I was looking for a lovely spring break on the Continent. I really wanted somewhere sunny and warm to get away from the rain, but not too far from the ferry port. Crazy, right? It’s March, after all. And I hear what you’re saying – I thought it was impossible, too.
But I found it! Granted, so it’s not particularly warm, but the chill can be dealt with when there’s beautiful sunshine and not a cloud in the sky for five full days.
After much checking of the monthly average temperatures and rainfalls in different areas of France, I figured that the west coast was my safest, and easiest, bet. I couldn’t find very much feedback on spring holidays in this area of France, so it was blind guessing, and very much dependent on finding campsites that were open in low season.
A sun, sand and sea trip quickly turned into a city break in Nantes after I saw the website for their municipal camping site, which is open all year. The tour quickly pulled itself together as I found out more about this varied and fascinating city. The list of places that I wanted to visit grew by the day, making me impatient to leave to start this adventure.
Eventually, my Practical Caravan colleague Claudia Dowell and I hooked the brightest caravan we could find, our long-term Adria Altea 4Four Go Signature, to our sleek Škoda Octavia Estate SE. We took the Brittany Ferries crossing from Portsmouth to St Malo on a Wednesday evening, and I enjoyed the chance to sleep through my sea-sickness in the comfy cabin. The porthole reassured me much more than being deep in the bowels of the ship listening to the engines rumble, as we were on my last ferry journey. I definitely recommend a brisk walk on deck for anyone feeling a little queasy.
Pulling up at Nantes Camping the next day after just over two hours’ towing from the ferry terminal, we were greeted by a sunny, crisp day and soon took a liking to the campsite. Although we couldn’t figure out the on-pitch water taps which needed some sort of connector, the toilet and shower facilities were so good that we didn’t need to hook up. We later found out that the connector is available at reception for a €2 deposit.
Our first trip into the city centre couldn’t come soon enough, as I was anxious to tick things off my to-see list. The one that I was most fascinated by – due to not being able to imagine it – was the Grand Éléphant of the Machines de L’île.
Following the green line on the pavement that marks the ‘Voyage à Nantes’ trail across the Pont Anne de Bretagne from the city centre to the Île de Nantes, took us towards the former warehouses which are now home to Les Machines de L’île. Rounding the corner, we were greeted by a 40-foot tall mechanical elephant made of wood and metal. Luckily at this point it was still, ready for an afternoon of carrying passengers, otherwise we would have had quite a shock from the sheer size of it.
Knowing that the ticket office wouldn’t be open until 2pm, we decided to get some lunch. The café at Les Machines was clearly great – so great, in fact, that there wasn’t a table free. The server kindly directed us to Stereolux, a busy brasserie towards the other end of the warehouse, in the fascinating La Fabrique building.
The eye-catching orange bar was my favourite part, but the food was pretty tasty too, although options were fairly limited. This lunch set us up for an afternoon of awe and wonder as we explored the Machine de L’île project.
When you visit this area (which you must do), you’ll realise that the regeneration of the old shipyards, which were once so central to Nantes’ economy, has created space for some beautiful architecture. Some of which isn’t even finished yet! It’s in quite stark contrast with the centre ville which is packed full of history. The Château des ducs de Bretagne museum can tell you more about that than I can. In fact it has 32 rooms chock-full of interesting artefacts and facts about the area, not just Nantes.
This trip took us to such a variety of places, from the idyllic coastal lanes of the Côte Sauvage through towns like Pornichet and Batz-sur-Mer, to the impressive and sobering submarine pens in Saint-Nazaire.
Read about the rest of the hidden gems that we found in the Loire-Atlantique in the June 2015 issue of Practical Caravan, which goes on sale on 23 April. I know many Brits love caravan holidays in France, and our tour was proof that if you simply dash for the south, you could be missing some spectacular sights.
Rounding the corner, we were greeted by a 40-foot tall mechanical elephant