Category France

A Grey Day in Montmarte

So much of this day was just off. It was pouring for our walk to the train station in Nantes and I remained slightly soggy for hours until I was able to change at the hotel in the afternoon. Our ride to Montmarte didn’t improve my opinion of the Paris metro. The air not filled with other bodies was stuffy with body odors, and after wandering under the earth for what felt like three and three quarters miles in the seemingly endless white tiled exit tunnel, I finally emerged into an open-air market of sorts where one can purchase items that were liberated from the trash or nearby homes. This is not the Barbes/Rochechouart market but one nearby where you can buy, for instance, a remote control for a TV that is nowhere to be seen.

We stayed at Montmarte Mon Amour, a kitschy boutique hotel near the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur with a window that refused to close and where we were warned to avoid the Arc de Triomphe due to the yellow vest protests: noted.

Instead, we contemplated the number of stairs to Sacré-Cœur, the highest point in Paris, and elected to take the back road up the hill of rue du Chevalier de la Barre.

Basilique du Sacré-Cœur

I didn’t particularly care for my visit to Sacré-Cœur. It probably has a lot to do with my midwestern Protestant upbringing– indoctrinating a child with Sunday school every week plus mandatory weekly Wednesday evening confirmation class for three years plus two summers in a row of bible camp tends to make the lessons linger. It bothers me to see churches stuffed with riches while people are sleeping in those howling metro tunnels. It bothers me to see churches that charge you to light a candle or that have vending machines of medallions with the pope’s face on them (what is a graven image if not that?)  even though I do recognize that having a constant stream of visitors flowing through your church is a different sort of business from being a non-famous church. 

Around Sacré-Cœur were many aggressive street vendors selling light up Eiffel Towers and locks for a new fence for tourists to menace. We had a snack at nearby La Galette des Moulins and learned that while our train chugged out of the station in Nantes, protesters blocked the runway of the Nantes airport and tollooths throughout France. We learned about the vandalization of the Arc de Triomphe, the burning of an entire street of cars three miles away. 

They look like they’re all blopping.

Rue du Mont Cenis Stairs

We had dinner at Pink Flamingo, where Jason promptly spilled nearly his entire beer and we shared one of the worst pizzas I’ve ever eaten. I feel like it had to have been an off pie; people consistently rave about this place online but the pizza I had was overwhelmed by thick, underbaked, slippery cheese. 

It was one of those days where if I was at home, I would just call it a mediocre day and have it over with but since I was IN PARIS it feels like I have to pretend that the mediocrity was somehow meaningful, that I need to display gratitude because another in my place may have enjoyed it.  But the only thing I was grateful for that day was the knowledge that the next morning, we’d be moving on to somewhere else.

Sugar and Spice in Nantes

There was a delight around every corner in Nantes. A tram hums outside a castle. Gothic revival churches peek over rooftops. A dragon stalks through a playground, its tongue of flame a slide. An elephant patrols the former shipyard. I was charmed immediately.

We stayed at the Hôtel Voltaire Opéra in Nantes’ Graslin district, the district named after 18th century financier Jean-Jacques Graslin. It was fitting that after checking in, our first priority was finding an ATM, and our second priority was finding another one after the first’s minimum withdrawal was a thousand euros, which was a good nine hundred euros more than I’d planned on withdrawing or was interested in fumbling with in public or even had to withdraw, let’s be honest.

Cours Cambronne

Théâtre Graslin

These black posts in Graslin Place can lower into the ground so vehicles can pass through, creating a sense of absolute power in the driver. THE STREETS RESHAPE THEMSELVES TO MY WILL. Ahem.

The awning on the left belongs to La Cigale, a brasserie full of art nouveau goodness and a historic monument since 1964 that we were totally going to get hot chocolate at but ran out of time.

Passage Pommeraye, an 1840s shopping mall.

Basilique Saint-Nicolas

Aire de Jeux de Kinya Maruyama, a playground by Japanese architect Kinya Maruyama

Nantes was originally settled in the Bronze Age. Conquered by the Romans in the first century BC, Nantes remained allied with the empire until its demise in the fifth century. Shortly thereafter, it was taken by the Visigoths, then the Franks, then the Bretons, and Brittany began its integration into France with the marriage of Anne of Brittany to the King of France, Charles VIII. 

