Lost in Nantes…trying to converse (badly) in French
Why doesn’t everybody talk about Nantes? Nobody has ever mentioned Nantes to me until my sister took my Northern niece Sarah there and came back raving about this fabulous city with crazy giant mechanical animals. So I booked a trip to Nantes in the Upper Brittany region of Western France, treated my mum-in-law Di and Southern niece Izzy and off we went to see out the Machines De L’ile. We arrived on a beautiful sunny day. My incredibly basic French did assist us in finding the hotel albeit a rather roundabout route – no thanks to the women on the airport information desk; it must take them bloody hours to get to work each day based on the directions they gave us. Instead of a pretty straightforward bus/tram route – they sent us by bus with 3 different connections ending in a long walk along the riverbank for 20 minutes dragging suitcases. The rest of the day was spent in similar fashion as we tried to navigate our way around the city and speak in pidgeon French. Apart from a torrential downpour on our first evening, a plate of raw mince which we thought was going to be steak and frites and totally failing to find the correct bus back to the hotel (because the regular service finished very early), it was all very amusing….and everyone, every single person we asked for help or directions, was incredibly friendly; thereby totally blowing the myth that the French hate the English. Nantes was one of the most friendly places I have ever travelled to and we met a fair few of the population whilst we were getting lost on our first day. Izzy at one point asking if I planned to talk to absolutely everyone we encountered. Despite appearances Izzy did enjoy the hotel’s outdoor pool…it wasn’t heated though so perhaps she was just appeasing us. We stayed at one of the Mercure chain hotels and instead of booking the one right in the centre (I actually thought I had) we were at the one overlooking the Loire River – a 10 minute bus ride one direction to the city centre and a 10 minute ride in the opposite direction for the Galeries de Machines…fortuitously making the location absolutely perfect. Plus we woke each morning to beautiful views of the river through cedar trees planted around the hotel grounds. We saw two of the other Mercure Nantes hotels when exploring the city, one right next to the railway station and the other slap bang in the city centre on a busy street. The staff were great, especially the manager who’s completely bonkers about David Bowie. I’ve never met a chain hotel manager this friendly and approachable…and such fantastic fun. Sadly, as I’m revisiting this post, I believe that the hotel has since been demolished but as a location this was great. It was only a scenic 45 minute stroll along the riverbanks from the centre of the city. Have a look at alternative places along the Boulevard Alexandre Millerand; I think there may be a Novotel built in its place. I really hope the Bowie obsessed manager found another position in hospitality because France will be a poorer place without him.Nantes selfies! Apparently you have to do this every time you sit down or stand still…anywhere…even when it’s somewhere completely naff like the bus stop.
We finally found our steak and frites. Entrecote (thanks for the tip off to my sister who was here last year). Started in 1959, queues out of the door, hugely popular …and no wonder. They only serve one thing, steak and chips in the most amazing garlic butter herb sauce. Waitresses walk around with huge silver platters piled high with skinny fries which they give you free re-fills from. Cholesterol busting late lunch but fabulous flavour. https://www.entrecote.fr/
Wandering around the Nante’s beautiful streets.
Our first sight of the Les Machines De L’ile
Our main reason for this trip was to follow up on my sister advice and visit the incredible Les Machines De L’ile. What can I say…it totally blew us away – all 3 of us absolutely loved it. Sod Disneyland, come here…it is without a doubt one of the most imaginative, entrancing, fantastic places I have ever been to – and less than an hour’s flight from London on a cheap Easy Jet ticket. Why don’t more people know about this place? The French come here in the summer holidays but there were very few people from other nationalities. It must have put Nantes on the map for French tourism in a huge way. Simply spectacular. The giant walking mechanical elephant is the main draw. Here’s their website: http://www.lesmachines-nantes.fr/en/This place isn’t a theme park. It’s a large open area of developed land near to the river, possibly the old docks as Nantes is a seaport. Les Machines De L’ile is the main event and is made up of 3 or 4 specific attractions… but anyone can walk for free through the area and see the elephant walking it’s 30 minute slow route from the main Galerie to the large carousel and back which are the main boarding points to ride on top of the elephant. Imagine seeing this passing by when you’re at your desk in the office each day!As the elephant lumbers slowly along it sprays water operated by the guy driving it and it’s fantastic fun to watch all the young kids (and the odd bemused dog) running around it getting caught by the spray. The kids go crazy and the onlookers laugh and clap hands with joy…because this is JOY…and it is absolutely infectious. To visit the attractions you pay once at the main Galerie area for Le Grand Elephant ride and the walk around the workshops (Galerie des Machines). You don’t have to do both you can do just one if you wish to, but you join the same queue which can be a 40 minute wait in peak times, but well worth it and there are coffee shops, a shop and the elephant walking very close by to distract children. When you reach the front and the ticket desk you can buy your ticket to the Galerie with immediate access and then book a timed slot for the elephant ride which in busy times may mean several hours later in the afternoon. For instance if you join the queue at 11am your elephant ride might not be until 3 or 4pm. The Galeries takes about an hour to walk through and then you can wander across to the other main attraction Le Carousel Des Mondes Marins, buy a ticket there to ride on it, or just spectator tickets to go in and view it. More about that a little further down. Inside the actual Galerie des Machines you can view other mechanical creations and protoypes, like the fabulous flying heron. New machines are exhibited and invented here and machinists talk you through the different creations (the talk, unfortunately for us, only in French) but you get to see everything being operated and the heron fly above your head carrying volunteers in its baskets. Give yourself an hour to wander through here and watch the heron fly and to see what ideas they have in development including some sort of tree of life which will feature rides on it.
