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.
Thursday, September 7th 2017
Today is my birthday and this trip to France is in celebration of that. So bon anniversaire to me!
The day started with a cup of tea. As noted, French hotels do not usually supply a kettle so we bring our own. We also have plenty of adaptors for plugging the kettle and our other devices into European power sockets.
The ‘Europlug’, intended for use through the EU, does exist but so far our French electric plugs have fitted the power sockets in all the countries we have visited. The advantage of these over the Europlug, which has only two pins, is that they have a connection to earth. As well as adaptors, it’s a good idea to buy an extra long cable for charging your phone in case you want your phone beside the bed but there isn’t a power socket nearby.
Then it was time to take a shower. Trying the shower in your hotel room is always something of an adventure. If showers don’t freeze or scald you, they have other tricks with which to surprise and annoy you. This shower, for example, cannot be fixed in position. If you slot the head into the holder it droops like a dying daisy and sprays into the soap dish which has been cunningly placed in just the right position for this. In contrast, adjusting the temperature works perfectly well, so one mustn’t grumble too much.
Breakfast isn’t included with the room but the manager says we can take it or not on a day by day basis. It costs €6.50 and the pound has currently sunk to near equality with the euro, making food and everything else that much more expensive for British travellers. We decided to try the breakfast here and to see whether we think it worth the money and, if not, to skip it for the remaining days.
It turned out that breakfast was surprisingly copious with juice, coffee, hard-boiled egg, croissants, yogurt, fruit and bread with butter and jam.
After breakfast, we set out to walk to the railway station. We did a little sight-seeing on the way, of course. Above is a picture of the Palais de la Bourse, of which I gave you a glimpse yesterday. Built between 1790 and 1815 as the town’s stock exchange, it was adapted as a department store at the end of last century and is currently occupied by a company called FNAC which sells a range of goods but is known mainly as one of France’s largest online bookshops.
I liked the look of this old-style fashion shop with its black and gold lettering. The firm’s name, displayed in the corner window, is Falbalas St JuniEN. The company still exists and seems to be doing very well with outlets in several cities. I haven’t been able to find out its history (or why the name ‘JuniEN’ is partially capitalized) but it looks as if it dates from the early 1900s.
Until 1941, Nantes was the centre of power of Britanny and the Dukes of Britanny had their castle here. It was built in 1207 and rebuilt in 1466. I believe it was inhabited until the middle of the 19th century. It is now classed as an Historical Monument and is open to the public. Today we were just passing by and took a quick snap. The moat provides water for a colony of waterfowl.
This striking tower is not only beautiful but is also something of a survivor. The building to which it belongs was created for the biscuit company Lefèvre-Utile (LU) and served is its factory for the century from 1886 to 1996. The tower and its twin were erected in the early 20th century but the second was demolished to make room for a factory. The remaining tower was decapitated during major works in 1972. In 1994, the site was bought by the CRDC (Centre for Cultural Research and Development) and the tower was restored to its original condition. Part of the site was demolished to make way for housing developments and the rest turned into a national centre for contemporary arts and music. In order to keep the name LU, it has been designated the ‘Lieu Unique’ (‘unique place’).
Our next stop was the railway station. Our plan was to take the train to Saint-Nazaire and travel on from there by bus. In France, as in Britain, there are now sophisticated ticket machines that sell you railway tickets to all destinations. All of those that we have encountered, whether on main line stations or on the Paris underground, can be switched to English or French as you prefer. You have to take care, though, because many such machines work only with credit cards and those which normally accept cash may switch to credit cards if there is a problem handling money. If you are going to do a lot of travelling around, it’s a good idea to make sure that your bank or credit card company is one that doesn’t charge for transactions in foreign currency.
By the way, when you travel by train in France, there is another little – but important – ceremony to perform. You will see notices telling you to ‘composter votre billet’ (‘date-stamp your ticket’). At the entrances to the platforms are small machines, often painted yellow, for the purpose. You need to poke your ticket into the slot and with a metallic clink, the machine prints the date on it. Your ticket is not valid until you have done this.
The cost of the return fare was quite expensive, at least it was for us, given the weak pound. After thinking about it, though, we decided to grit our teeth and buy the tickets, choosing the cheapest times. The train was packed but we managed to find pair of seats together. Mid-journey there was a loudspeaker announcement from train buffet: ‘Sorry, we’ve run out of coffee!’
We reached Saint-Nazaire which is possibly an interesting town worth exploring but as it was not today’s destination we left it for another time. (If you want to locate Saint-Nazaire on the map, see here.)
We did, however, stop off long enough to have coffee in a cafe called Café Couleur. Then we repaired to the nearby bus station and examined the lists of destinations.
A helpful bus driver pointed out the stop for bus U3 which would take us where we wanted to go.
