Today with this article, I’d like to tell you more about the place where I grew up and where I work now: Saint-Nazaire, on the French Atlantic coast. If you don’t live in France but still have heard about this city before, it might be because you’ve read my previous article about street art, but most likely because of one thing: its shipyard, famous for building some of the biggest cruise ships in the world. Because of this industrial aspect, Saint-Nazaire is sometimes described as an ugly and boring city. It might have been true in the past, but not anymore… especially if you know where to go. Come have a closer look at my hometown!
📷 For more pictures have a look at my gallery of photos of Saint-Nazaire.
I also borrowed a few pictures on this article from my own mother – have a look at her blog (in French only) called “My alphabet of Saint-Nazaire“!
🇫🇷 Cliquez ici pour lire cet article en français.
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A bit of history
Until the first half of the 19th century, Saint-Nazaire was just a little town with hardly 3,000 inhabitants, fishermen and pilots guinding ships through the dangerous Loire estuary. But around mid-century, everything changed. Due to their constantly growing size, ships could no longer sail on the Loire to Nantes 50km upstream. Therefore, it was decided to create an outport in Saint-Nazaire, which turned this village into an important harbour. Around the same period, the railway arrived in the city, transatlantic liners linked Saint-Nazaire to Central America, and the first ever ship built by the brand-new shipyard, the Impératrice Eugénie, was launched in 1864.
The growth of the city was spectacular and seemed to be unstoppable… until World War II. The German army decided to build a submarine base in Saint-Nazaire, at the exact same spot where transatlantic ships were leaving to Central America before the war. The Allied forces tried to demolish it and bombed Saint-Nazaire multiple times, but the bunker wasn’t much damaged while the city was destroyed at 85%. The Germans held steady and kept occupying Saint-Nazaire which became a very strategic point on the Atlantic coast. It was set free on the 11th of May 1945, 3 days after the official end of World War II! Saint-Nazaire was the last place in Europe still occupied by the Nazi army.
After the war, the city had to be entirely rebuilt, with a new centre further inland and away from the harbour.
The submarine base
When you see it nowadays, it’s hard to believe that this huge bunker has been built in less than 3 years. At some points, the roof is even more than 8m thick! It’s from this building that the exploration from Saint-Nazaire that I’m offering you will begin.
After the war, the same problem that came up for the Allies during the conflict arose again: how to destroy it? That would have cost a lot of money, and for decades the submarine base had been left there, like a giant wall between the city and its harbour. It’s only at the end of the 20th century that new projects saw the light of day, making the most of the huge building instead of destroying it. Today, it shelters various attractions: an immersive and interactive museum about the history of transatlantic ships (Escal’ Atlantic), the Tourist Office (my workplace!), a restaurant, a concert hall an exhibition venue and a multipurpose hall room. It’s also a great place to visit for photographers, with interesting perspectives.
The rooftop of the submarine base is open freely to the public. It provides a great 360° view over the city, the Loire estuary and the shipyard nearby. A perfect starting point to explore Saint-Nazaire! The radome that can also be seen here isn’t a remain from World War II: it used to be at the Tempelhof airport in Berlin, where it sheltered a NATO radar, and it was offered to the city in 2007.
The “Petit Maroc” district
On the other side of the harbour basin, the district of “Petit Maroc” is the historical heart of Saint-Nazaire: that’s where the little fishermen village was. Its name that literally means “Little Morocco” might have two different origins: it could come from the Breton language, “Ti war roc’h” which meant “the house on the rock”, or from the local fishermen who used to sail as far as the coasts of Morocco. Choose the version you like the most!
I really like the “Petit Maroc” district. I enjoy walking around the basin where fishermen boats, tugs and cruise ships under construction are moored. In front of the submarine base, the fortified lock was also built by the German army to shelter their U-boats while they were waiting to enter the harbour of Saint-Nazaire. Nowadays, a French submarine from the 60’s (the Espadon) can be visited there, as well as a vistor attraction called EOL which explains how energy is created with wind (the first offshore windfarm of France will soon be built off the coast of Saint-Nazaire). The rooftop of this fortified lock is also open to the public, with once again a really nice view over the harbour.
It’s from this panoramic terrace that the work of Swiss artist Felice Varini can be admired: from a very specific point, all the red geometric forms apparently randomly spread around the harbour turn into a single piece of art.
