Saint Nazaire – The Harbour
Saint Nazaire is a commune in the Loire-Atlantique department in western France. The town has a major harbour on the right bank of the Loire river estuary, which is near the Atlantic Ocean. The port has always been at the soul of Saint-Nazaires’ history , its very raison d’etre. These days there is nothing left to show of the transatlantic services which regularly linked Saint-Nazaire to places such as Mexico, Cuba and Panama. Between 1940 and 1942 the German submarine base was built which dramatically changed the whole harbour site from the former transatlantic terminal.
In recent years the huge fortification has been the subject of town planning project ‘Ville-Port’ and integrated for more peaceful use into the city’s landscape. Arpound the submarine pens, docks and harbour basin, Saint Nazaire has reconciled itself with its port and created an original and authentic tourist attraction.
A Transatlantic Harbour –
Saint Nazaire used to be a simple village populated by fisherman and pilots. In 1862 Saint Nazaire became a transatlantic harbour with regular shipping links to central America. This is where the famous French Line, the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique ran its regular lines to Panama and Mexico with several ports of call in the West Indies and the Caribbean. In the late 19th century, the Saint Nazaire – Vera Cruz run would typically last some 21 days.
At the same time, in the Penhoet district, shipyards began to set up business thanks to maritime commerce and shipbuilding. Saint Nazaire expanded so heavily during the second half of the 19th century, going from 800 to 30,000 inhabitants in less than 50 years. From this the town was nicknamed ‘Brittany’s Little California’ in allusion to American boomtowns of the gold rush.
Passengers and merchandise transited through Saint Nazaire up to World War II. However, the French Line’s facilities had to give way to the massive submarine pens built by the German army.
There were no longer any regular transatlantic crossings after the war, and the harbour then developed outside Saint Nazaire. The modern terminals have been built along the Loire estuary.
Still bearing the scar left by the submarine base several decades after the war, the town was rebuilt with its back turned on the harbour. This huge 300-metre-long bunker separated the town from its harbour. Since the last years of the 20th century, Catalan architect Manuel de Sula designed a very important rehabilitation programme “Ville-Port”. He succeeded in making the submarine base a part of the town, giving its identity as a maritime city back to Saint Nazaire.
Once a black spot in the urban landscape, it is now a major attraction. The submarine pens are now the heart of the new tourist destination. Sheltering Escal’Atlantic a unique evocative museum, the “Ocean Liner Experience” opened in April 2000.
Since then other cultural venues have opened in the u boat pens. A three-star hotel, cinema, apartments and Saint Nazaire’s new theatre, built on the site of nearby 1860’s railway station, have turned the Ville-Port district into a lovely part of town.