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In recent years, Nantes has been gaining quite a reputation for its modern art and design. But don’t overlook the historic centre of this port city: it still has a hypnotic pull on visitors. Visit the architectural treasures of the 18th-century neighbourhood Île Feydeau, a former island in the tributary of the Loire.
In the past, Île Feydeau would have been the Beverly Hills of Nantes. Half way through the 18th century, in the days when the port city was profiting greatly from its trade with the French colonies, its rich merchants built a very luxurious neighbourhood. They chose a very exclusive location: a small island in a tributary of the Loire. Even today pedestrians admire the splendour of these mansions, with white façades that light up in the sunshine. Tilt back your head to see the most beautiful sculptures and to admire the ubiquitous ornamental wrought iron of the French balconies.
Some buildings in Île Feydeau seem to lean forward and that is not an optical illusion. Because of its sandy soil, the neighbourhood began to subside a hundred years after it was built. Although Feydeau is still called île, it hasn’t been an island for a long time. In the 1930s the tributary of the Loire was filled in and the former suburb was incorporated into the city.
The island feel has been somewhat preserved by the greenbelts that were planted in the former river bed. This can be clearly seen at Quai Turenne, where the houses look out over fake quays and a sunken lawn. After dark it almost feels as if the water is still flowing. In summer the lawn becomes a green beach where students read in the sun. Parallel to the quay is the Rue Kervégan, a lovely cobblestone street. This was the birthplace of one of Nantes’ most famous residents: Jules Verne.
The rich architecture of Île Feydeau is truly impressive, but the history of this wealth is less pretty. The families who built these mansions made their fortune in the slave trade. In the 18th century at least 450,000 slaves passed through the port of Nantes on their way to the United States. The monument at Quai de la Fosse, further down along the Loire, is a memorial to this horrific history. Visitors to the concrete structure designed by architects Wodiczko + Bonder appear to descend into a ship. The rays of light that filter through the small openings in the wall remind us of the poor living conditions aboard the slave ships. A poignant experience.