Berlin, Barcelona, Amsterdam: we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to artistic hotspots in Europe. But if you want to get off the well-trodden track for your fix of avant-garde installations, world-class collections and spectacular street art, then look to western France. Since the late 1980s, the formerly low-key town of Nantes has been making cultural waves thanks to the vision of artistic director Jean Blaise and Nantes’ then-mayor Jean-Marc Ayrault, who decreed that artistic events should be free, and take place outdoors or in public spaces. Today, it’s filled with creatives, mavericks and idealists, who have transformed the city into a destination buzzing with imagination and ingenuity – especially in the summer, when the two-month Voyage à Nantes celebration kicks off. Here’s your arts and culture hitlist.
Le Lieu Unique
Blaise founded this contemporary music and arts venue in a former biscuit factory in 2000. Its magnificent art nouveau exterior – note the iconic external tower – houses a range of performance and exhibition spaces. The extensive event programme regularly covers everything from visual arts to theatre, dance, literature, philosophy and architecture, and inside you’ll also find a bookshop, bar, restaurant, day nursery and even a hammam. Groovy.
The Estuaire art trail
This permanent, open-air collection of 30 original artworks was originally established in 2007 and takes you all the way from Nantes’ town centre along the Loire estuary (with works on both sides of the river) to the port town of Saint-Nazaire. You can explore them on foot, or by bike, car or, during the summer, by boat, where you’ll come across anything from a semi-submerged house to a 12ft-tall metal tree. The international featured artists include Daniel Buren, Tadashi Kawamata, Atelier Van Lieshout and Mrzyk & Moriceau. It’s also a particularly scenic way to experience art, as you’ll get the chance to observe river wildlife as well as the region’s maritime heritage.
Just a short trip across the Loire by Navibus is the former fishing village of Trentemoult, recognisable for the distinctive, red-tiled roofs of its buildings. It, too, has a respectable artistic pedigree, being home to more than 30 professional artists and their workshops. Here, you’ll find sculptors, photographers, ceramicists and illustrators, who all work and live in an informal community, based in gardens, outhouses, or even old boatyards. The appeal comes from strolling around the village’s network of old streets, identifying each studio or workshop as you pass, and having a chat or just a peek inside. Drop in on contemporary mosaicist Anaïs Landes, or check out the self-defined “silly sculptures” of Siobhan Gately.
Nantes has designated particular areas around the city as “free spaces”, where graffiti artists and muralists have carte blanche to decorate the area. Chiming with the city’s vision for free, accessible art, you can find them in areas such as under the Pont Aristide-Briand at the Quai Magellan, or as reworked shop and building signs – check out the Katorza cinema, hat-maker Falbalas St Junien, or the hairdresser on Rue de Verdun. And always look up; artists Grégoire Romanet and Gavin Pryke, in particular, are fond of locating works on high walls and above doorways.
Voyage à Nantes
Launched in 2011, this two-month summer street festival runs from 6 July until 1 September this year. “The idea was to colonise every part of town with artistic creation,” says its co-founder, Blaise. The city’s annual showpiece, it includes a seven mile-long arts trail marked by a green line, which leads through various sights and heritage locations, such as the lively Talensac food market, the moat of the castle of the Dukes of Brittany, and the museum dedicated to the city’s famous son, Jules Verne. In addition to the acts and events, museums will stay open late with free admission, and there will be a series of live music performances scattered throughout town. Machines de L’île , one of the city’s best-known attractions, featuring a menagerie of mechanical animals, will be showcasing new prototypes of its most ambitious project to date, the Heron Tree – a giant arboreal sculpture alive with mechanical birds.
Le Cantine du Voyage
The festival’s lively restaurant returns to the banks of the Loire in a collapsible greenhouse. For the fifth year running, it’s been decorated by hip, Nantes-based arts collective Appelle Moi Papa (call me daddy), five graphic designers who work with musicians such as Christine and the Queens. Their intriguing chosen theme encompasses different vegetal groups: earthly, marine, organic, tropical, and rural. What will this even look like? There’s only one way to find out …