Let's take a ride to one of the most important cities in the west of France, and also one of the most vibrant : Nantes, the main city of the Pays de Loire. To introduce you this beautiful city, I'll help you discover some of the main neighbourhoods and monuments, following the paths of its rich history.
Nantes is a portuary city, close to the sea and also to the great river Loire ; for this reason, the city has been considered as a strategic point and a commercial crossroad throughout history. At the end of the Middle Age, an era of many battles and wars, when Nantes and Rennes struggled for the title of capital of Brittany, the headquarters of the breton political power were finally settled there. François II, duke of Brittany, orders the construction of two important buildings : the St Pierre cathedral and the Château des Ducs de Bretagne.
Both are symbols of power, and the stately Castle with its seven towers and 500 meters of patrol paths, is used as a fortress to push back the invaders. After the loss of Brittany independence in 1488, the duchess Anne de Bretagne, an emblematic character of the city, which you will certainly hear about (if you want to meet her in person, her statue keeps watch on the Castle just next to it), tries to preserve Brittany's interests and defend its culture in despite of its annexation to France. Then, in the Renaissance, the castle becomes a royal residency while keeping its military purpose. Today, you can visit it freely, and it also hosts the Historical Museum of Nantes, where you can learn more about this central monument.
Later on, in the 18th century, Nantes develops its commercial activity through the maritime exchanges. It becomes the most important commercial harbour in Europe and develops the triangular trade : the ships go first to Africa to exchange goods for prisoners, who are then forced to join America and are sold there to work as slaves in the plantations and building sites. Back in Europe, the ships bring back the precious goods from the colonies (sugar, coffee, indigo...). This is an important part of the story of the city, which explains the origins of many of the luxurious buildings and mansions that you can see now in the city center. If you pass by the former harbor, you will find the Memorial of the Abolition of Slavery, which commemorates this dark part of history and invites to think about this issue.
The commercial activities keep on growing during the 19th century, new plants and factories appear with the industrial revolution, and while the bourgeoisie develops the arts and culture in the city, more and more working-class neighborhoods appear around the factories and the population increases. One important remain of this era is the former biscuit factory LU, now called the Lieu Unique. It used to be an immense structure, created in 1886 and employed hundreds of workers. It used to be the place where the « Petit Écolier », a famous brand of butter biscuits, were made. Louis Lefèvre-Utile, the creator of the business, was very attached to the aesthetics and ads of his products ; that's why the building is realized with such an artistic vision, in Art Nouveau style. Today, the building has become a cultural place, with a concert hall, a gallery, a bookstore, a restaurant and even a hammam. A must see !
Traces of all these events and of the political, economical and cultural issues, which marked the history of Nantes, are visible in the architecture of the city and you can try to read them while strolling in the streets. Nowadays, Nantes is a very dynamic, young and artistic city, which dialogues with the past and encourages many projects to continue the story.
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