Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Nantes of Jules Verne

In 1828, the world-renowned science-fiction author, Jules Verne, was born in what was then called the Venice of the West - the city of Nantes, in France.

Around the same period, when Jules Verne was only a baby, the English landscape painter, JMW Turner, drew sketches of Nantes.

Nantes - view from Île Feydeau, Turner 1828

The wonderful drawing above illustrates the lively canal activity around Île Feydeau. Then the home of Nantes' wealthiest families, Île Feydeau's majestic residential buildings can just be discerned on the right-hand side.

In the early 20th century, major diversion projects began in Nantes and lasted through WWII. Before this time, the Erdre, the Loire's tributary, flowed through a number of canals, lending the city a somewhat Venetian aspect. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Nantes' port thrived with large vessels destined for Africa and the Americas, including sadly, slavers. Dark as Nantes' past may be, one easily forms an impression of a bustling trade city comparable to Venice.

Banks of the River Erdre, looking North - Turner

Touring through Nantes one finds much history. There is first the medieval Chateau along the banks of the Loire. The Dukes of Brittany had their seat here and it serves as a wonderful museum today.

The unforgettable Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne, Nantes

Turner's sketch of the castle is lovely too.

Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany - Turner

But a rare treat, if you are a fan of Jules Verne, is to follow the Loire River from the Chateau, past Place Bouffay, all along key spots where one of Brittany's finest authors lived.

18th Century map of Nantes before the diversion of the Erdre
Ile Feydeau lies in the center of the Loire

Stop 1 -  4 Olivier de Clisson Street
An island within a city.
Such is Île Feydeau, which today following the diversion of the Erdre, is accessible on foot.
Parallel to the quay is the old Rue Kervégan which is lined with restaurants and fine mid-18th century buildings. Ile Feydeau is the area of Nantes which was once inhabited by rich slavers and merchants. Its edifices are ornate with marine monsters and creatures that evoke the intense relationship between the island's ancient dwellers and the sea.

Beautiful balconies on Île Feydeau 

The head of marine creatures gracing Île Feydeau homes

It is also on Ile Feydeau, at 4 Olivier de Clisson Street to be precise, that the founder of science-fiction (a title he shares with H.G. Wells), was born. Jules Verne's father was a lawyer and barely of middle-class.

Plaque on 4 Olivier de Clisson Street
"The 8 February 1828
Jules Verne
Precursor of Modern Discoveries
Is born in this house."

4 Olivier de Clisson Street

It is no surprise that from a young age, Jules Verne became well-aware of Nantes' trans-atlantic slave trading. He turned out to be a staunch opposer of slavery and of the slave trade, denouncing these in his book, Dick Sand, A Captain of Fifteen. Later in his twenties, he would become a good friend of author, Alexandre Dumas, whose own father had been borne of a slave.

Stop 2 - 2 allee Jean Bart (cours des Cinquantes otages)

At 2 Allee Jean Bart, long before the Erdre was diverted to give birth to what is now the Cours des Cinquantes Otages, we find Jules Verne's other childhood home. His family moved to Jean Bart when he was barely a toddler. They remained there until Jules Verne was 12 years old.

"Jules Verne, as a child lived here from 1829 to 1840."

Stop 3 - Church of Saint Nicolas
Nearby, the basilica of Saint Nicolas, whose earliest building dated from the 12th century and which had undergone a number of evolution through the centuries, was re-constructed starting in 1844 based on plans that had been finalised on the eve of the French Revolution.

Jules Verne's father belonged to the parish council that commissioned this wonderful building.
This neo-gothic church is classified as a historical monument since November 1986.

Neo-Gothic Church of Saint-Nicolas

There are other Jules Verne residences or landmarks in Nantes that are worth mentioning, including 1 Rue Suffren, 6 Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Chantenay country home on 29bis rue des Reformes, but all are old stone houses and it can get a little dull.

But if you follow the Loire River toward the Jules Verne Museum, you come across a more recent statue, created as an homage to the celebrated author - it is Captain Nemo looking out across the Loire...and just behind him, a fictitious statue of the young Jules Verne sits on a bench, dreaming of the sea.

And that is a rare treat.
Because to dwell upon the imagination of a child who would one day become one of the world's greatest science fiction authors, well, that is sheer bliss.