Home to one of the most titled clubs 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 eight times, 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 back in the top flight after the worst decade in the club’s history, the Beaujoire once again had another crop of youngsters coming through – midfielder Jordan Veretout, a Canary since he was nine, later joined Aston Villa. That same month, July 2015, Italo-Argentine striker Emiliano Sala arrived, before being sold on to Cardiff City in January 2019. Flying to Wales in a private plane, his aircraft disappeared into the English Channel. Sala’s death was mourned by crowds in the place Royale as well as in Cardiff. For every Nantes game, the ninth minute is now marked by his name being chanted.
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. Tickets are €9, valid for 1hr on public transport, consisting of trams, buses and boats (Navibus). A single ticket is otherwise €1.70 from machines/€2 on board, a 24hr pass €5.80.
The train from Paris Montparnasse takes about 2hr 15min, advance singles around €25. The stadium is way north-east of town, the train station a 10min walk or two tram stops to the city centre, past the Château des ducs de Bretagne.
Taxi Nantes (+33 2 40 69 22 22) charge about €35 from airport to town.
There are three lodging options near the stadium. The neat, affordable Beaujoire is the nearest, on the eastern edge of the greenery around the ground, 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, by place du Cirque, La Pérouse is an architectural delight while around place Royale, the Mercure Grand Hôtel shares four-star status with its Centre Passage Pommeraye stablemate the other side of the square. By the Basilica, budget accommodation is provided by the Hôtel Saint-Patrick and, near Bouffay, by the Hôtel Saint-Daniel and Renova. Apart’ City Nantes Centre on rue des Petites Écuries offers a more contemporary stay. Near the Botanical Gardens, the Hôtel Abat Jour is a charming two-star.
On the station side of the castle, classy L’Hôtel offers gastronomic packages while the 12-room, Hôtel du Château alongside has the same historic location but lodgings on the modest side. Nearby, on the main road to the station, Apparthotel Adagio Nantes Centre offers smart studio-style accommodation.
A few steps from the station on this same stretch, the Hôtel de Bourgogne feels as old-school as the lift that whisks you up several floors but the view looking out to the cathedral brightens any morning. Next door, the Hôtel de la Gare is similar in age and style, the Astoria claims three-star status but is in the same price bracket while the Terminus is slightly cheaper, its rooms more boxy. Amid this hugger-mugger hotel hub, the ibis Styles Nantes Centre adds colour provided by local artists. Proximity to the station means an easy tram hop to the stadium.
Terrace bars line the pedestrianised stretch either side of the tram line around the stops for Commerce and Bouffay. Café Pop, Le Poulp’, Le Bouffay and le bar bleu create a convivial buzz as screens face outside on big game evenings. Further down towards the station, past standard Irish bar Brady’s, Les Fleurs du Malt offers, somehow, 30 craft beers on tap, but it’s a smallish space so everyone’s outside sipping.
The streets either side of the main tram line are dotted with bars. Rue Kevégan is one, where the lived-in DeDannan Celtic Pub is where to come for serious drinking, Big Ben suits casual conversation and doesn’t overdo the Brit theme, while the Green Sheep tends to attract a quieter kind of sipper, content with a table outside.
Across the main road into the historic centre, the Live Bar by the castle puts music first, Shaft on rue des Petites Écuries attracts a younger, more discerning crowd, drink-wise, and a block further along on rue Bouffay, long-established Le Rabelais can offer 29 draught beers and match transmissions. This tangle of streets is also where you find the main Irish bars in town, John McByrne and John McByrne, under the same name and management a couple of hundred metres apart on rue de la Juiverie.
The celtic competition is quite spread out, most notably multi-screened Gigg’s on place Sainte-Pierre, whiskey specialist, sport-loving Fleming’s on rue des Carmes and, on rue Scribe in the retail quarter, Peter Mc Cool, another local favourite for terrace imbibing. Alongside, convivial Le Corneille shows sports. Screen-equipped Le Bistrô du Pilori on the pleasant little square of the same name offers peace, quiet and decent food for match-watching.