A green line runs through Nantes, tracing a trail from former shipyards on the banks of the Loire River and disused biscuit factories to new developments and contemporary-art installations. The Voyage à Nantes route showcases the creative energy that has risen from the ruins of the city’s industrial past. Until 1987, Nantes was a bastion of French shipbuilding. Now it’s building on culture, higher education and, more recently, the innovation sector to reclaim its title as the economic capital of the industrial northwest.
Nantes would most likely not be the audacious, artistic city it is today were it not for artistic director Jean Blaise. When the last shipyard closed its doors some 30 years ago, Blaise took the helm of a cultural renaissance that has led to the founding of a number of arts initiatives, including the Lieu Unique exhibition space and Voyage à Nantes. “I’m not originally from Nantes but the town’s enterprising nature spoke to me immediately so I wanted to prevent it from losing this dynamic,” says Blaise. “Back then Nantes was a blank canvas for artistic creation. Our aim was to stir the imagination of the residents and attract international talent.”
In an effort to democratise art, Blaise turned Nantes into a living museum with festivals, biennales and works by the likes of Daniel Buren and Philippe Ramette studding its public spaces year-round. Nantes’ annual visitor numbers rose by 64 per cent in less than a decade, and with this revamped image as a creative powerhouse, the city’s art and design schools – among them the École des Beaux-Arts and the École de Design Nantes-Atlantique – have seen an influx of students from around the world.
The new Nantes is nowhere as apparent as on the Île, an island south of the historic heart that was once the epicentre of naval construction. With the acquisition of the old Alstom factory in 2001, the city initiated an ambitious urban development mission, based on the belief that the creation of an innovation hub on the island could help generate 2,000 jobs by 2020. The five converted Alstom halls will provide 25,000 square metres dedicated to creative and emerging industries with flexible office units, a food court and university campuses. A year before the final completion of the Alstom site, city hall’s plan is already bearing fruit: start-ups, architecture studios and art galleries have popped up on the island.
“Nantes has always been a land of entrepreneurs and the city is doing a lot to keep it this way,” says Magali Olivier, operations director of La Cantine, a friendly co-working space for digital professionals, subsidised by the Nantes metropolis.
Across the Loire, in the picturesque centre, Nantes has made equal investment in making the city more liveable, neatening parks and improving public transport. It is this equilibrium between urban, economic and cultural infrastructure that has kept existing residents and brought in new ones too.
In recent years the city has benefitted from an influx of young restaurateurs and shop owners from other parts of France, who have come to set up successful businesses amid the town’s cobbled streets. Now there are boutiques exhibiting the work of craftsmen, such as L’Atelier du Petit Parc and the Spanish-Breton-run Mira, as well as restaurants such as Roza that wouldn’t look out of place in the French captial. “We relocated to Nantes once quality of life became more of a priority for our family,” says Oscar Piñon of Mira. “I like that the town has such a strong identity, in line with its industrial history and its newfound cultural dynamic.”
2 hours Travel time to Paris on the TGV
2 out of 3 Inhabitants aged under 40
40 Business incubators
10 Grandes Écoles
25 minutes Average commute
€264,230 Average price of a central two-bedroom apartment
With grey stone and red-brick villas perched atop its cliffs, Dinard is a glorious – if dramatic – reminder of France’s Belle Epoque, when the Brittany city became a popular beach town for aristocrats and wealthy holiday-goers. Today the summertime destination is attracting a growing number of French entrepreneurs, with nearly 100 new businesses created in 2017 alone.
“Living here was always my dream,” says Alex Udin, the 37-year-old founder of Phantom International, a company manufacturing hydrofoil boats. Udin grew up between Paris and Lille but moved to Dinard, where his family owned a holiday home, at 15. He started his sail-making career abroad but when the time came to launch his first company, Sail Innovation, returning to Dinard was an obvious choice. Working by the sea is good for business: he needs to test his boats in the water, and being able to sail with friends after work is priceless. “Here, it’s heaven on Earth,” he says.
The seaside lifestyle has attracted others, including architect Christophe Bachmann, whose Dinard-based studio remodelled many of the art deco villas and hotels in the region. “Being based here doesn’t stop us from working all over France and abroad,” he says. “But we have peace and quiet and it’s one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.”
Dinard itself is small, with just 10,000 residents in the off-season, but it’s only a 15-minute drive away from the larger city of Saint Malo, where a high-speed TGV line travels to Paris in about three hours. The local airport offers direct flights to London. The town’s accessibility explains its growing appeal according to Daniel Besseiche, who opened a contemporary-art gallery here in 1989. “At the time we knew of Dinard’s glorious past but it was at its lowest ebb, there was nothing,” he says. Now he sees investment going “in the right direction”.