We disembarked at Saint-Marc-sur-Mer and found a street market in progress. We walked down this street, named after the French polar scientist Jean-Baptiste, towards the beach.
Saint-Marc is a small quiet seaside town. So small and quiet, in fact, that it is hard to locate on the map. I give you this link to Google Maps in case you wish to find it. The map doesn’t even name the town. Look to the right of the phrase ‘Plage Saint Nazaire’ where you will find the words ‘Plage de M. Hulot’.
Saint-Marc-sur-Mer has some houses, some shops and restaurants, an hotel and a rather empty beach. It makes Hastings or Broadstairs look like Las Vegas. So why would anyone come here? The clue is in my location information above. The beach of Saint-Marc is now known (and labelled) as la Plage de Monsieur Hulot. In other words, this is the location chosen by Jacques Tati for his famous comedy film Mr Hulot’s Holiday (‘Led Vacances de M. Hulot’). This fact draws quite a number of visitors (including us, of course).
There are sign boards here and there explaining what scenes of the film were recorded there. On the promenade there is a slightly larger than life-size sculpture by Emmanuel Debarre of Jacques Tati in character as Monsieur Hulot, looking out over the beach. It originally included Monsieur Hulot’s trademark pipe but someone broke this off, perhaps for a souvenir, and only a stump remains.
The beach, so crowded and full of activity in the film, was today virtually deserted.
The one recognizable feature is the hotel where some of the interior scenes supposedly took place. It is named Hôtel de la Plage (‘Beach Hotel’) as in the film.
We had a sandwich lunch at a little establishment called Resto la Chica (‘resto’ is a common abbreviation for ‘restaurant’). It didn’t take long to see all there was to see in Saint-Marc and we rounded off the visit by taking coffee on the terrace of L’Hôtel de la Plage.
We caught the U3 back to Saint-Nazaire. Unlike London, where all bus tickets and passes must be bought in advance, you can still buy tickets on the buses here. When you buy a bus ticket, it is undated. It is only when you poke it in the machine on the bus, which stamps the date and time on it, that its period of validity starts. (Tram tickets, however, have to be bought in advance of travel from machines at the tram stops.)
Arriving back at Saint-Nazaire, we found we had an hour to wait for our train but this eventually arrived and carried us back to Nantes.
As yesterday when we first arrived, we went across the road to the cafe. It is called Café des Plantes and takes this name from the Jardin des Plantes or Botanical Gardens beside it.
We strolled back to our hotel, taking a few photos on the way. There we made tea and had a rest, going over the day’s adventures. The next question was where to go for supper. We didn’t fancy going far so as we had noticed a pizza restaurant at the top of the street, we thought we’d try it.
On our way out, the hotel manager informed us that he would be closing up soon and reminded us that we would need the door code to get back in. We assured him we had noted it.
At the pizza place we chose our pizzas and Tigger asked for a cappuccino. This confused the waiter who evidently thought that we didn’t realize that a cappuccino is a hot drink and you apparently don’t have hot drinks with pizza. We managed to convince him that, yes, Tigger really did want a cappuccino.
On returning to the hotel, we found the door locked as we had been forewarned and we proceeded to enter the code. We tried 3 times and nothing happened. Had they changed the code without telling us (we’ve been caught like that before!)?Then I looked at the card with the number hand-written by the manager. Maybe what I thought was a 9 could be a 2? Yes, it worked. Relief!
We climbed the 49 steps to our room, put our electronic gadgets on charge and went to bed.
Friday, September 8th 2017
Checking the weather forecast this morning, we saw that that rain was ‘promised’ from 2pm. We therefore needed to make the most of the morning.
We had breakfast at the hotel and then set out for today’s first destination to see what is arguably the most famous inhabitant of Nantes.
That destination was the large island in the River Loire that forms part of Nantes and is called, reasonably enough, Île de Nantes (‘Island of Nantes’). Its location is shown on the above map and clicking this takes you to the appropriate Google Map.
There are 10 bridges crossing to the island (6 on the north side, 4 on the south) but we crossed by a pedestrian bridge called Passerelle Victor Schoelcher. You will not see it on the map unless you expand this several times. It lies between the first and second bridges counting from the left on the north side. (Victor Schœlcher (1804-93) was a politician and important figure in France’s abolitionist cause. It is somewhat ironic that in this city known for its important role in the slave trade, Victor Schœlcher is given a monument but such a small one.)
We approached our intending destination and our first view of it is shown above. The Island is home to a remarkable and justly famous enterprise called Les Machines de l’île. Nantes was once an important centre for ship building and the big buildings, called les nefs, used for that purpose now accommodate Les Machines. These are a collection of animated mechanical animals and a huge carousel on the theme of the marine life. You will find more information about this on their Web page and this Wikipedia article may be useful as an introduction.