Like many little fantasy nerds, I grew up with an acute case of Castle Fever™, and so I’m always stoked to see a castle, whether it’s for royalty or made of sand or contains an inordinate amount of cheese or something in between. I was definitely interested in crossing the moat to see the inside of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany (Château des ducs de Bretagne). The original structure was built in the 13th century and was demolished in the 15th century to make way for this building, a beauty with brilliant white tufa façades, jutting gargoyles, and golden accents.  After Brittany was integrated into France, this castle became the residence of the king (100 years before Versailles even dreamed of being a hunting lodge) when he was in town.  During WWII, it was occupied by Germany. Today, it houses the Nantes history museum.

Château des ducs de Bretagne

No doubt this is a historical ducal waterslide.

Reliquary containing the heart of Anne of Brittany, Duchess of Brittany and  two time Queen Consort of France in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Fact: Her second royal husband, Louis XII, was so eager to divorce his wife for Anne that he claimed he had never been able to consummate the marriage due to being “inhibited by witchcraft” because I guess that was the best lie he could come up with.

Nantes’ economic history was as a shipping port involved in what was known as “triangular trade”. Nantais goods were shipped to Africa and exchanged for slaves, who were transported to the Americas, and those ships’ hulls returned full of goods valuable to Europeans: sugar, tobacco, coffee, chocolate. The slave trade via Nantes persisted until 1793 when there was a decree for the abolition of slavery. Nine years later, Napoléon Bonaparte re-established it for another fifteen years. All told, they are responsible for more than half a million slaves, some two hundred thousand more people than the current population of Nantes. The wealth of Nantes was built through slavery, turning textiles into men into sugar, and then processing and selling that sugar directly and in the form of manufactured biscuits. Nantes’ business was so brisk that they needed to open additional textile factories to keep pace with the ships.

Half a million slaves.

A book I read about John Bartholemew “Black Bart” Roberts opened with a description of life aboard a (British) slave ship in the 18th century working the same circuit. Conditions were, to put it mildly, horrific. Water and food were both in short supply (they cut into profits and storage space, so, more profits), with a ship’s surgeon describing a sailor rising at dawn to lick the dew from the roof of the chicken coop. Slaves were tortured into eating, their teeth broken in order to force food down the throats of those unwilling to eat. Those they could not brutalize into drawing breath the length of the trip were mutilated after death, desecrating their bodies to horrify the living who believed that only a whole body could return home. Later studies showed that as many as one in eight slaves died en route. Some sixty-two thousand. A stadium of people, dead from the torments of being dragged from their home across the ocean to put money in someone else’s pocket, sweetness in someone else’s mouth. 

Along the Loire, glass tiles are scattered into the sidewalks, representing each of the slave ships that made the journey, to acknowledge that this city was built on the backs of slaves, that even today we build our wealth and live our lives comfortably walking on the backs of slaves. Slavery may be outlawed in the United States, but slavery is not a relic of the past.  Slaves peel shrimp in ‘ghost ships’ that are integral to the worldwide supply chain. Child slaves climb trees with machetes to pick the cacao seeds that make the vast majority of the world’s chocolate. Slaves make fast fashion. Slavery makes manufacturing cell phones possible. Slaves are involved at the root of many mining, harvesting, and manufacturing supply chains. And it’s not just something that happens in other countries: Labor by trafficked individuals in nail salons in NYC was recently uncovered. 

Also part of this memorial along the quai is a concrete area with glass walls with article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights translated into many languages. “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” When we passed by, two British tourists were sitting inside, drinking bottles of beer and loudly debating what it was and whether or not they could take a piss there.  

Textile manufactured in Nantes

Jules Verne was born in Nantes; singing sensation Barbara released a song titled after the city.

I don’t even know what this is but I like looking at it.

Elle porte en ses doigts pieux
La gerbe du printemps celtique
Et toute la race mystérieuse
Fleurit, suave, dans ses yeux
Anatole Le Braz, Breton poet

There was a school field trip in progress when we visited the castle and we were the distraction of choice whenever we landed in their collective field of vision, so for once, I thought of the children and made my way to the sentry walkway for views of the castle and of the surrounding city.

