So far the most unique thing we’ve seen, in a very unique city, is Les Machines de l’île, or “Machines of the Island”. Taking inspiration from Jules Verne, who was born in Nantes, Leonardo DaVinci, and the shipbuilding history of the city, the machinists at Machine de l’île have created a unique world inhabited by mechanical creatures. Located on a large island in the Loire River, this part-amusement park, part-museum, part-workshop, part-art studio, is housed in what used to be a shipbuilding hangar. The world, invented by two visionaries and brought to life by a group of machinists, is still in “prototype phase”, (and owing to its imaginative, definitely slightly unrealistic ideas, likely to remain that way). This world is a tree world, the world of L’arbre à Héron (the heron tree). On display in La Galerie des Machines are small models of this tree world, as well as a larger, human-sized model, and then, just outside, a walk-able life-sized prototype of a branch of the tree. The “real world” will have mechanical herons as transportation to the treetops, and this is demonstrated with willing volunteers that are lifted 10 feet into the air and carried the length of the building. There are also mechanical ants and inchworms for movement up and down the branches. It’s a little hard to figure out, especially for me as the machinists were providing demonstrations all in French, but once you pick up the slightly tongue-in-cheek attitude, it is easy to appreciate the journey that they are beckoning you on. This is all very cool and it’s fun being drawn into this world. You can even visit a greenhouse where they are experimenting with various plants with which to populate the tree, including a large selection of flytraps, although on this particular day in July, where the entire world felt like a greenhouse, the actual greenhouse was only habitable for minutes.
Should this world not be impressive enough, the machinists have shown their skill with an enormous mechanical elephant that circles the island carrying passengers on her (or his) back and in the house in her belly. This elephant has moving legs, (although the weight rests on a wheeled structure, which is also what makes it move) blinking eyes, flapping ears, and a spraying trunk. Riding the elephant is fun, and affords quite a view, but the real fun is walking alongside as she slowly lumbers (rolls) along, lifting her trunk and covering eager children with water.
There is also a newly opened carousel, Le Carrousel Des Mondes Marins with two levels of mechanical marine creatures, a lower “abyss” level with crustaceans, giant lamp-headed fish, and squid, and an upper “surface” level with sea serpents, fish and rays. Customers can hop aboard and ride the sea creatures. “L’atelier et la branche”, or the group that dreams up and manufactures these worlds and creations, is located in the same old shipbuilding structure as the gallery, and it is possible to take an overview of what they are working on, and how they do it, although no one was working when we were visiting. There is something very intriguing about the emphasis on process, this idea that they are still working on the heron tree, and that someday it will be a reality. Though that idea is just fun, there is definitely something giant and mechanical being readied in the workshop, and I look forward to seeing what it may be.
Mechanical elephant with riders. I don’t think she (he?) has a name, feel free to give her (him) one in the comments.
The walk-able, life-sized portion of branch (unfortunately no ants or herons for transport).
A vertical garden on a storefront in Nantes, complete with iconic “Soldes” sign (twice yearly sales occurring in June and July)
We are spending a week and a half in Nantes, in the Loire River Valley on the Western coast of France. There is a good chance we will have to spend more time here, and I have to say I don’t mind one bit; it’s the kind of city in which you feel you could pass some time. It is the 6th largest city in France, and as such, feels like the perfect city for visiting. There are just enough things to do to fill a few weeks, but not so much that you feel overwhelmed by choice. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, with cuisines from all over the world, and in all price ranges, and there seems to be quite a nightlife, although I don’t know firsthand because I have somehow come to the age where my kind of nightlife is a walk along the quay. It is a very young city, with 2/3 of its population under the age of 40, and there is also a large University. Originally part of Brittany, it separated politically in 1789, but is still very Breton in culture. The city is located at the confluence of three rivers, the Loire, the Erdre and the Sèvre and in the past it was a hub for shipbuilding and transport.
The European Commission named Nantes the 2013 European Green Capital for its public transportation (a tramway system, and a bike share program), lowering CO2 and other emissions and its large green spaces.
