Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Nantes & St Nazaire

Just back from a long weekend, a little bit browner and happy that I saw the sea, even if only for a few hours. Lots to catch up on!

My friend Ruth arrived safe, sound & on time with Ryan Air (gasp!) on Friday, and it was lovely to see her smiling face again at the airport! The last time we caught up, as some readers may remember, was in Milan for the Grand Prix last September - I can't believe that was 11 months ago! That means I'm coming up on a year in Europe!

After dropping R's bags off chez moi, we headed out for a small taste of Tours nightlife and a lot of chatting. A cider, a delicious pizza (each), a small carafe of wine and a cocktail later (um, over several hours...), we called it a night and headed home for some beauty sleep before a busy day on Saturday. We started off hitting the shops in Tours, so that R could get some vital French shopping done. Highly successful inasmuch as R made some lovely purchases and I didn't buy anything. Then it was off to the station for the train to Nantes, via Angers.

We arrived about 3 pm, armed with the address of the hotel and nothing more. No taxis, no tourist office, nothing... After a bit of milling about at the taxi stand, we decided to wing it and try to make our way to the hotel on foot, after consulting a very vague map at the tram station. Pleased to say that we successfully navigated our way to the hotel, and this was but the first of our navigational triumphs! We all know how directionally-challenged I am, and given that I had to correct R a few times on which way to go, it's probably safe to say we're pretty much equally blessed in that department (although ONE of us is a geographer!), so this was an achievement!

I can't remember what we did after checking in, I think we just wandered the streets for a bit - the hotel was pretty close to the central shopping/bar district - and then went back to the hotel for a rest (I fell asleep, whoops) and shower before dinner. Another great meal - galettes followed by crepes, very Breton. Galettes and crepes are essentially the same thing, I think the difference is galettes are made with wholemeal flour and crepes with white flour. My galette was filled with reblochon cheese, creme fraiche, lardons, and potatoes mmm, and then the crepe was chocolate almond yum! This was accompanied by a small pitcher of very nice rosé each, whole meal came to about 15 euros I think, bargain. We then stopped in at a Cuban bar and had about 4 mojitos each, if memory serves. Finally, somewhere in France that makes decent mojitos! Normally (as in Prague), they are made with table sugar instead of sugar syrup, which manages to shoot straight up the straw and completely coat the inside of your mouth unless you spend about 10 minutes stirring first.

Sunday was our sightseeing day, so we were up earlyish and headed out to the chateau of the Dukes of Britanny, which we had passed on the way from the train station the day before. This was very large and imposing outside, but inside was actually made up of several smaller buildings. You could go in and walk around the grounds and up on the ramparts for free, which was nice. We made the mistake of asking some old dude to take our photo - first he made us switch sides, then said 'I see nothing', switched us back, still said he saw nothing, fiddled with the camera for about 5 minutes and then when Ruth told him 'oh well, just hold the camera out and click', I swear to god he just pretended to press the button. In any case, no photo was taken and we were left wondering whether we asked an actual blind man to take the photo... We then had to wait for him to shuffle off before we could ask someone else to do the job.

Inside one of the castle buildings was a museum on the history of Nantes. Very comprehensive. I think we had definitely peaked by about room 20, and were somewhat disheartened that there were still 12 rooms to go! To be fair, it was well done, and there were definitely interesting things, like the history of the slave trade in Nantes. I knew that there were slaves in the French Caribbean, but if you'd have asked me how they got there, I probably would have said the Americans or maybe even the British sold them to the French colonists. Turns out that Nantes was a major player in the slave trade, and that there were even slaves held in mainland France. Nantes was so into slave trading that they went right on doing it for about 50 years after the slave trade was officially made illegal. I could have lived without quite so much information about the rise and fall of Nantes as a port and industrial hub, on the other hand...

After lunch, we checked out the cathedral, which looked all shiny and new - turns out it has been very majorly restored after a huge fire in the 1970s. Restoration work only finished two years ago. The façade was restored in three stages, and you can really see which bit was restored most recently (photos to follow).

On the way to the cathedral we had to cross the street to avoid a drunk coming the other way, vomiting as he walked - this was not to be my last daytime drunken encounter, as we shall see. Nantes seemed like it would be a nice place to live, but I must say, man, did we get hassled! In Tours, and in England in R's case, we don't get yelled at or stared at nearly as much - not sure whether we stood out as tourists, or if it's just what they're like in Nantes, but there were several unpleasant encounters where men leered or made various remarks (not all of which were understood, but you get the drift). One guy yelled something (didn't catch what) pretty much right in our faces as we were walking past, in broad daylight, and he was with a woman! On the plus side, one guy asked us for money in a very polite fashion, and was even nice when we said no.

Anyway, Sunday night we had an apéro and then dinner quite late thereafter, I didn't enjoy the meal quite as much as the previous two nights, but it wasn't bad & the entrée of (essentially) cheese on toast was very nice.

On Sunday, R had to catch her train back to Tours at midday, and I decided to take the opportunity of hitting the beach while I was nearby. So, with beaucoup de tristesse, it was goodbye to R, but it will not be another 11 months till we see each other next - R's wedding is locked in for May, if not before.