Mandatory castle selfie

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul

Église Sainte-Croix

La Tour LU

We ate lunch at L’Octopus, where our server was the most challenging type of person with whom to interact in a foreign language, the kind who insists he doesn’t speak your language while you are speaking his. This person in particular was so horrified at the idea of dealing with non-native French speakers that he couldn’t even figure out what it meant when I pointed at something on the menu, like my thick American finger indicated too Englishly. He literally clutched his pad to his chest with both hands, his eyes rolling back helplessly, head turning side to side to look for someone, anyone else to assist us. I am certain this man was not having a seizure, it was levels of Can’t Even so intense that he lost the ability to read. I feel sorry for the guy, if dealing with me is enough to cause this kind of a meltdown, every day must be an unceasing struggle. With the help of a different server who had familiarity with American pointing, Jason ordered a burger that he enjoyed, and I ordered a salad that I very much did not, but since I nearly killed a man placing my first order, I decided to suck it up and not to gamble with any more lives.

L’Octopus interior

Gout appreciates the direct recognition, I’m sure, especially after being shunned socially for causing the death of Louis XII.

La Loire

Nantes was the capital of Brittany but is no longer considered part of the Brittany region of France in a way that I don’t fully understand, but I am a fan of Breton pastry, and it was in search of such that I went to Ô Pétrin Divin. There, I greeted and ordered in French, so of course in polar opposition to lunch, the woman working there huffed indignantly and said “I speak English.” How was I to know?!  What I do know is that they sell a gorgeously caramelized and layered kougin amann, yeasty with a hint of saltiness in a way that is characteristic of the region’s desserts. 

We ate dinner at Imagine, a restaurant whose menu changes weekly, the commitment to quality ingredients of chef Anne-Lise Genouel inspiring her to make as much as possible in-house. The meal we had at Imagine was exceptional, the pièces de résistance definitely the five house-made sorbets and ice creams, the flavors of which were beautiful, each a surprise.

Imagine

planche mixt charcuteries & fromages

velouté du moment, cauliflower

falafel, créme oignon doux & menthe

découvertes de 5 glaces & sorbets maisons & pâtisseries

Jason had started limping and complaining about his shoes as far back as the castle and this complaining reached critical mass on Rue Crébillon. It probably doesn’t speak well about my character that my reaction to this was annoyance, but hear me out: I do all the planning for these trips. I make all the reservations. I figure out how to get to and from the airport. I’m the one who researches tipping culture and wall outlet format and orders the adapters and the backpacks you can plug your phone into directly.  I learn the language(ish) and do all the translation. Jason is responsible for packing the things that he will need, which he usually does with a list from me. That’s it. And in fact, we had gone out together several months earlier to pick out new comfortable walking shoes for the specific purpose of breaking in and bringing on this trip and these were left in the closet at home in favor of the pair that were currently rotting off of his feet in a painful manner. So yes, I was annoyed, but according to my opinion poll of one, this annoyance was wholly justified. My annoyance was two-fold: the obvious, that my input and efforts toward smoothing our path were utterly disregarded, and borrowed annoyance* at how much harder breaking in a new pair of shoes would make a trip that I knew would involve another solid week of walking. Having to spend time engaged in one of my least favorite activities, clothes shopping, was simply a bonus.

Thankfully, there was a shoe store nearby and while I stayed outside grumpily catching Pokémon, Jason managed to find a pair that not only treated him right for the duration of the trip but also come with the side benefit of being able to smugly say “Oh, I got these in France” whenever someone compliments them. 

One of the delights of our overnights in Nantes was the Christmas market, the largest in western France. Each night, the stalls would come alive, selling hot mulled wine out of giant hammered copper pots, spiced breads, sugared Liège waffles, stacks of nougat and wheels of cheese and paper cones of hot blackened roast chestnuts and churros the size of a human femur. It’s one of the many times in France I cursed my lack of stomach space and carrying capacity. But I did order a hot ham sandwich (sandwich à la chiffonnade) which just basically means “shredded meat sandwich”, but it was cooked in this enormous burbling pan of cream (?) and onions (?).  It was hot and rich and juicy with the right amount of tear to the bread and we devoured it, dripping onto the stones underfoot. I’ve since contacted the Nantes Christmas market head office to inquire after this sandwich and its vendor, and they were happy to provide me with the proper name but declined to provide me with any further information. The closest thing I can find online is this recipe for Corsican chiffonnade, which is definitely in the same vein.  Délicieux!

Je connais.

 

*You can borrow annoyance at your finer credit establishments at a rate of 10.69% additional acid indigestion per annum.

