Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Something old, something new

written 15th November

It turns out that Nantes has a campsite right opposite the university - which I have no recollection of even though it is very near where I used to go to the business school on the tram line! - and very nice it is too.

We decided to stop for a couple of nights so as to properly explore and even treated ourselves to 24h electricity and internet (the first time we have paid for internet since we moved out of our house!).  After a short break to reacquaint ourselves with the world beyond our four wheels via the miracle of the interweb, we set off on our bikes to follow the red tramline down into town in the warm sunshine of the afternoon.

On the advice of the campsite manager we decided to go first to Ile des Machines which is a redevelopment project on the old naval dockyards opposite where I used to live and there we found a giant mechanical elephant wandering around, trumpeting and squirting tourists with its massive trunk - as you do!

It is 12m tall, 6m wide, weighs 46 tonnes and cost  €80M, yes EIGHTY MILLION euros, to build and it is truly fantastic.  It is part of an on-going creative project to build massive, interactive, moving creatures and when they are finished, 2011 I think, it will be magnificent if the elephant amd the prototype branch of the massive tree they are going to build is anything to go by.  We had a choice of a ride on the elephant or a look at the other creations and chose the elephant - well it had to be done, how often do you get to ride on a 12m high mechanical elephant???

It is basically a massive tricycle with big driving wheels at the back and a man in a cab at the front under the head with a joystick to control the trunk and squirt people who get too close.  The legs properly walk, the feet touch the ground, the head looks from side to side, the riveted leathery ears flap, the long lashed eyes blink and the whole thing sways as it moves along.

Top speed is something like 0.25m/s (according the the system monitor in the belly of the beast) so it is a leisurely stroll and a very surreal experience.  You also get a look down into the massive workshop where they are working on future creations and there is a fascinating video about the whole project and the building of the elephant.  155 people from 35 different professions (arcitects, engineers, set designers etc), a couple of years and lots of technology and massive power tools.  They are currently building the ocean world creatures after which the Heron Tree and World of Birds.

With dusk beginning to fall and little idea about the location, prevalence and opening hours of food shops in the centre of Nantes (we always shopped in the massive Leclerc at the end of the tram line) we headed for the little supermarket opposite where I used to live (from which we used to buy pink wine for 8.5F (85p for those who don't remember the exchange rate to francs) before a night out - we were classy birds).  Being somewhere so foreign (well, french) but yet so unexpectedly familiar is very wierd. I couldn't tell you anything about the supermarket, its layout, what is was called or anything, but I knew it was there and on walking through the door it smelled exactly as I didn't know I was expecting it too.  Will had to stop me running around like a small child in a sweet shop and buying everything in sight and I wasn't even allowed any cheese or wine as we still had some english cheddar and abbot ale to finish up in the van so we settled on pork chops, saucisse de Toulouse and saucisse de marguez for the bbq, a baguette and as a special dispensation I was allowed a bottle of breton cidre.

Suitably provisioned with delicious french things we set off back to the campsite.  Opposite the campsite there is a new swimming pool and ice skating rink and as entry to the pool was free to campsite residents we decided it would be rude not to.  It is a very nice pool, with a wave machine (unfortunately not working) and a flume and various bubbly jets.  We did get stopped by the life guard as Will's swimming shorts are apparently illegal in France (I mean swimming shorts in general are illegal, there isnt something especially nefarious about Will's!) but as we are stupid and foreign they let him borrow some fetching speedos from the lost property - we can't be the first people to not know - so we could enjoy our free swim.  It was all very civilised really, one big changing room where you enter through a door on one side of the long line of cubicles and exit poolside through the other door of the cubicle ad on leaving we even found a little swimming costume spin dryer and overhead hair dryers you just stand under and press the button.

Feeling virtuous after our active day of cycling and swimming we felt quite justified in retuning to camp and stuffing ourselves with sausage :)

and as the weather was so calm and warm we decided to try sleeping in our upstairs room - the first time we have done so! - and despite some initial awkwardness in getting up there and sorted out - it is not the most elegant of ascents or descents :) - it urned out to be very comfortable and we got better internet speed up there :)

We awoke in the morning to rain and having squeezed the very last minutes out of our 24h of internet, we set off in search of the Marche Talensac which is a big fresh food market.  Having eaten the cheddar the previous night, Will could no longer think of any excuse why I couldn't buy really smelly goats cheese and some other unidentified cheese from a little man with a single table in the car park from which he was selling only one type of cheese (he let me try some) before we even got inside.

The market is an Aladdin's cave of foody treasures although a bit of a trap for the uninitiated and impulsive - we bought a pineapple only to then discover other types of, presumably inferior, pineapple were a third the price on another stall - oh well, I am sure it will be three times as nice :)  Lesson learnt, we stopped buying and started looking first and eventually decided on fish with boiled new potatoes and steamed green beans for dinner and baguette, cheese and pate for lunch.

