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 seek 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 pigeon 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 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. It was only a scenic 45 minute stroll along the riverbanks from the centre of the city… along the Boulevard Alexandre Millerand. 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), opened 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 with fabulous flavour.
Wandering around the Nante’s beautiful streets, typical French city architecture, gorgeous apartment blocks with balconies, plazas and a wonderful street violinist who suffered Izzy standing next to him pulling a funny face.
Our first sight of the Les Machines De L’ile
Our main reason to visit was to follow my sister’s advice to see 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. 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… and anyone can walk for free through the area and see the elephant walking it’s 30 minute slow rumble from the main Galerie to the large carousel and back… which are the main boarding points to ride on top of it. Imagine seeing this passing by when you’re at your desk in the office each day.As the elephant lumbers slowly it sprays water operated by the man 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. They go crazy and the onlookers laugh and clap hands with joy…because this is JOY…and it is absolutely infectious. To visit we paid once at the main Galerie area for Le Grand Elephant ride and the walk around the workshops (Galerie des Machines). We didn’t have to do both but you join the same queue which can be a 40 minute wait in peak times. Coffee shops, a shop and the elephant walking very close by distracted us whilst we waited. At the ticket desk we bought tickets 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. Inside the actual Galerie des Machines we saw other mechanical creations and protoypes, like the fabulous flying heron. It’s like being inside a mad inventor’s demonstration workshop. New machines are exhibited and invented here and machinists talked us through the different creations (the talk, unfortunately for us, only in French) but we saw everything being operated and the heron fly above our heads carrying volunteers in baskets. They have so many ideas in development including some sort of tree of life which they hope will straddle the river and feature rides. I hope they build it because I’ll definitely find any excuse to come back here.
Elephant riding and the giant 3-tier Le Carrousel Des Mondes Marins
We rode the giant elephant the 30 minute slow route from it’s pick up point in the workshop area to the carousel where he kindly dropped us off. It’s good fun especially for kids and you are very high up…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 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. First level is ‘In the seabeds’, the second level ‘In the abyss’ and third 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…image below from the official Les Machines De L’ile website.Such a fantastic day out…I can’t find enough superlatives to throw at this place; souvenirs bought and a short bus ride back to the hotel.
Chateua Des Ducs de Bretagne and the quirky gardens of Jardin Des Plantes
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, 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 became the Breton residence of the French monarchy. A wonderful undulating woven maze installation made from twigs and branches by American sculptor Patrick Dougherty was in the grounds. There is so much creativity in Nantes…I wish more city councils had this wonderful insight. The brilliant thing about the map with the 10 mile route of the green line is that even we coukldn’t get lost…we followed it ticking off the sculptures as we found them. 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, bamboo planted hideaways, a floral Loch Ness monster creeping through the lake. It’s all wonderfully eccentric and Izzy met a goat.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, once a fishing community and Cape Horner village. Narrow streets lead you between beautifully painted houses and pleasant gardens. There were a few places to have lunch or sit back with a beer or an ice-cream but we didn’t need much time here…we spent an hour wandering the streets…an eccentric feel of an artists’ colony though I don’t know how many artists actually live here. The ferry was running regular trips back and forth across the river all day so we hopped back on across the river.
Conceived by the artist Kryzystof Wodiczko, we visited the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery; a beautiful thought provoking walk under the pavements of the quay at river level…the river audibly lapping against the building. We walked the short length of 2,000 commemorative plaques, reminders of every slave ship that left Nantes as well as the main trading posts in Africa and America. The history combined with the setting, soft light and sound of the river made for a poignant experience. A fabulous building not far from the Galeries de Machines, by French architects Tetrarc. Speakers playing birdsong were hidden amongst the metal bars lacing around the structure. Along the riverside, quirky buildings, coffee shops, a chocolate shop…everything here delights.
The Galeries de Machines small carousel
On our last day we went back to watch the elephant walk his daily route and spray water over the leaping screeching kids…gleefully soaked. Izzy had 3 rides on the smaller carousel a 5 minute walk from the 3 tier ocean wonder she rode the day before, equally delightful, the detail and inventiveness is extraordinary. What a fantastic surprise this city turned out to be…one of the best I’ve visited for creativity, art and beautiful gardens. Friendly people, good food…everything about the place is inviting. 4 nights was great but I could easily have spent a few more…Izzy, age 9, loved it. In fact she said it was ‘epic’…and you don’t get better than that.
Ate at Entrecote restaurants https://www.entrecote.fr
Les Machines De L’ile http://www.lesmachines-nantes.fr/en
Chateua Des Ducs de Bretagne https://www.chateaunantes.fr/en/the-castle-2/history
Follow the green line https://www.nantes-tourisme.com/en/le-voyage-nantes-trail
Jardin Des Plantes https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jardin_des_plantes_de_Nantes
Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery https://memorial.nantes.fr/en/the-memorial-in-the-city