A New Luster in the Ancient Heart of Brittany

ON a recent summer afternoon, a tiny cafe called La Petit Epicerie, in the heart of Nantes, was packed with diners. Pascaline Lelard, a local real estate agent, très à la mode, sat down at a communal table with a flourish, spreading out her black flounced skirt and smoothing her wavy blond hair behind one ear. She chatted briefly with the owner, Christophe L'Hermiteau, who returned with a large salad, dressed with sesame seeds and herbs, anointed with a slice of toast topped with tzatzki and smoked salmon. Ms. Lelard then turned to me, sitting alone with a red notebook, jotting down details on the interior (antique tables, a banquet laden with home-made desserts).

“I come here twice a week,” she said, as though we'd been conversing. “Have you been here before? No? Well you absolutely must try the salmon. I insist!” and with that she made two sharp slices with her knife into her salmon/crème toast and pushed her salad toward me.

Outside, it sputtered rain off and on. “Il pleut sur Nantes,” the French chanteuse Barbara sang in the 1960s, “Donne-moi la main.” It's raining in Nantes. Give me your hand.

The opening phrase of the song fits this friendly, elegant — albeit rainy — city on the banks of the Loire, which, this summer, unveiled a series of impressive urban revitalization projects that have been drawing tourists from across France. Through Sept. 1, the city is playing host to Estuaire 2007 — the first of what will become a biennale art event and which features contemporary art installations in Nantes and all the way down the Loire to the seaside town of St. Nazaire, about 40 miles away.

But while Estuaire 2007 has inspired a mountain of French press praising the “new locomotive” (as Le Monde called it) that is drawing tourists to the city, Nantes also has made a series of architectural, conceptual and cosmetic changes that have transformed industrial neighborhoods into magnets for locals and tourists alike. This urban renewal effort, combined with the city's inherent joie de vivre, is making Nantes, France's sixth largest city, the arbiter of what might be called Atlantic Coast chic.

But even while Nantes has become fashionable, it has also remained surprisingly welcoming. Everywhere I went, I was engaged by locals. Nantes, they told me, boasts France's best quality of life. “I hated the Côte D'Azur,” said Jerome Chiron, 26, a native Nantias, on my last night in town. “I lived in Nice. I prefer Nantes.”

The best place to begin exploring Nantes is the newly polished Château des Ducs de Bretagne — a monument to the city's history, built over the course of centuries, beginning with the 15th. This was the home of Anne de Bretagne — twice Queen of France — who bound Brittany to France, quelling rebellions while securing rights for her region. Originally situated directly on the Loire, the branch of the river that once ran in front of the château was filled in the 18th century as the city expanded. In the 20th century the château was briefly taken over by occupying Germans — in fact, Nantes was an important part of the French Resistance network. (A nearby monument commemorates 50 executed Resistance hostages.)

After the war there was much debate over the palace. Now, after 25 years of discussion, and 15 years of restoration, the doors reopened in February. It has become a city museum, a restaurant (Les Oubliettes, the Forgotten, named for the prisoners who languished in palace cells hundreds of years ago) and an exhibition space. Rarely has a local history museum been so engaging and interactive.

On the day I visited, it was crowded with local school groups. “What is the opposite of a slave?” asked a teacher leading a group of middle-schoolers around the museum, which is laid out like a scavenger hunt, enticing visitors to climb towers, duck through doors, and wind around corners once cordoned off for nobility. “A free man!” called out a handful of students.

We were in what would have once been the most controversial room in Nantes — devoted to the city's role in the French slave trade. Not far from the château, magnificent 18th-century town houses with iron balustrades and intricately carved stone work were built with slave money. More than any other city in France, Nantes was immersed in the trade of human cargo; hundreds of thousands of African men, women and children were transported to the New World on slave ships that sailed from Nantes. In the museum, displays are straightforward and gruesome — iron collars, plans for ships laid out for maximum “storage.” The audio guide dissects how the slave trade clashed with Enlightenment ideals but notes that the wealth it produced made merchants reluctant to end it. As late as the mid-1980s Nantes' role in the slave trade was a wound the city had barely begun to address. The school children listened, rapt, to descriptions of the Atlantic passage, their faces a mix of ethnic heritages, a reminder of France's colonial history.

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