Wednesday, September 6th 2017
For this year’s trip to France we have chosen Nantes, a major city in western France, an area we have not visited before. The map below gives you an idea of the location of Nantes. Click to go to the corresponding Google Map.
Nantes was once part of Brittany but has been detached from it and included in the Pays de la Loire region (département: Loire-Atlantique), an administrative move described as ‘controversial’. (If you want to know how to pronounce the name ‘Nantes’, click on this Forvo page and then on one or more of the recordings.)
Though sited on a river and not the sea, Nantes was in times past France’s greatest port for foreign trade. The city and many of its inhabitants became wealthy through the slave trade, something that is a cause of embarrassment today with visible attempts being made to explain it away. Perhaps we should not be too harsh on Nantes, given that certain British cities also became rich on the proceeds of human trafficking. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone…
We travel from London to Nantes in two stages. We start at St Pancras we where catch the 08:54 Eurostar and disembark in Lille at 11:23. (This train then continues to Brussels and I half wish that we were staying aboard as I have good memories of our trip to the Belgian capital earlier this year, see Brussels 2017.) It’s nice to see Lille again (see Lille 2014) but we have no time to look around as we must board the 11:51 TGV to Nantes, arriving there at 15:54.
The Eurostar is a fairly comfortable train but the TGV, run by the SNCF, is better, offering more leg room, for one thing. Our train is a double-decker, rather a novelty for us Brits. Although this is a national (not international train), I notice that announcements are made in both French and English.
Though I don’t usually talk politics on this blog, I feel bound to say that France’s state-run railway system is far superior to the British system, divided as it is among many private operators, whose emphasis is on profit rather than on service. France shows how a nationalized railway can concentrate on providing an efficient service for its users instead of compromising on standards in order to benefit shareholders.
Disembarking at Nantes, we crossed to road to a nice-looking cafe and ordered coffee. Then we studied the map to see how to reach our hotel. Nantes, I am happy to say, has a tram network and we found there was a tram route that would take us from the station to near the hotel.
Our hotel proved a little hard to find, being located in a side street and set back from the road but we eventually located it. It is called Hôtel Le Cambronne1 and seems to be more or less a one-man business. The manager asked if we spoke French and was visibly relieved that we did.
The room is on the small side and there are not many power points (essential in this age of electronics) but we can manage. There is free Wifi but that too is flaky, not always working.
We settled in and made tea. Continental hotels, unlike their British counterparts, usually do not supply a kettle and cups. You need to remember to bring your own. We looked online for vegetarian restaurants and found that there are quite a few in Nantes and so set out to look for early supper. Below are some of the sights we encountered along the way.
We descended the rue Fourcroy, where the hotel is located, the the main road, Quai de la Fosse where I photographed this large building, attracted by the delicate tracery of its balcony ironwork.
At first sight, I thought this monument in Place de la Bourse (the Bourse, or stock exchange building, can be seen in the background) was the town war memorial but it was in fact erected in honour of Georges de Villebois-Mareuil (1847-1900), a son of Nantes and, by all accounts a dashing military man. The monument records his death in 1900 at the Battle of Boshof, South Africa, during the Second Boer War. Though France was not officially involved in the war, numbers of French and other nationalities joined the Boers against the British.
The relief panel suggests that the Boers and their French supporters, on the left, gave the British a trouncing. The truth is otherwise. Faced by superior firepower and an imminent bayonet charge by the British, the Boers left the field, urging the French to do the same. The French, however, refused and stayed to fight. Their situation, as the Boers had recognized, was impossible and, outflanked by the British and pounded by their artillery, the French suffered losses and were forced to surrender. Villebois-Mareuil himself was killed during the fighting.
The Passage Pommeraye, from this viewpoint, looks like a typical Victorian shopping arcade of the kind we find in British cities. What I didn’t realize when I took the photo (and another below) is that its is much bigger than any arcade I have previously seen, extending over several levels. It was the brainchild of Louis Pommeraye and opened in 1840. It was built in the hope that it would regenerate the rundown area in which it was built. The difficulty of the terrain and various court cases brought against the project added to the problems faced by Pommeray but he eventually succeeded. The ‘passage’ has been a commercial success but Pommeray himself was ruined financially by it and died in poverty.
The Place Royale was built in the late 18th century on ground freed up by the destruction of the medieval city walls. The design is Classical and the square was intended to be the cultural centre of the town. The fountain, which suits its setting perfectly was unveiled only in 1865. Despite the royal name, there is no palace or statuary representing the monarchy. The square was badly damaged in the Second World War and restored to its original form in the two decades that followed it.
Just off the Place Royale, we found Taj Mahal, an Indian and Pakinstani restaurant. For vegetarians in France, finding an Indian restaurant is like finding an oasis in the desert. France is not very vegetarian-friendly, though the situation is gradually improving. Taj Mahal is not a vegetarian restaurant but, like all such establishments, offers a long list of vegetarian dishes. We found the food pleasant enough but mildly flavoured, no doubt as a concession to the conservative French palate.
Walking along the rue de l’Arche Sèche, I looked across Square Arthur Collinet and saw what looked like a church and took a quick photo. It turns out that it is really the Basilique Saint-Nicolas and it might have been worth getting a better view of it and perhaps even looking inside. That will have to wait for another visit (if ever we make one). It was built from 1844 to 1867 and in Britian we would refer to it as ‘Victorian’. What is the French equivalent? Second Empire, perhaps.
We passed by another entrance of the Passage Pommeraye, now lit up and looking welcoming. However, most of the shops would have been closed by now so we did not venture in.
It was time to turn back to the hotel but just as we did so, we spotted a large flock of starlings engaged in their evening murmuration. This is always a magical sight as a huge flock of birds engages in coordinated aerial manoeuvres like a mysterious flying ballet. To be seen properly it needs to be videoed but there nearest I could manage is a GIF of several images of the dance.
The starlings finally flew down in waves to settle in the trees and we started back to our temporary home at Le Cambronne.
Our room is on the third floor and there is no lift. We have a climb of 49 steps to end the day.
1Pierre Jacques Étienne Cambronne (1770-1842), later Viscount Cambronne, was a native of Nantes who rose to the rank of General of the French Empire and was wounded at the battle of Waterloo.
In France you may hear mention of le mot de Cambronne (‘Cambronne’s word’). This refers to a passage in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables where it is said that General Cambronne, on being summoned to surrender by the British General Charles Colville, replied with the common French expletive Merde! (‘Shit!), often used as a brusque refusal. The story is possibly apocryphal but has given rise to a humorous pseudonym for the word it represents.