When you think of France and French people, often a less than attractive picture comes to mind. One of snotty waiters and people on the street who would rather get their teeth pulled than direct you to the Place de la Concorde. However, like all stereotypes, this is simply not true.
As one of my fellow assistants put it, "If someone's only experience with France is in Paris, then it is no wonder they never want to come back."
Nantes, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. In fact I have never met with nicer people in my life. It is your essential French city - men carrying baguettes under their arms, women navigating cobble stone roads in stilettos, and children playing soccer in the streets on a Wednesday afternoon. Yet is is quite a large city complete with an excellent metro system, a dodgy part of town, and a modern quarter. I think that Nantes has been able to retain its old-world beauty because of the lack of tourists. True, there is a Chateau and an old Cathedral, not to mention one of the best Beaux-Arts Museums in this region (one of the best Kandinsky's, and a ton of Gordins), but they are far surpassed by the other Chateaus and Cathedrals that line the Loire.
A perfect example of this is the Creperie that I visited this past week. In a less than picturesque part of town sits a forgotten string of restaurants in their original buildings. For example, this particular creperie is housed in an old house, were there has been a restaurant/tavern in continual operation for more than four hundred years. When you enter, and cut your way through a curtain of smoke, a friendly Frenchman escorts you up a flight of creaky old stairs to the first landing (nonsmoking, surprisingly) or up to the third floor. In each floor there is seating for twenty people which is more than ample for the spattering of lunch patrons. For 8 € 50 (about 11 dollars, an amazing deal) you can buy the menu de midi (lunch menu): choice between an onion, ham, or cheese savory crepe, choice between a lemon, chocolate, sweet cheese, or orange crepe for desert, and a choice between coffee, water, or french cider (sparkling apple juice). All of this is served with a smile and a small "how's your mom" kind of chat. I cannot remember a friendlier meal in Europe, let alone France.
There is only one truly visible scar to this city, one annoying blight for any romantic American - the unimaginably ugly brown tower that forces its way into the otherwise unspoiled neo-classical skyline. The majority of Nantes sits along the north shore of the Loire river. It was a rich and beautiful city thanks to the fishing and the near-by salt flats. This is where the merchants who became wealthy chose to build their magnificent town houses. Many of these homes escaped the bombings of WWII and continue to lend Nantes a stately beauty. However, in the mid 80s, some bank somewhere decided to destroy a block of these buildings and build a beacon of modernity in the heart of Nantes. After they finished and the people realized that it was ugly, the city banned any further destruction of their old-town. Too late for that. The bright side is that if you are standing underneath the awning of this brown thing, your view of the medieval part of Nantes is unparalleled and unspoiled.