*Suprise Trips is now unavailable,but I’m keeping my post live because I truly enjoyed my experience in Nantes!*
I love surprises. The thought of getting something unexpected is surely why Christmas and Birthdays are so much fun; after all, it wouldn’t quite be the same if the presents were unwrapped for all to see, would it? So when the guys at Surprise Trips invited Kasha and I to try out their new holiday booking service, I was intrigued to find out what might be in store.
The basic premise of Surprise Trips is this: you select how much you want to spend, how many people are travelling and when you want to go, the rest is sorted for you. You have no clues as ti where you are heading at all. This kind of holiday roulette could see you end up in a hotel pretty much anywhere in Europe, bar the three exclusions you choose to ensure you don’t visit somewhere you’ve already been recently or don’t want to go to.
A day before our flight we were emailed a weather report from our unknown destination so we could pack accordingly. Then, the big day arrived. Not knowing what was in store for us and with zero planning and preparation (which used to be my style before I met Kasha) we arrived at Gatwick Airport tingling with nerves. With a mixture of trepidation and excitement we opened the email to discover where we would be flying that day.
The email directed us to a video, where the flickering letters spell out different place names until finally settling on the name of your mystery destination. After a few agonising seconds it turned out to be… Nantes! A beautiful city in Northern France’s Brittany that neither of us have ever visited.
After the big announcement, all we needed to do was approach the staff at the check in and have our boarding passes printed. As we only had cabin luggage (all of the Surprise Trips destinations are short haul at the moment) it wasn’t long until we were in the sky, heading toward a new city.
Having no idea what’s in store as a travel blogger is a new experience for the both of us. With no expectations or prior knowledge about Nantes, we landed and jumped onto the bus to take us directly into the city. Thankfully, all of the hotels that Surprise Trips use are close to the city centre, meaning you don’t have to worry about walking two hours to get home each night.
After our bus dropped us off in town, we had a 20-minute walk through the pretty streets and by the flowing river back to our hotel, Appart’City Nantes Quai de Loire. This split level apartment with a large bed below a skylight was perfect for us; cosy, simple and clean. To savour in the thought of owning a quaint little apartment like this, we completed the picture by indulging in a bottle of wine, fresh bread and some gooey cheese.
Our Weekend: Some Fun Things to do in Nantes
With no planning save a cursory glance at the internet, we headed out to see what Nantes had to offer us. The compact city was easy to navigate on foot, which is handy because exploring this way allows us get a better feel for a new destination and heightens the chance of stumbling upon something wonderfully unexpected.
Discover the Les Machines de l’Ile
Unexpected doesn’t even come close to describing the feeling when we were confronted with a 40-foot mechanical elephant with a full back of passengers spraying water from its trunk. Located a stone’s throw from our hotel, the Machines on the Isle of Nantes (Les Machines de l’Ile) is a visitor attraction like no other.
A mind-boggling mechanical universe awaits you here, where you can ride a steam punk carousel, board the back of the aforementioned mechanised elephant and learn more about the surreal world of its creators François Delarozière and Pierre Orefice in the nearby gallery/museum. My recommendation is to ride the crazy carousel at two different levels for a complete experience, the submarine being a personal favourite.
If there’s one thing you can’t miss in France, it’s the local specialties. Brittany in particular is known for being the birthplace of crêpes, so we dutifully made our way to the Heb Ken crêperie, forced against our will to gorge on buckwheat crêpes with melted cheese, cured ham and topped with a perfect orange yolk. The only downside to this restaurant is that it will leave you hankering to come back to France every day, just for a taste of this irresistible dish.
Discovering the Jardin des Plantes
I never thought I’d be making a case to persuade people that a park is one of the most important things to see in a city, but this is absolutely true in the case of Jardin des Plantes. Occupying a space equivalent to seven hectares (around 11 football pitches) this huge green oasis is the perfect retreat from the city. Renowned for being the home of four of the top botanical gardens in France, the lush green landscape is dotted with the sculptures and topiary artworks of Claude Ponti, a famous illustrator and author of children’s literature. After entering you’ll pass by a series of benches getting bigger, tiptoe past sleeping creatures made of shrubs and walk through a fairy cave; without a doubt this is honestly one of the most serene yet fascinating gardens I’ve ever visited.
A Local Gem
While there were plenty of great restaurants close to the city centre, we headed past the cathedral in search of something a little off the beaten track. We ended up being lured into the charming Le Brocéliande restaurant. With duel terraces to the front and side, genuinely lovely staff and a choice of two seasonal dishes, we were sold. We were also delighted to find out the bar/restaurant specialised in organic food and natural wine, which had a slightly earthier, more acidic taste. After tucking into a meal of fresh charcuterie, chickpea and chorizo and tagliatelle and fish, we knew we’d stumbled upon something special.
A Stunning Cathedral
You can’t help but notice this Gothic masterpiece standing high on the hill overlooking Nantes, clearly acting as a protector of the city. Besides it’s resplendent exterior facades, the inside is full of religious wonders. We entered as an organist was playing, filling every alcove with the deep reverberations of each note. The 120-ft vaulted ceilings is a spectacular sight, taller even than the Notre-Dame in Paris, while the spectacular Renaissance tomb of François II, Duke of Brittany, which is the pièce de résistance of French sculptor Michel Colomb.
An unmissable sight when visiting Nantes is its beautiful castle. Unlike many fortifications I’ve visited, the emphasis on the construction in Château des ducs de Bretagne seems to be more focused on aesthetics. The courtyard is dotted with gleaming white stone walls, elegant sculpted facades and gruesome gargoyles. Surprisingly, a walk along the ramparts is completely free, giving you a great view of some of Nantes’ skyline.
Our Surprise Trips was awesome. It offered us a chance to take it easy on the planning and just get excited about lay in store. While this may not be for those who have travelled to a lot of different countries and cities in Europe, the concept is perfect for those who want something a bit different, aren’t fussy where they go, and have a real sense of adventure.
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I was invited on this trip by the lovely folks at Surprise Trips, but all opinions expressed – including about the drool-worthy crêpes – are entirely my own.
Need some more French cities in your life? Check out my visit to the architectural wonder that is Le Havre.