Veg and breadstuffs bought (including the obligatory croissant and pain au chocolat for breakfast) we turned our attention to matters fishy.  I am not really a fish person and Will usually buys trout or salmon in pre-prepared steaks from the fish counter so the sheer array of fishies staring at us made it hard to choose.  eventually we settled on something called a Daurade Sauvage - no internet connection as yet so haven't been able to look it up, answers on a postcard please.  The nice man descaled it with a scallop shell and gutted it for us and suggested the best way to cook it was in the oven with white wine and onions and thus we met Fish Pierre.  Fish Pierre is a distant cousin of Fish Bob, Fish Steve and Fish Charlie whom Will was lucky enough to meet (for meet read m-eat!) in Lake Garda in Italy.  [This reference will mean something to a very small readership of approximately two.  For further reading and to meet fishes Bob, Steve and Charlie, please see 'The Adventures of the Little Car that Will Built" at]

Stopping only to buy pate des anciennes - no idea what's in it but if people ate it a long time ago and are still eating it, it can't be bad :) - we headed back to the campsite to deposit our treasures in the fridge and then headed back into town, stopping on the Ile de Versailles for our picnic which was delicious.

Again, for all you fact fans,  Nantes is built at the meeting point of 4 rivers; the Erdre, two branches of the Loire and another one which I can't remember and at one point Nantes was the major port in France.  Ile de Versailles is a little island in the middle of the Erdre which had a rather nice Japanese style garden in the middle and a sort of visitor/exhibition centre.  Some time in the past, as we discovered from the visitor centre, they put a section of the Erdre in a tunnel and filled in another of the branches of the Loire to make the town more coherent and easier to traverse.  There was also a rather good free exhibition of photos entitled "Garden in the City" or some such thing which was various people taking arty pix of plants in odd places in the town.

In search of other free or cheap ways to entertain ourselves, we headed next to the Tour de LU.  Nantes was once home to the biscuit company Lefevre-Utile which was the first luxury biscuit company in France in 1800-something - they make Petit-Buerre biscuits.  At one point something ridiculous like 30 people in 25m square of factory made 200 different types of biscuit.  In it's heydey, it was pretty special and as it was both opposite the castle and on one of the major roads into the city, when parts of it it burnt down, the son of the original owner wanted to build something impressive so extended the factory and built two fancy towers on each side of the road.  Only one tower is left now and it has very recently been refurbished so you can go up it.  It is very utilitarian inside but there is a year by year history of the company up the stairs (it was eventually bought out by BN and more recently by General Biscuit which is now part of Danone but you can still buy LU Petit Buerre biscuits although they haven't been made in antes for a long time.)   There are a couple of interesting videos and at the top a viewing platform whoch you can revolve by turning the big yellow wheel for a 360 view of the city.  All in all a pleasant €4 way to spend an hour.  The rest of the factory is now a space called Un Lieu Unique and is devoted to a bar, a bohemian book shop and a big modern art space which was taken up with an installation called "Popisme" - several sound proofed mini theatres with odd Tate Modern style videos of random people singing or miming - was all a bit too art nouveau for us to be honest so we left in search of the cathedral.

Nantes Cathedral is simple but pretty spectacular with soaring vaulted ceilings and shimmering stained glass windows.  Being saturday, the crypt was also open which has a fascinating video of the history of the cathedral - which started with a small church in 600 and something and has been destroyed by marauders, rebuilt, extended, redesigned, argued over, further redesigned and enlarged, bombed, rebuilt, burned down, rebuilt again - with minimal language and Grand Designs-style computer graphics to show the changes.  Most other people skipped the video and went straight to the information panels (all in french so not much good to us anyway) and I personally think they missed out.

Having been chased out of the crypt by the attendants as it was closing, we turned away from matters spiritual and towards those more concerned with material gratification - Passage Pomeraye - a historic covered shopping arcade in the centre of town.  We weren't shopping for anything but it was good for a wander and had interesting little gadget and fancy knicknack shops mixed in with ultra chic boutiques.

City sight-seeing satisfied, we headed back to tackle Fish Pierre.

Although the cooking advice from the fish man was good, having neither oven nor white wine we were unable to follow it, so we set about improvising and stuffed Fish Pierre with onions, garlic and honey and baked him on the barbeque - which Will eventually got lit in the rain under an umbrella - and an hour later Fish Pierre aux ognions d'ail mieles avec des haricot verts et des pommes de terres nouvelles was served - sounds posh in french! - delicieux!

Today, having seen and done Nantes, and after a late morning of tappet checking, light bar wiring and wet sanding in the rain - an hour's work for very little visible difference :( - it is time to press on south towards La Rochelle in search of free camping and better weather.

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