It is possible. for a price, to tour the whole exhibition but we had come to see the undoubted star of the show, the mighty beast known as Le Grand Éléphant (no translation needed, surely!). This mighty pachyderm walks and carries up to 50 passengers and is the main attraction of the exhibition and fast becoming a symbol of Nantes itself.
As preparations for running the elephant had not yet started, we went for a walk and photographed the two large wall paintings. They belong to an organization called La Fabrique or Les Fabriques (they seem uncertain whether they are singular or plural) which I think is an art studio – or is it studios, plural? Anyway, click on the name for their Web site and decide for yourself.
We returned from our walk to find that some of the barriers around the elephant had been moved away as though the beast were about to move. In fact, quite some time was to pass before it was actually set in motion. A lot of preparation is necessary, it seems.
The interior of the elephant’s body is more or less empty to allow room for passengers. On top there is an open howdah and on the side an opening resembling a balcony. The ‘works’, that is, the machinery that makes the elephant walk and perform its actions, are accommodated in a trailer attached to its rear. Although, when it is in motion, the legs move as though walking, the elephant actually runs on wheels.
These two men were getting the elephant ready for work. The one on the left was using what looked liked a computer screen while the one on the right was filling the tank with water. (We’ll see what this was for later.)
Unlike the Indian mahouts who sit on the elephant’s neck, the driver of this elephant occupies a small cab above the front wheel.
At last, the preparations completed and the paying passengers having mounted on board, the Grand Éléphant set forth. It was quite an impressive sight.
There were no barriers to prevent people approaching the elephant and some did. They received a surprise when the elephant sprayed them with water! The spray was very fine, more like a mist, and nobody seemed to mind.
As we left the main complex, we came upon this huge structure called Carrousel des Mondes Marins (‘Sea Worlds Carousel’). It was not working today and in fact looked as if it has been out of action for some time. According to the Web page (English version), ‘Adults and children are plunged into the same imaginary universe of this incredible mechanical aquarium, which you can discover at your own pace.’
This handsome 19th-century building bears the name Ateliers et Chantiers de Nantes. This was a ship-building company formed in the 1880s to take advantage of the boom in naval ship building at that time. Today it is used by the University of Nantes.
Just before leaving the island I took this photo of the river and the Bridge of Anne of Brittany which we then crossed to go back into the town. Anne of Brittany (1488-1489) was a native of Nantes and Duchess of Brittany and twice Queen Consort of France.
Leaving the island, we made our way on foot to our next destination, taking in any interesting sights along the way. One such was the mid-19th-century church Notre-Dame-de-bon-port. The reference to the port in the name harks back to when the church was built in what was the old port area but which was beginning to disappear under new urban buildings.
In Place Graslin stands a theatre with a portico entrance. Designed in Classical style by local architect Mathurin Crucy, the Théâtre Graslin opened in 1788 and quickly became the city’s opera house. Ravaged by fire 8 years after opening, it was rebuilt in its original form in time for a visit to the city of Emperor Napoleon in 1811.
Standing in the Place Saint-Pierre is the Cathedral of Nantes, dedicated jointly to St Peter and St Paul. Like many cathedrals with medieval origins, this one took several hundred years to build. Started in 1434, it was declared finished only in 1891 (a span of 467 years).
Nestling beside the Cathedral (if such a large object can be said to nestle) is a gate which is a vestige of the old city walls. It is dedicated to St Peter, by himself this time. Various periods of building contributed to this ancient monument from the 9th century inwards though it is mainly of the 15th century.
Not too far away was our destination, the Musée des Beaux Arts. This very fine gallery of fine arts would need several visits to see and really absorb all that it has to offer. The time we could devote to it did not do it justice though the visit was nevertheless instructive and enjoyable. I can give you only a few examples of what we saw.
Every museum in France of course boasts one or more sculptures of Napoleon. We British may regard him as a villain but his presence on the scene forms a solid piece of French history and he has had, and still has, many admirers. Francesco Laboureur (1767-1831) conceived ‘his’ Napoleon as a Roman grandee with toga and laurel wreath, exuding confidence and nobility.
I have to admit that I am not a fan of abstract art though I admit that some works grab my attention and impress with their more intriguing qualities. This painting by Victor Vasarely (1906-97) gives an impression of depth and relief. It is entitled Alom, the Hungarian word for ‘Dream’.
These two paintings are also very striking and fit into my ‘intriguing’ category. Jean Dewasne (1921-99) began by studying architecture and then moved to painting. He also produced what he called ‘antisculptures’ by painting on 3-dimensional surfaces.