Mechanical Wonders at Les Machines de l’île

On the banks of the Loire, east of the Atlantic, lies the city of Nantes, the birthplace of surrealism and Jules Verne. France’s largest harbor in the eighteenth century, Nantes experienced deindustrialization when the shipyards closed and the water was diverted, drastically altering the landscape, changing the economy, and creating the Isle of Nantes. In 2007, with the vision of François Delaroziere, it became the Isle of Machines.

François Delaroziere has always had a passion for nature, drawing, and fabrication, and in 1991, began bringing mechanical animals to life with the French theater company Royal de Luxe, also based in Nantes. Together, their work culminated in The Sultan’s Elephant, a 42 ton mechanical elephant designed by Delaroziere that toured the world in 2005-2006. Shortly thereafter, Delaroziere left Royal de Luxe to found his own company, La Machine, and, collaborating with Pierre Orefice, created Les Machines de l’île. Their first work was The Great Elephant, an inexact replica of The Sultan’s Elephant (which was destroyed, reputedly by the theater company because they were sick of doing elephant shows). This 45 ton behemoth is bigger and better than its predecessor, primarily because now it can carry passengers for a ride.

And I was going to ride that ride.

I was determined. The first itinerary I made for this trip was, in retrospect, brutal: too many stops with not enough time in any of them to make the act of going there worthwhile. I discarded it in favor of a plan that involved a bit less sightseeing in France’s exciting train stations, but no matter how the map shifted, my top priority was going to Nantes and riding that elephant. Ultimately, we spent two days in the city and visited the Isle of Machines both days. 

On the first day, we peered into the workshop (where they are currently working on their “city in the sky”, The Heron Tree (l’Arbre aux Hérons), a new attraction with anticipated release in 2022),  walked up into the prototype branch of l’Arbre (where they’re currently figuring out what types of plants will thrive in the substrate they’ve chosen), and, finally, rode that elephant. And that elephant was astounding. Made in François Delaroziere’s typical style, of natural materials when possible, wood and leather, things that age and change and have unique character, and with its mechanical components bare: part of the spectacle, the wonder of seeing how it was made. This duality is the core component of Delaroziere’s work; the natural and manmade fused into one, the ordinary and the fantastic, the wild now servile.  The Grand Elephant looms larger than life, joints flexing, bellowing, and cheekily spraying onlookers with water. 

In a branch of The Heron Tree.

With the ominous sky and the elephant’s trajectory, this looks like one of those photos that ends up on the news because someone inadvertently ended up filming their own attack.

In his blueprint sketchbook, Bestiare, machines et ornements, Delaroziere professed his fondness for gargoyles and other forms of ornamentation “for its ability to introduce relief, to highlight a junction, or to even emphasize certain parts in the architecture.” 

View from the back of Le Grand Elephant.

We went on the last ride of the evening, a 45 minute jaunt from behind their gutted and repurposed warehouse building and through it to its indoor resting place for the evening. The vast majority of The Grand Elephant’s controls are in the operator’s cab but riders could wiggle the tail if they chose. I did so choose. At the pace this elephant moves, even if machines become self-aware and go on a murderous rampage, you should still be safe so long as you can keep up a walk. It would be the Michael Meyers of Terminators. After deboarding, in the time it took to walk to the carousel and back, the skies that had alternately rained and threatened to rain some more suddenly took on gorgeous vibrant pinks and purples as the sun set in the most magical way possible.

WATCH YOUR KIDS, elephant on the loose!

 

We started our second day on the Isle of Machines at the The Carousel of Sea Worlds (Carrousel des Mondes Marins). When we bought our tickets, we were informed that what we were purchasing was a tour only, with no ride, and while I will admit to being a little disappointed because I always want to ride, I am able to let that go, and while riding is a part of this carousel, unlike most carousels, it isn’t nearly everything.

The Carousel of Sea Worlds is the world’s only three-level carousel, each level representing a different part of the ocean: the floor, the depths, and the surface. In total, the carousel has 35 figures, many with interactive elements, so the rider is not only riding, but puppeteering their mount to imitate life as it circles round and round; spectators witnessing a living mechanical ocean as they wait their turn. I didn’t care if I got a turn or not, but I knew if I did, I could handle the role. You see, when I was in high school, all of the students were administered a career aptitude test to help guide our path in the wide world. I was pretty excited to see the results laid bare, the answer to the great what-should-I-be-when-I-grow-up question spelled out plainly, me in a nutshell. When they finally arrived, my top three career options were, as determined by science: mime, puppeteer, horse breeder.