I headed off, then, to St Nazaire, a reasonable-sized coastal town not far from Nantes. I still hadn't made up my mind whether I would just stay for the afternoon or the night, but when I arrived at the train station, once again there were few facilities - no tourist information, no luggage storage that I could see, and I couldn't get the coin-operated toilets to work, so I just decided to head into town, hoping the beach was close. Had no idea of the size or layout of the town at this stage. I ended up following the signs to the Office of Tourism, which was maybe not the best idea in hindsight, since it was about a 20 minute walk away through pretty desolate areas - okay, not that far, but on a blazing hot day, with a suitcase and no idea where you're going and how far away it is, it feels longer. Anyway, by the time I got there and enquired about hotels and so on, I decided it would be best to take a room for the night, so I could change into my swimsuit, leave my luggage, and hit the beach properly.

Before I even got to the tourist office, however, I had quite a disturbing encounter. Remember what I said about the vomiting drunk? Mum, look away now... I was about to meet vomiting drunk #2. Just before I got to the tourist office, I came across a Carrefour supermarket, and popped in for a bottle of water and a sandwich. Right outside there was that rarity of rarities in France, a free public toilet, hurrah! When I went in, I saw a girl at the sink washing her hands. It took a second to realise that she was running her cut finger under water, and that she was vomiting. I went up to her and asked her if she was okay, and another girl suddenly appeared behind me and told me not to worry, she would look after her. I was pretty disturbed - they were pretty obviously street kids, and it looked like a serious cut, but I didn't really want to argue with the second girl. I went to use the bathroom, since the girls were between me and the door in any case. It was absolutely hideous - when the girl wasn't vomiting, she was screaming and crying in the most horrible way. The only thing I could think to do was to take some plasters out of my bag when I was in the loo and offer them to the girl who had talked to me. When I came out, there were about 5 or 6 of them in the bathroom, including men, several of them clutching bottles of alcohol. I offered the girl the plasters and she said that I was kind, but they would be no use - which judging by the cut, was true, although presumably better than nothing at all. The wounded girl was still screaming horribly. I wasn't really scared at this stage, since the girl was talking to me quite nicely, but I did think it was probably better not to hang around since they clearly didn't want my help. Looking back, I think I was probably lucky that they were busy with their own drama and didn't take it in their heads to rob me or worse... Goodness knows how the girl got injured, for starters. So I left, but I was worried enough to tell the people at the tourist office across the road what I had seen. They told me that they were always hanging around there, fighting and getting into trouble - the police came by regularly, but just left again. They didn't really seem to care, so what could I do? In fact, I went to the supermarket the next day and there were three or four of them (not sure if they were some of the same ones from the day before or not) in front of me in line, buying dozens of bottles of beer and wine. Judging from the conversation of the cashiers, this was a daily experience. Someone told me that there's been for quite some time a phenomenon in these parts of 'punk' kids who dress in a certain way (boots, cargo pants and so on), hang out on the streets drinking, and go everywhere with huge dogs on chains, and once I was told that, it's true, you see them all the time. It's really sad that in a country like France, which may not be perfect in terms of giving opportunities to young people, but that at least has a social safety net for those who will take it, that these kids can end up pretty much voluntarily living on the streets, begging and drinking themselves into oblivion. How did they end up like that?

Anyway, now that I've finished giving my mum nightmares, the rest of the afternoon went well, spent lying on a couple of lovely sandy beaches on the Atlantic coast (my first time, not counting Ireland where I saw the Atlantic but there were no beaches). By the time I got there, I only had a few hours on the beach, but it was very nice. I was planning a day at the beach today, and even to go for a swim, but I was very disappointed this morning to wake up to overcast, drizzly skies and a forecast that the whole day would be the same. :( I went out briefly in the morning, decided that I didn't want to go to a museum dedicated to St Nazaire's history as a naval port (ye gods!), so went to the train station and discovered that it was going to take all day to complete a journey of about 2 1/2 hours, owing to long stops in Nantes and Angers. Got to the train station at 10.45, set out from St Nazaire at 12.20, and finally made it to Tours at 6.05! Wasn't too bad really, read my book (Wolf Hall, proving a winner so far) and went into town for lunch at Nantes.

Good to be home, if a bit disappointed about the beach today and sorry that the holiday with R went so quickly. Looking forward to Porto with my friend Carolyn this weekend though!


  1. oooooooohhhhhhhhhhh nightmares!

  2. First time you've seen the Atlantic since Ireland indeed! What about Morecambe and Blackpool?

  3. Irish reply. Its still part of the Atlantic.

  4. Ah, the dog people. You know, I was thinking that in my memory I must have exaggerated how awful living in Nantes was but after reading your summary i'm pretty sure I had it spot on.

    The dog people were in front of almost every shop begging for money, and going out to the bar district after dark on foot was a definite no-no.
    Three times, I was followed home getting off the bus. The first was one of my first days there, and I called my program director crying, afraid to walk straight to my house, saying, "what on earth do I do?" -- after that, I learned to walk to the grocery store across the street and call my host mom and she'd come out and pick me up.

    I never encountered problems like that even once living in Caen, and Lille is one of the safest cities I think i've ever lived in, despite petty crime like having my car broken into.

  5. Oh man, sorry you had such a hard time Amber! And I was thinking Nantes seemed a pretty nice place to live (despite people randomly yelling at me!) We have the dog people here in Tours too, but they've never said/done anything to me. I feel pretty safe here, which is good.


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