Returning gratefully to the world of figurative art, here is a portrait that is immediately recognizable as a work by the inimitable Tamara (de) Lempicka (1898-1980). It is a portrait of the artist’s daughter Kisette (‘en rose’ – dressed in pink). This is apparently a picture of a neatly dressed and well-behaved young girl but the deliberately slightly awkward pose and the defiant expression suggest an underlying unruliness that might break out at any moment.
This sculpture, in realist mode, shows a gardener preparing a graft. It is by Léon Fagel (1851-1913), it fits into the current of ‘naturalism’, reflecting the lives. labours and sufferings of ordinary people (cf. the works of the novelist Émile Zola) current in the 19th century.
This untitled painting caught my attention, firstly because it is a very attractive portrait and then because of the unusual technique. The artist, Sigmar Polke (1941-2010), created his own unique style influenced perhaps by photography.
Leaving the museum, we found that the promise of rain had now been delivered. We started back for the hotel but as the rain became heavier, decided to take shelter in the hope that it would ease.
We went into a café bar called Le Select and dawdled there awhile. When the rain seemed to ease off somewhat, we made a dash for the hotel. We stayed there until hunger prompted thoughts of seeking food. A nearby restaurant satisfied our needs.
Saturday, September 9th 2017
This is our last day in Nantes, the day we return to London. Our train leaves at 12:06 and so we have plenty of time and don’t need to hurry. We do the last-minute packing and look around to make sure we have left nothing behind. Fortunately, according to the forecast, the weather will be dry today so we will not have to struggle with our bags through the rain.
Once again, but for the last time, we take the hotel breakfast and then we check out and pay our bill. The room had been reserved and paid for in advance so there is just the breakfasts to pay for. It turned out that these were really worth the money.
Leaving the hotel, we walked down the side street in which it resides to the main road. At the tram stop and bought tickets from the ticket machine1. Once aboard the tram, it was only three or four stops to the railway station. We looked around for seats and found some where we could watch the comings and goings of the people and relax until it was time for our train. Looking around, I noticed something and wrote a little meditation on it. I wrote it in French and I copy it below.
A la gare, un jeune homme était en train de pédaler. Il était assis à une station de recharger les téléphones portables. Il pédalait et pédalait comme un cycliste mais un cycliste qui n’arrive jamais à destination. D’un coup cela m’a semblait une image de la vie: nous pédalons ou marchons sans cesse sans arriver nulle part jusqu’à ce la mort nous en libère. Un symbole effarant ou réconfortant selon votre disposition particulière.
When our train was announced, we hurried aboard and found our reserved seats. The train was late leaving and this worried me because we had to change trains at Paris. We would arrive at Paris Montparnasse and from there would need to transfer to Paris Nord.
The best way to make this change (assuming you don’t want to incur the expense of a taxi) is to take the Métro. We needed line 4 going to Clignancourt. Finding the métro station posed its own problem as the first entrance was blocked owing to building works. We followed the signs and finally reached our platform after quite a long walk. (it is, in fact, no worse than the tunnels of the London Underground but when you are anxious that you might miss your connection even a short walk seems interminable!)
On the way, we had to stop off to buy métro tickets. There are plenty of ticket machines but the first one messed us about and stole 4 euros off us without giving anything in return. The next machine behaved impeccably but would only accept credit/debit cards. (You need to watch for this on railway and métro stations in France: even if the ticket machine nominally takes cash, it may revert to cards-only if there is a problem. If you don’t notice the cards-only sign and put money in, you may lose it as we did in the first machine.)
The platform was crowded and the train was packed but we managed to get ourselves and our bags on board. We even found seats after the first couple of stops. The transfer from Paris Montparnasse to Paris Nord is reckoned to take about 45 minutes. We reached Paris Nord with 40 minutes to spare.
We bought sandwiches for lunch at a stall and then went up the escalator to find the Eurostar station. This is well signposted and therefore easy to reach. Two passport checks and a baggage check later, we were released to sit in the departures lounge where we ate our sandwiches.
Boarding the Eurostar was, as usual, slow but orderly. We found our assigned seats and settled in for the two-hour journey to St Pancras.
We reached London at about 17:40 and went to Carluccio’s restaurant on the upper level of St Pancras Station for an early supper, then took the bus for home.
The trip to Nantes was successful and visiting France is always a pleasure. Nantes, though, despite having a good art gallery and the famous Machines de l’Île, seems to me a fairly anodyne city. I don’t think I shall be tempted to return. However, if there were medals to award, I would certainly award one to the Hôtel le Cambronne which, despite its slightly quirky character and droopy shower head, was comfortable and provided us with such good breakfasts.
1In France, single-use bus and tram tickets are valid for one hour, during which time you can travel on any number of buses or trams. London Transport has recently introduced the Hopper Fare which allows you to use just two vehicles within one hour but this is rather pale compared with the more generous French system.