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Saint-Nazaire – Expect the unexpected!

Say “Saint-Nazaire”, and most people will reply: “Les Escales!”

This music festival, which draws a crowd of 45,000 people, has become the symbol of a city that has radically altered its image in just a matter of years. To this, one might add the transformation of the monumental and mysterious architecture of its submarine base, which is now home to several world-class cultural sites. And, let’s not forget the revamping of the seaside promenade and the beauty of its beaches (no less than twenty)! As a matter of fact, the beach in the Saint-Marc district was chosen for its beauty by legendary filmmaker Jacques Tati, and served as the backdrop for his film Mr. Hulot’s Holiday… Truly, this town is worth more than just one trip! All this, plus the chance to discover a “city of art and history”, makes it an all-around wonderful place to live!

A story connected to the world

It was about time Nantes’s outport was offered a fresh perspective. This city’s destiny took an entirely new turn in 1862 after the inauguration of the mythical transatlantic Saint-Nazaire-Veracruz line… with a stopover in Cuba! This adventure transformed Saint-Nazaire into a legendary transatlantic port and the birthplace of the world’s most beautiful ocean liners. Suddenly stimulated by an onrush of maritime trade and naval construction, the city experienced phenomenal growth and began to take on the airs of a seaside resort: a tiny Breton California!
Quartier de la Havane
The “La Havane” district, with its lovely Belle Époque residences, is the perfect example. However, WWII put an abrupt end to this âge d’or. In the port, the German army built a fortified base for its submarines, making Saint-Nazaire a privileged target for the Allied forces, with 85% of the city eventually being destroyed. But it was able to heal its wounds with grace: always resilient, Saint-Nazaire bounced back. Fifteen years later, it returned after being rebuilt according to architect Noël Le Maresquier’s grid plan. A new, white city emerged, featuring original structures like the surprising Soucoupe (“saucer”) by architects Vissuzaine et Rivière, and the Eglise Sainte-Anne church, designed by Henri Demur (both listed as Historical Monuments). For a time, the city centre was turned inland, cut off from its port – but this was before a new urban plan came to reconnect the different historical entities of this singular city.

The submarine base : an heritage emblem

Today, Saint-Nazaire has decided to reconquer its port and showcase the beauty of its architectural heritage. After a vast and costly public works plan, the submarine base has been woven seamlessly into the city and port. The town now beckons visitors to stroll about, play with its perspectives and chase the water and sunlight. Located in the basin where ocean liners from Central America and the Caribbean once berthed, its size is astounding! To construct it, nearly a half-million cubic metres of concrete were poured (over 300 metres long, 125 metres wide, and 18 metres high!) to erect this strategic structure along the Atlantic seafront. The 14 pens gradually began operating between 1941 and 1943
Saint-Nazaire - parcours Traversée moderne d'un vieux pays
For the past twenty years, the city has reclaimed this space. Pens 8 to 11 – which were pierced open to recreate a new view of the port – have become home to the Tourism Office, the Port de tous les Voyages, Escal’Atlantic, a restaurant (Le Ponton) and a bookstore. With its dome, pen nº 14 is the site of Le LiFE (Lieu International des Formes Emergentes – or the “International Venue for Emerging Forms”) devoted to contemporary art, and Le VIP, which features contemporary music in its 500-seat concert hall. On its panoramic rooftop terrace, landscape artist Gilles Clément – the man behind the Château de Blois gardens – designed the Jardin du Tiers Paysage: a bastion of “resistance” that highlights the eco-diversity of the Loire estuary and includes 107 quaking aspens meant to make the fearsome base… “quake”!

Legendary transatlantic liners

In pens 6 and 7, however, Escal’Atlantic offers the experience of crossing the Atlantic. Visiting this three-storey, 3,700 square-metre floating city is designed to make you feel like you are travelling aboard one of these legendary liners. From the luxurious lobby to the footbridge by way of the cabins and opulent dining hall, one can relive the art de vivre of 1930s high society through the cabin trunks, Art Deco furniture – and even the silverware! Not far from there, the shipyard also opens its doors (visits by appointment only), for an in-depth view into the heart of exceptional craftsmanship where size is everything.
Paquebot en construction avec portiques
In the wake of majestic and distinguished liners like the Normandie and Le France, today, giants of the sea like the Queen Mary II or Harmony of the Seas, designed to sail the high seas in any weather, regularly exit the hulls of Saint-Nazaire’s naval yards – a much-anticipated event by the local population!

A transformation underway

Other cornerstones of this metamorphosis include Felice Varini’s gigantic work, Suite de Triangles, which overlooks the port, its structures, and swathes of street art. Finally, in addition to the countless festivals that electrify the city, one must not overlook the excellent programme at Le Théâtre and the myriad international artists featured at Le Grand Café (contemporary art centre).
Place du commando et bord de mer à Saint-Nazaire
Also emblematic of the city’s past and ongoing renewal are Le Garage, a space for creativity and innovation, and Place du Commando square, a new meeting spot that never empties, day or night! By patiently correcting the effects of its history, Saint-Nazaire has been able to forge a new, bright destiny for itself by becoming a vibrant beach and port city that is both cultural and festive!
Destination Saint-Malo Baie du Mont Saint-Michel
Saint Nazaire Renversante
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