Home of the third most titled club in French football history, the pretty Loire-side regional capital of Nantes has produced some of the greatest players in the game.
No fiery Marseille or gritty St-Étienne, Nantes has been represented by FC Nantes since 1943. Winners of the French title at least once every decade since the 1960s, FC Nantes is where stars such as Marcel Desailly and Didier Deschamps have come through the ranks.
Though without any silverware since 2001, Les Canaris are at least back in the top flight, promotion achieved in 2013.
Seventy years before, FC Nantes had been formed from an amalgamation of five local clubs. Meeting several times in city-centre cafés in the spring of 1943 during the Nazi occupation, club representatives, including the influential Marcel Saupin and Jean Le Guillou, agreed on the principles and logistics of creating a single football club. Both Saupin and Le Guillou were later tainted for their collaboration with the Nazis – Le Guillou lived in exile for several years after the war.
The main amateur outfit involved was long established St-Pierre de Nantes, who provided the key players when newly formed FC Nantes achieved second-division status shortly after the war.
The arrival in the early 1960s of half-back Jean-Claude Suaudeau and defender Robert Budzynski transformed FC Nantes forever. ‘Coco’ Suaudeau would be associated with Nantes for nearly four decades, two as coach when he propagated the so-called Nantes style of play; Budzynski would become sporting director, the first in the French game, for 35 years.
As players, they provided the backbone for a tactically fluid side quick to adopt 4-2-4 and win the first two of the club’s eight titles.
After the first, in 1965, the original Stade de Malakoff was renamed after Marcel Saupin.
Forever at the forefront of the French game, Nantes set up a centre for development, La Jonelière (later renamed after FCNA coach José Arribas) in 1978. Soon afterwards, it was producing players of the quality of Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly.
Opened on the eve of Euro 84, the Stade de la Beaujoire, its elegant curves sweeping over the nearby Erdre river, brought international sporting focus to the region for the first time. Overlooked for the 1938 World Cup, north-west France (many locals still consider Nantes as part of Brittany) now had a tournament-standard arena.
A Platini hat-trick against Belgium, six games at France 98 and a rugby World Cup, as well as a handful of international fixtures, were all witnessed here – though the region lost out for Euro 2016.
With FC Nantes now back in the top flight, after the worst decade in the club’s history, the Beaujoire can once again look forward to another crop of youngsters coming through – starting with midfield prospect Jordan Veretout, a Canary since he was nine.
Nantes Atlantique Airport is 8km (five miles) south-west of town, connected by shuttle bus (every 20min, 30min Sun) that takes 20min to reach focal place du Commerce and Nantes station in town. Tickets are €7.50, valid for 1hr on public transport, consisting of trams, buses and boats (Navibus). A single ticket is €2, a 24hr pass €4.60.
Allo Taxi Nantes Atlantique www.allo-taxis.com (+33 2 40 69 22 22) charge about €30 from airport to town.
There are three lodging options near the stadium. The sleek, affordable Beaujoire is the nearest, with its own restaurant and cheaper weekend rates. On the other side of the Périphérique from the ground, the three-star Brit Hotel Nantes Beaujoire-L’Amandine offers equal comfort while alongside the Résidence CERISE Nantes La Beaujoire consists of nearly 100 small studios, hired by the night or the week.
In the city centre, budget accommodation is provided by the Hôtels Saint-Patrick and Saint-Daniel. Mid-range, there’s the nearby Renova while, away from the bustle but a closer walk to the station, the Hôtel Abat Jour is a charming two-star.
You’ll find plenty of bars and restaurants around place du Commerce, including the ever-busy Café de l’Europe (No.9), though many are bland and/or of the chain variety. More characterful bars can be found on and around rue Scribe.
There you’ll find convivial, loungey Le Corneille (No.24), with several screens for TV sports. On equally pedestrianised, downtown rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Code Bar (No.5) specialises in French and New World wines without letting focus slip on TV football.
Opposite the Hôtel Saint-Daniel, Le Rabelais (3 rue du Bouffay) manages to squeeze four screens into its cosy interior while, nearer the Loire, Côte Plage (14 quai Turenne) offers a more restaurant-like approach to football watching.
Of the pubs, Fleming’s (22 rue des Carmes) has TV sports while John McByrne johnmcbyrne.free.fr is a popular meeting place.
Set up by a real enthusiast and calling itself ‘The Club of Clubs’, 11 Football Club stocks shirts and kits of all top clubs and national sides. Note also the retro tops in the Copa Football series, Baresi-era Milan, Krol-era Holland, and so on. Suitably stylish interior too. Closed Mon and Sun.