Category Travel

Chantilly: Watch me whip, watch me neigh-neigh

I bought a regular fare train ticket from Gare du Nord, and it wasn’t really evident upon boarding which seat section corresponded with that fare. I selected a row and then reconsidered, moving up a section past a minor partition, not wanting to be so near the bathroom, and hoping its proximity wasn’t what defined the fare structure. What I should have hoped for was one or two of my fellow passengers to oversleep and miss the train so they wouldn’t end up getting into a shouting, high-pitched and then muffled screaming fistfight in the row I’d vacated earlier. My seatback was to it so I mostly heard rather than saw the fight. It was surprisingly quiet on the train afterward. No one around me seemed inclined to offer up their take on current events, so I have no definitives and only wild guesses.  

Some questions that I’d never bothered to consider before now: What if I hadn’t moved? Would the fight still have occurred? Was it about who had the worst seat versus the second worst seat? Alternate universe Melissa who did stay would almost certainly have been snitty about toilet smells but she wouldn’t know exactly how long a train could be held up at a station after two pugilists were dragged off by French police.

It’s a long time. 

Our destination was Chantilly, a French commune 35 miles north of Paris on the border of the Chantilly forest with a population of eleven thousand, historically admired for their whipped cream and very fine black silk lace. Although I did hope to partake of some crème Chantilly during my visit, I was going there for horses. In addition to their famous hippodrome which hosts the prestigious Prix du Jockey Club (the French Derby), Chantilly is also home to the Museum of the Horse, located inside the Great Stables. 

The Great Stables are the largest stables in Europe, with the capacity for over 200 horses.  200 horses in 2019 is a huge number of horses, and on days that I feed and turn in at my stable, I’m glad there’s never more than 17 (especially if the weather has ’em feeling snappy), but for historical perspective, in 1775, the Grand Equerry (the highest office for all matters relating to the royal horses), Charles Eugène of Lorraine and Prince of Lambesc was accused of misappropriating 120 of the king’s horses for his personal use. He took horses from work the way some people take pens. And still, those embezzled equines represented a mere 6% of the king’s total stock. A stable that holds 200 horses would barely accommodate Louis XVI’s benchwarmers.

Located on the outskirts of the Domaine de Chantilly and across the street from the Great Stables was our hotel, the Auberge de Jeu de Paume, the little splurge of the trip. Our room looked out onto the gardens of the Domaine, less manicured and more forest-like than the term “garden” would lead one to believe, particularly in the royal French countryside.  

A courtyard at Auberge de Jeu de Paume

In my blog post about Versailles, I took a photo of a statue of Louis II de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, and said I didn’t know any historical tidbits about him and didn’t intend to look anything up but I thought his clothes would be appropriate for an excellent pirate. Well those words came back unexpectedly to bite me in the ass because as it turns out, the Domaine de Chantilly is Louis de Bourbon’s house and the Great Stables are his stables and a fun fact about him is that he had these amazing stables built because he believed that he was going to be reincarnated as a horse and wanted to make sure he’d be housed in facilities appropriate for a horse of his rank. I have many questions, none of which are answered by the historical record: Did Louis intend to allow himself to be ridden or did he assume he’d still be giving orders in some fashion? Did people working at the stables after his death have any guesses as to which one, if any, was the reincarnated prince? Did they geld him anyway? 

Built in 1719 by architect Jean Aubert, the Great Stables are nothing short of imposing. The stalls inside are flooded with natural light and the ceilings rise in a gentle cathedral arch. The entrance to the Museum of the Horse is located between a row of stalls containing full size horses and a row of half stalls for donkeys and miniatures, including one small shaggy shetland pony with long black hair and whiskers named Ramses le Grand.

Now, if I know anything about how reincarnation works (I don’t, nor does anyone else), you get to choose what you’re reincarnated as but due to the laws of physics you have to maintain the same relative amount of body mass, so if you’re a 150 pound man with a fondness for red squirrels, you’ll come back as 200 of them. If you’re a man with a fondness for horses…miniature horse weights range from 150-350 pounds. I’m not saying that this miniature horse with an important name, long black hair and whiskers is the reincarnation of  Louis II de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, a slim man with long black hair and whiskers, but I’m not NOT saying it.

I’m going to come back as two obese Chow dogs.

Each animal has a personal water fountain and seems very pleased about it.

The Museum of the Horse challenged my typical photo taking and posting philosophies. When deciding what to post, I’ll run down a list of loose guidelines: Does it set a scene? Does does it illustrate a story? Does it demonstrate scale? Do I find it beautiful, or meaningful, or historically interesting? Is it funny? Is it cute? Is it a horse?

Being comprised entirely of horses and horse-adjacent items, The Museum of the Horse contains over 1200 photo opportunities on a diverse range of horse subtopics: replicas of old horsemanship manuals, riding equipment from around the world, horses in art including a room of carousel horses, racing memorabilia, and more. The Domaine had been bequeathed to the Institut de France with the stipulation that it be preserved exactly as it is. The Museum of the Horse was established in 1982 after riding master Yves Bienaime, who had learned to ride at the Great Stables, noted that the building was falling into disrepair and wanted to restore its glory. And why not formally recognize humankind’s relationship with the horse? It has ploughed our fields, allowed us to hunt farther and faster and pack the kill home, carried us to war and to work and to pleasure, been an honest friend for centuries.

Photographed because large horse

Photographed because shy horse with helmet hair

Tibetan stirrups, 17th century

Chinese saddle, painted wood, Qing dynasty, 19th century. It’s so beautiful but my butt hurts just looking at it.

Chinese stirrups, Qing Dynasty, 18th century

Imagine how mad you would be if this was your cart and you got back to the parking lot from the farmer’s market and saw someone had scratched your paint.

A sculpture of HRH Queen Elizabeth riding her police horse Tommy in 1947.

Rajasthan, early 19th century

Photographed so now you’ll know that all the plants you can see around the arena are in fancy horse-centipede planters

Photographed because setting

Photographed because scale. And this is a big horse, with a tall rider. Lastly, once you see the eyes in the windows, you can’t unsee them.

Photographed because now there are two very large horses, more = better

My favorite part of The Horse Museum, however, was their magnificent outdoor arena. Set in a courtyard in the stables, two giant horse statues loom at one end, trumpeting silently at onlookers. Silently, thankfully, because speaking as the owner of the loudest horse in the barn, I think if a horse this size screamed at full volume, the sheer force of it might fling a person catching the brunt of it into space. 

And all this was just Louis de Bourbon’s stables, what he imagined to be fit for a royal horse. I couldn’t wait to get into his house.

 

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.