Why Nantes is the best city in France

The Grand Elephant of Nantes. Image: Getty.

There are a few things you might know about Nantes. You might know that Nantes is a city in France, somewhere over there in the middle but towards the western coast; or that it is the title of a song by Beirut; or that it is occasionally good at football, but mostly just quite bad at football.

What you probably don’t know about Nantes is that it is the sixth biggest city in France, that it was in Brittany until it wasn’t, and that, depending on who you ask, it sort of is where May ‘68 really started.

These things are not very important. There is only one thing you need to know about Nantes, and it is that Nantes is the best city in France – no, the best place in France. Nantes is better than Paris, it is better than those sunny bits down towards the south of France, it is better than anywhere in the country. Nantes is the best bit of France.

Why is that? It is hard to even know where to start. Nantes is the perfect size for a city – it is big enough that you do not feel suffocated by its three streets and seven shops, but it is also small enough that you can walk from any place in the centre of town to another in under half an hour.

If you do not want to walk, you can always take the bus, the tramway, or the BusWay, which is in many ways just a bus that happens to have its own separate lane but Nantes is credited with bringing the tramway back into fashion in Europe so we’re quite keen on keeping that going as a brand.

Still, taking a stroll through the centre of town probably remains your best option. From the sinking buildings of the Ile Feydeau to the grandeur of Place Mellinet, our old-timey – to use a technical term – architecture is something to behold.

(If for whatever reason contemporary architecture is more your thing, go check out the vile monstrosity that is the Palais de Justice, a large and menacing black rectangle along the river built in 2000. Each to their own.)

The obligatory tramway map. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“Wow. Great,” I hear you say. “Streets and buildings. Two things I can definitely only find in Nantes.” That is a fair point! Nantes doesn’t only have streets and buildings. It is also pretty good at parks.

In fact, there are 100 public parks, gardens and squares in Nantes, covering 540 acres of land. It won the European Green Capital Award in 2013, and according to Wikipedia the “European Commission noted the city's efforts to reduce air pollution and CO2 emissions, its high-quality and well-managed public transport system and its biodiversity”, which is nice of them.

(Has another city in France ever won the European Green Capital Award? No. It has never happened. Only Nantes has won a European Green Capital Award. This feels worth pointing out.)

Anyway – parks and streets and buildings are nice but the best place in France they do not make. No, what makes Nantes great is its culture, which is odd and quirky and diverse and punches comically above its weight.

Take festivals. If there is a thing you enjoy in life, chances are that at some point during the year, Nantes will have a festival about it. Spanish cinema? Every April. Classical music? Every February. Jazz? Every summer. African, Asian and Latin American cinema? November. Flowers? May. Science fiction? October. “Digital ecosystem”, whatever the hell that is? September, apparently. I could go on.

Beyond the festivals, Nantes is also home to (approximate figure) one million bars, cafes, and slightly random places. The best one might well be the Lieu Unique, a former biscuit factory that is now home to Turkish baths, a book shop, a cafe, a restaurant, a bar, a club, an exhibition space and a gig venue.

Does London have a place, former biscuit factory or not, that it home to Turkish baths, a book shop, a cafe, a restaurant, a bar, a club, an exhibition space and a gig venue? It does not. Not even close. Pathetic.

Another highlight is the Machines de l’Ile. It is a bit hard to explain what goes on in there, but it is mostly large wooden things that move. In a good way.

You might have seen pictures of a 12-metre tall wooden elephant just casually walking around in a non-descript French city before. It is our elephant. It is massive and wooden and it moves. It’s great.

Royal De Luxe, the group behind the big, moving bits of wood, has been in Nantes for years and is generally up to something. A personal highlight was the time they collected broken grand pianos people didn’t want or need anymore and just chucked them off buildings to see what sound it’d make.

They made exactly the sound you’d think a grand piano would make when thrown off several storeys and onto the pavement, and it was excellent.

If all of this still has not convinced you that Nantes is the best place in France, it seems worth mentioning that we are the home of muscadet, the dry white wine that is weirdly only ever in fancy and expensive restaurants in Britain.

While it is true that there are... a number of wine regions in France where you can get merrily sozzled on the local wine for €2 a bottle, muscadet is a very light wine, which means that it was essentially made to be drunk in large quantities. Can’t say that about a full-bodied Bordeaux, can you?

So, to recap: Nantes is a place that is big enough to be interesting but small enough that you can walk around it, it has both a tramway and a busway, which covers most types of -ways, both its new and its old architectures are great, it has many parks, many things to do, good cheap white wine, and the ominous feeling that you might get flattened by a falling grand piano at any given time, like a dog who is also a bank robber in a children’s cartoon.

Nantes is the best place in France and the case is closed. Suck it, Paris.

Marie Le Conte is a freelance journalist who tweets as @youngvulgarian. She is, by coincidence, from Nantes. 


The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.

“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.