On the oceanic side of the district, the “Vieux Môle” jetty has a very photogenic lighthouse. This is the best place to admire the cruise ships built in the shipyard when they leave the city.
Finally, the “Petit Maroc” district is the beginning of the art trail of Saint-Nazaire, where many gorgeous murals have been painted in the past few years. A few ones are located in this area, including two giant portraits painted by the Chilean artists Inti and La Robot de Madera, a big mural of the “Oides”, these very popular little blue characters created by an inhabitant of Saint-Nazaire, and next to it “The Old Man and the Ocean” by the Serbian artist Djuradje that I already introduced in a previous article.
To find these murals and all the other ones around the city, the best way is to follow the map on the brochure “Art way in Saint-Nazaire” that I contributed to write, and that you can get for free at the Tourist Office or read online here.
Place du Commando and La Havane district
Leaving the “Petit Maroc” district, we’re now arriving at the place du Commando. This square directly next to the beach is the new “place to be” in Saint-Nazaire since its inauguration in 2018. With two bars, a creperie, two restaurants and a large playground for kids on the sand, there is something for everyone. My favourite place to go for a drink, especially during summer when you can sit on the stairs around the beach!
After the place du Commando begins the seafront, completely rebuilt in the past few years. As soon as the sun is shining, even during winter, there are always a lot of people walking, biking or roller-skating here. The statue of the “Sammy” next to it commemorates an episode from World War I: more than 190,000 American soldiers landed in Saint-Nazaire and were stationed there before heading to the front in the north of the country. The statue represents an American soldier standing on an eagle, symbolising the victory of the Allied forces over the German army.
After 500m following the coast, we’re now arriving at one of the nicest and most secret places of Saint-Nazaire: the district of La Havane.
The street names of this district remind of the destinations in Central America where the transatlantic ships from Saint-Nazaire used to sail to before the war: Veracruz, Havana… It’s also the only part of the city that survived the bombings, and there are still many beautiful villas from the 19th century in the area. Combined with a stroll in the adjacent Botanic Garden, exploring these avenues is one of the nicest things to do in Saint-Nazaire!
There are two options from there: keep following the seafront, or head to the city center and back to the submarine base.
The seafront and the coastal path
Before heading to the city center, let’s follow the seafront a little bit further. There are a few outdoor bars on the way; their terraces are open from the first shiny days of spring until the end of summer and are always very popular.
After the intersection of “Sautron”, the alignment of the fishing cabins of “Port Désiré” is one of the most beautiful panoramas of Saint-Nazaire. It’s even possible to rent one for a few hours, for an original afternoon or evening!
The seafront ends at the beach of Villès-Martin, where the coastal path begins. It’s part of the long-hiking trail GR34 that follows the entire coast of Brittany, from Saint-Nazaire until the Mont-Saint-Michel. This is my favourite place in the city. I often come here for a run, or just to enjoy the gorgeous sight over the beaches from the top of the cliffs.
From the main beach next to the Place du Commando until “Les Jaunais” before arriving in the city of Pornichet, there are not less than 20 beaches in Saint-Nazaire… but there will be an extra article about this topic soon!
Back to the harbour via the city center
We’re now back to the Havana district, from where we’re taking the avenue Léon Blum in the direction of the city center. Next to the “Galerie des Franciscains” (a former monastery chapel that has been turned into an art gallery), two beautiful murals on both sides of the street have been recently painted by the Spanish artist David de la Mano.
The Town Hall is located a little bit further, and in front of it starts the avenue de la République, the main street of the city center. After a few hundred meters, it becomes pedestrian, with a big wooden playground for kids figuring a sea dragon, under the watch of a giant eagle painted on the wall above by the artist DALeast.
Last but not least, on our way back to the harbour, let’s have a look at what in my opinion is the most beautiful mural of Saint-Nazaire (and one of the most amazing I’ve ever seen): the face of an Aboriginal boy painted by the artist of Melbourne Adnate. The submarine base nearby is where this loop around Saint-Nazaire ends. There would be a lot of other things to say about the city, but I’ll save them for future articles…
I hope you enjoyed exploring my hometown with me and don’t hesitate to come to visit!
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