Saint-Nazaire A transatlantic harbour

As early as 1862, Saint-Nazaire which used to be a simple village peopled by fishermen and pilots, became a transatlantic harbour with regular shipping lines to Central America. This is where the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, the famous French Line, ran its regular lines to Mexico and Panama with several stopovers in the West Indies and the Caribbean.

Saint-Nazaire A transatlantic history

Once upon a time, in a fishing village…

When you take a walk around the port, you’re stepping right where the destiny of Saint-Nazaire was turned upside-down in the mid-1800s. Up until then, it was a simple market town with a few hundred inhabitants known for their expertise in navigating the Loire, and there was a jetty to shelter their vessels.

The decision to use Saint-Nazaire as Nantes’ outer harbour would change the face of the town and, indeed, its destiny.

In 1862, a transatlantic line to Central American was opened, enabling passengers to travel from Saint-Nazaire to Veracruz in just 24 days (one way!), while in the same year, the first shipyards started work in Penhoët.

Little Breton California

The town grew, soon earning it the nickname of ‘Little Breton California’, in reference to American boomtowns of the gold rush era. The development of the town, intrinsically linked to maritime trade and shipbuilding, brought with it a population explosion: by 1900, Saint-Nazaire already had 35,000 habitants. A new town was emerging.

Up to World War Two, passengers and goods thus went through Saint-Nazaire before heading off to the West Indies and Central America. Port facilities were expanded and improved: the south lock gate was built (inaugurated in 1907), and then it was the turn of the huge Louis Joubert Lock (first used in 1932), allowing it to accommodate the construction of ever larger ships.

World War Two brought the growth of the town to an abrupt stop. The headquarters of the Transatlantic Line disappeared beneath the immense concrete mass of the German submarine base, whose presence also meant that the town was repeatedly bombed to near-annihilation, targeted by the Allied forces. Following the war, the people faced the immense task of rebuilding their town, which had only sprung to life a few decades before.

Once a Harbour Always a Harbour

Today, the old submarine base remains. For many years it stood as an obstacle between the town centre and the harbour basins but rather than being destroyed, it was integrated into the town itself: a pedestrian ramp leads up to its roof, offering spectacular views over the port and the estuary, and several areas have been opened up within to create impressive public spaces. The base no longer houses German U-Boats but cultural attractions such as LiFE and VIP, the Tourist Office, and, of course, Escal’Atlantic.

Even around this base, life flourishes thanks to the cinema, supermarket, shopping centre and hotel, without forgetting the Théâtre Simone Veil, built on the former site of the railway station and incorporating its 19th-century facades. Besides, the artworks created by Felice Varini and Gilles Clément for the biennial event of contemporary art Estuaire Nantes <> Saint-Nazaire have been designed for the harbour landscape and are now truly part of it.

Another point of view

Vieux Môle

No wonder the “Vieux Môle” jetty (the oldest part of the harbour – 1838) is a top spot for selfies, Instagram and photos.

Catch it at sunrise or framed between waves and share your snaps using #SaintNazaireRenversante!