Matthieu Gailly and his wife Caroline left high-stress jobs in Paris to take over Biscuits Joyeux, a Brittany biscuit brand dating to 1963. In just two years the couple have opened two shops, in Dinard and Saint Malo, putting a modern spin on a regional delicacy. “Before, I travelled to at least two countries every week. Now I pick up my children from school, I organise my time,” says Matthieu. “I find myself living for real.”
Meanwhile, Pierre and Flore de Kerautem bought and remodelled the century-old Hotel St Michel in 2013, after deciding to leave Paris. “We wanted to change our lives and here we had to remake everything,” says Pierre, who used to work in finance. The hotel’s cosy interiors attract clients throughout the year. “We thought we’d only open for eight months,” he says. “But people are coming all the time. There’s always something happening in Dinard.”
3 hours Travel time to Paris
€350,000 Average price of a central two-bedroom apartment
84 New businesses created in 2017
1989 Dinard Film Festival launches
As soon as the sun breaks through the clouds along the Garrone River, Bordelais are out in force, traversing its wide banks by foot or on bikes, scooters and rollerblades. Once known for being traditional and rather stiff, the city has seen a transformation in the past 15 years. Under the steer of its longstanding mayor (the former prime minister and presidential hopeful, Alain Juppé) Bordeaux has ousted cars, spiffed up the once blackened 18th-century architecture and put citizens and tourists at its centre. “Bordeaux was considered a sleeping beauty,” says deputy mayor Stéphan Delaux from his office overlooking the Place Pey-Berland, where cafés in the shadow of the cathedral are filling up. “We woke up,” he says. “Today Bordeaux is a place of contrast. You have the tradition, yes, but also a sense of the new. We’re a young city with ideas.”
This balance is starting to lure a steady flow of Parisians, as well as expats drawn to this medium-sized city for its art de vivre. While Bordeaux’s opera house, cathedral and elegant streets lined with lavishly carved stone edifices have a wealthy, distinctly Parisian feel, its pace does not. Bordelais have an escape hatch in the form of Atlantic beaches that are just an hour’s drive from the city. “On a Sunday you get out to the coast, surf some waves and clear your head and be at home by the evening ready for a week’s work,” says Guillaume Chamaillard, who set up the company PIP, a beer brand with “a collaborative and cultural” space in a pavilion next to the harbour. “We can take these kind of micro holidays all the time – these days of sun and nature. I can swim in the city lake just 10 minutes from here at lunchtime. I can cycle to work along the river path.”
Tim Remi was raised in Bordeaux but left at the age of 21 to work as a designer at Levi’s in Paris, Brussels and Los Angeles. “I returned to Bordeaux after a long London winter, which can be hard,” he says. He’s sitting in the Meat Pack, a restaurant he launched last year in a former metal-smith workshop on Rue du Chai des Farines. “It was April and we went down to the beach. The sun was shining. I just felt this urge, ‘I can do something here.’ I suppose it was fate but also the weather – and the quality of life.”
Paris-based architect Victor du Peloux was enrolled on a master’s in wood construction when he met Clément Belin and decided to launch a co-working and maker space that would engage the community and further their own work. The pair began searching for the right city to put down roots. “We were thinking about Nantes and also Bordeaux, both changing cities,” says Du Peloux, as we walk around the former garage in the Saint Michel area that he will soon transform into a workshop called La Planche. “Ultimately it was the forests near the city, and the suppliers down there, that convinced us.”
The city is also actively helping La Planche with its aims. “The network has grown really fast,” says Du Peloux. “We’ve already met all the relevant people, which could take years to do in a city like Paris. The politicians are behind our project. They are in search of something new.”
Bordeaux’s peerless wine has defined the city and its surroundings for hundreds of years. Yet Bordelais are pushing beyond their heritage to launch food and beverage brands. Last year a cashless food court called La Boca opened next to the port in the old abattoirs of Bordeaux featuring counters from independent producers and restaurants that range from Corsican to Basque.
Laurianne Labeyrie has managed the tea brand La Diplomate since it was founded six years ago. In her cosy shop-cum-tea salon, people sip infusions around a huge stone fireplace. “We’re busier than ever,” says Labeyrie, as she decants tea leaves into her glossy black tins.
1,500 Restaurants in town (seven have a Michelin star)
1,810 Hectares listed on the Unesco World Heritage list
2 hours Travel time to Paris
€600,000 Average price of a central two-bed apartment