Elephant riding and the giant 3-tier Le Carrousel Des Mondes Marins
We rode the giant elephant the 30 minute very slow route from it’s pick up point in the workshop area over to the carousel where he kindly dropped us off. It’s great fun for kids but we thought it was more fun watching it walk around that actually being on it. ‘Carrousel Des Mondes Marins’ truly is incredible…this is not simply a merry-go-round but a huge work of art and it’s breathtaking. It stands 3 levels high, with rides on each tier and each level named after a different part of the sea. 1st level is ‘in the seabeds’, the 2nd level ‘in the abyss’ and 3rd level ‘on the sea surface’. It is so brilliantly clever and eccentric. Very small children aren’t allowed to ride on the middle level which is suspended. The rides are based on marine life grotesques; influenced by the stories in Voyages Extraordinaires by Jules Verne who was born in Nantes.We shoved Izzy in to the ribcage of a giant fish and waved at her as she bobbed around with the rest of the grotesquerie. Photo and video below from the offical Les Machines De L’ile website https://www.lesmachines-nantes.fr/en/discover/the-carrousel-des-mondes-marins/Fantastic day out; souvenirs bought and a short bus ride back to the hotel!
Chateua Des Ducs de Bretagne and the quirky gardens of Jardin Des Plantes
Another day out in Nantes and we picked up a map of the city. There’s a green line route you can follow not only on the map but actually painted on the ground of the streets of Nantes – making it incredibly easy to navigate to major attractions and their annual giant sculpture trail. We headed first by bus and then a couple of stops by tram to see The Castle of The Dukes of Brittany. It served as the centre of the historical province of Brittany until its separation in 1941. It’s located on the right bank of the Loire River. It was the residence of the Dukes of Brittany between the 13th and 16th centuries, and then became the Breton residence of the French monarchy. The undulating woven maze installation made from twigs, branches etc is by American sculptor Patrick Dougherty.The brilliant thing about the map with the 10 mile long route of the green line is that it enables you to find everything so easily and tick off the sculptures as you walk the city. Izzy loved it, it’s like following a rather bonkers yellow brick road. From giant mechanical elephants, castles and cathedrals to the beautiful and rather mad Jardin Des Plantes with its topiary birds and sleeping bear, giant sized benches, a floral Loch Ness monster creeping through the lake. It’s all wonderfully eccentric.Speakers were hidden amongst the plants and you could hear tiny voices like there were elves running through the undergrowth.
Izzy made some new friends in Nantes. Not pictured is the other goat who ate her receipts, tried to eat her money and the fight with said goat to try and get our city map back off him.
The ferry to Trentemoult and quirky French arichitecture
We headed down to the river to take the short ferry ride (about 10 minutes) across the river to Trentemoult, a small village which was once a fishing and Cape Horner village. You can get more information about it here: http://en.nantes-tourisme.com/activity/trentemoult-2472.htmlNarrow streets lead you between beautifully painted houses and some pleasant gardens. There are a few places to have lunch and to sit back with a beer or an ice-cream but you won’t need too much time here. We spent about an hour just wandering around the streets. It has that eccentric feel of an artists colony although I don’t know how many artists actually live here, but it definitely has that sort of ambiance. The ferry was running regular trips back and forth across the river all day.
Below is the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery. Conceived by the artist Kryzystof Wodiczko, this is a beautiful thought provoking walk under the pavements of the quay at river level. You ca hear the river lapping against the building as you walk the short length of 2,000 commemorative plaques as a reminder of every slave ship that ever left Nantes as well as the main trading posts in Africa and America. You can read more about the memorial here: http://memorial.nantes.fr/en/le-memorial/A fabulous building not far from the Galeries de Machines, by French architects Tetrarc. Speakers were hidden amongst the metal bars lacing around the structure. Down along the riverside there are some really quirky buildings.
The Galeries de Machines small carousel
I absolutely love Nantes! Everyone should come here, I can’t recommend it enough, what a fantastic surprise this city turned out to be. It is one of the best cities I’ve ever visited for creativity and art and beautiful gardens. The people are incredibly friendly, the food is good, when you find the right places to eat…everything about the place is inviting. We spent 4 nights here and could have quite easily spent a few more. There is so much to do and Izzy age 9 loved it. In fact she said it was ‘epic’ surely no higher praise from an urban kid these days. On our last day we went back to watch the elephant walk his daily route and spray water over all the kids and Izzy took a few rides on the smaller carousel which is just as magical as the large 3 tier one 5 minutes walk away. The inventiveness of the Galeries de Machines is quite incredible. Everyone of all ages would love this and from the look of wonder and happiness on all of the faces surrounding me – it is testament to that inner child that this city manages to entertain in all of us, whatever our age. Visit Nantes, take a few days. It’s fantastic fun.