Ideally located on the Atlantic coast and the Loire estuary, Saint-Nazaire, originally a little village inhabited by fishermen and pilots, became the advanced port of Nantes in the mid-19th century. From 1862 onwards, thanks to regular shipping lines, Saint-Nazaire became a transatlantic harbour, point of departure and arrival for liners on their way to and from Central America. At the same time shipyards began to set up business in the Penhoët quarter. Thanks to maritime commerce and shipbuilding, Saint-Nazaire developed so dramatically during the second half of the 19th century that the town was nicknamed « Brittany’s little California ».
World War Two put a brutal stop to the city’s growth. The transatlantic wharf disappeared under the formidable concrete mass of the submarine base built by the German army, which was going be the cause of the city’s almost total destruction by bombs.
For several decades after the war, the town, rebuilt with its back turned on the harbour, was still bearing the scar left by this huge bunker, 300m long, cutting the town from its harbour. Since the last years of the 20th century however, a very important rehabilitation programme, « Ville-Port », designed by Catalan architect Manuel de Sola, has succeeded in making the submarine base a part of the town and giving its identity as a maritime city back to Saint-Nazaire. What was a black spot in the urban landscape is now a major attraction : the submarine base is the heart of the new tourist destination, sheltering Escal’Atlantic, the International Ocean Liner Centre, a unique evocative museum.
Where industry is concerned, Saint-Nazaire is now the birthplace of giants of the seas and of the air. Shipyard Chantiers de l’Atlantique is one of the world’s leaders in the building of cruise ships and its reputation was a key factor in Cunard’s decision to have Harmony of the seas, the largest passenger ship of all times, built in Saint-Nazaire. Superlatives are also in store for Airbus as the Saint-Nazaire plant takes part in the building the biggest civil aircraft ever built.