanical waves rise out of the floor.

Elsewhere, there’s a trail of more than 20 quirky art installations, including a giant tape measure and pop art zebra crossing, which makes pedestrians and cars slow down even though it’s not real. The contemporary art project, which is in complete contrast to the 15th century timber-framed houses in the Bouffay district, was designed to symbolise modern-day Nantes.

The French city lies on the banks of the Loire in the Upper Brittany region, near the Atlantic Ocean, and more extraordinary installations can be found in the river itself. Most curious of all is a partially submerged house which many people think is real when they first see it rising out of the water.  Depending on the tide, you might also spot a giant sea serpent skeleton as you follow the course of the river to its estuary.

There are more big sights to be found at Saint-Nazaire which is the location of one of Europe’s largest shipyards and the birthplace of some of the greatest French transatlantic liners. Nowadays Chantiers de l’Atlantique builds modern cruise ships for lines including Royal Caribbean, MSC and Celebrity Cruises here. Take a fascinating guided coach tour around the vast shipyard to see the shipbuilding process, with close-up views of vessels in various stages of construction.

Afterwards, take a step back in time at Escal’Atlantic, a museum dedicated to the glorious ocean ships of the past such as the Normandie, built in Saint-Nazaire in 1935. It immortalises the seafaring elegance of bygone days through fun interactive displays and original fixtures and fittings.

Moving from the novels of Jules Verne to fairy-tales, the Loire is known as the Royal River due to the myriad of châteaux built for French kings and aristocrats. Château d’Ussé inspired Charles Perrault’s classic children’s story Sleeping Beauty, which is retold through a series of tableaux at the top of a spiral staircase in one of the towers. It’s another unique attraction on a trip filled with magical and outsize sights.

Published 03.03.22