Mime.

Puppeteer.

Horse breeder.

They may as well have stamped “prepare to be poor” across the top. My parents were inexplicably disappointed in my potential vocational range, and I remained fuzzy on whether federal student aid is available for clown college. 

At the Carousel of Sea Worlds, puppeteer doesn’t seem like such a laughable profession, especially with regards to the creation of these intricate and beautiful puppets. As with The Grand Elephant, they are primarily made of natural materials, hand carved and stained wood, color applied in translucent layers to allow the natural characteristics of the wood grain to shine through, steampunk in the nature of their mechanical components: industrial, rugged, weathered. The love and care and attention to form, function, and detail, the elbow grease and ingenuity that went into their creation is evident in every figure and if you are tuned into the kind of labor a work like this takes, it is breathtaking. It brought me to the brink of tears.

 

The Ocean Floor

Our tour began on the ocean floor. At first, it was essentially a private tour as we were the only two present. Our tour guide spoke English and not only walked us through the carousel but through the history of Nantes, the creation of the Isle of Machines, the kind of labor in general it takes to create each figure, and the unique control mechanics of some. He also took us to a fourth, subterranean level that the three enclosed cars descend into: the submarine, the yellow submarine fish, and the nautilus.  As other people joined, our guide told us to pick a mount. I started. “But at the ticket counter they told us we wouldn’t get to ride today?” “Oh, they always say that.”

HOT DAMN.

I selected the squid, and to my delight, not only could I wiggle the tentacles, flutter the fin, and rotate the eyeballs from my seat on the mantle, but I could also release billowing jets of fog into the air, giving it the quality of hazy water, pierced by the headlights installed on some of the figures. Jason didn’t pick one fast enough and was instructed to get into the hermit crab by the tour guide, but accidentally climbed into the second chair of the first crab he saw, the big one with a woman who was clearly not thrilled to have him present as her crab co-captain. There is no language barrier that her look of confusion and irritation could not cross. Once Jason was directed to the correct crab, our ride/puppeteering experience began. Now that I’ve boasted of my natural talents in puppetry, I’m sure you expect me to tell you that I’ve been offered a full time job in Nantes but the fact of the matter is that artistry such as mine is sometimes overlooked and it may take them finding my blog before they reach out and unlock my destiny. 

The Depths

The tour essentially ignored this level but I very much would have liked to ride in the pirate fish, ideally while wearing a pirate costume.

The wings of the manta ray flapped whenever the carousel was in motion, one of few automatic animations not requiring the hand of a puppeteer.

The Surface

On the surface level, we were sent off with another tour group. This guide spoke French exclusively which I do have to expect while in France and not get tetchy about it but it was hard to go from a tour where I felt like I was learning a lot to not being able to understand at all. The important thing is that we got to ride again! This time, Jason and I rode together in a fish-boat. I sat in the front and controlled its fishy head: opening and closing the jaw, moving the eyes, swinging back and forth to make the boat appear it’s swimming. Jason rode in back and manned the fins, horn, and cannon, which was rigged to a drum for a satisfying boom.

Inspired by the six horse chariot sitting over the dome of the main gate of the palace in St. Petersburg.

When the carousel is in motion, the fish “fly”.

Our fishboat.

The view from inside the head of a fishboat.

(Best viewed full screen.)

I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite. They’re all too wonderful. 

As we finished the tour, who should trumpet around the corner but Le Grand Éléphant, depositing riders at Les Mondes Marins and providing one heck of a photo op?

Last but not least, we visited The Gallery of Machines (La Galerie des Machines), where they display prototypes and have their test laboratory. During my visit, they were testing insects, birds, and plants for The Heron Tree.

Spider butt has a face.

Based on the way the spider dropped from the ceiling, I really, really hoped it would pick up the ant in a challenge for the title of “world’s largest claw machine“. 

I love everything about this.

Heron prototype for l’Arbre, when scaled up the plan is for it to be able to carry forty people rather than four.

This venus flytrap looks like it’s out to get revenge on Mario.

What Les Machines has accomplished in twelve years is a testament to the power of imagination, hard work, and creative arts funding. The Heron Tree will be their most ambitious project yet; I can’t wait to see them soar.