The architecture is a fascinating blend of ancient, Belle Epoque, Art Deco and Art Nouveau. There is quite a tourism push in the city, and the tourism board has come up with quite an ingenious happening each summer called Le Voyage à Nantes. This is a path (literally, a green line painted on the sidewalk which I found helpful before I even knew what it was) that leads from one cultural or historical stop to the next. They have brought these sites into the pulse of the modern city by inviting artists to create pieces at each stop. From the website (translated somewhat intriguingly from the French): “Art invades Nantes, lending the town that unique quality the Surrealists loved of a living city, where the unexpected can leap out at you from every corner.” The juxtaposition between the old and the new and the blending of art forms, seems perfect for this artistic, quirky and historic city.
Art Deco office building turned into apartments
It is tourist season in Paris, ya’ll. The other day we were walking through the areas around Louvre-Rivoli, Bastille and Notre Dame looking for a few shops I had heard about. Working my way through the winding streets, even with a map and Parisian in tow, I only got to two stops in four hours (including two café stops, natch). There were crowds of people, all of them stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to look at gaudily colored scarves, berets and “Paris” sweatshirts. A good deal of the people on the streets were speaking English, and this made my New Yorker-Parisian companion very consternated. “WHY are there so many Americans here?” He said, like a true Frenchman. “Uh, I’m American. You’re American. We are currently speaking English.” “It’s different”. I wasn’t so sure, until we heard a woman say loudly, “Roo doo Ravioli!” (It’s Rue de Rivoli, not at all like the pillow-shaped pasta.) At least she was trying.
A similar thing happened when we sat down at a French bistro with some friends who were visiting from England, and found ourselves surrounded by Americans. Not everyone in the restaurant was American, the service staff was all French, of course, and the table to the left was French, and when the table was turned, Japanese, but maybe half of the tables were my countrymen. It’s my own fault, I suppose, for getting the recommendation from the Food & Wine website. It was touted as a “deal”and it was indeed very affordable. Also quite tasty, serving traditional bistro food done very well. But when your meal of white asparagus, beef stew and profiteroles, or foie gras, veal and Ile Flottante (meringue afloat on creme anglaise) is accompanied by discussions of the Kardashian variety (I kid you not, the American girls to our right talked about Kim for a good 20 minutes), it loses some of the appeal. I think the restaurant was also featured in a guidebook, as several of the patrons came in proudly carrying their copy. The waitress asked if anyone needed an English menu when we sat down. It does happen to be located within view of the Eiffel Tower. Because of these factors, I suppose it could be designated as “touristy”. Is this getting harder to avoid? Are good places consistently being first discovered by the locals, and then the bloggers and magazines, and then the tourists simply because they are good places? I don’t think the term “touristy” means the same thing that it used to. With the internet, it has become that much easier for word about a place to get around, particularly for the visitor, who doesn’t know the area well, and perhaps doesn’t speak the language. And as a tourist, these local favorites are the holy grail. This does make that undiscovered gem of a restaurant, cafe, museum, store, that much more of a find, though, doesn’t it? To discover a place without the hordes, well that’s the magic. It’s a funny little algorithm; I always want a place to have exactly the right number of people. Too few and you wonder what’s wrong, and the atmosphere feels a bit off, too many and it becomes unpleasant. And then there are those old institutions. Your Ladurée for macarons, your J.G. Melon for burgers in NYC, your Poilâne for bread. They can end up getting the “tourist” rap, but it is only to their credit that they have been doing something, and doing it well, for a long time. Any excellent place is bound to create a following if given enough time. Unfortunately, I think too many of these places, although not necessarily those above, get bored and lazy, and yes, probably tired of all the tourists, and the quality can sometimes suffer.
The particular place we visited was Café Constant, one in a series of restaurants by chef Christian Constant. The food was very good, and typical to Paris, which you probably want, for a reasonable price, and I would recommend it… if you don’t mind a bit of American gossip in your ears. But if you are in the know about that great Parisian bistro “around the corner”, well go there instead…and bring me!
I had done my research, knowing that the few minutes standing in line is never enough time to decide which one or two (or three or four) flavors you would like on your cone. I went to the website where I found lists of all of the glacees and sorbets in French. Some of these I could read, but in looking for a translation for Agenaise (prune and armagnac), I actually found that someone had translated the entire list of flavors into English. Lavender caught my eye right away, as did Earl Grey. I will always try the thing that seems unusual, different and interesting. Getting vanilla, even if it is the best vanilla in the world, just isn’t an option for me. Wild strawberry sorbet also caught my eye for that reason, and the fact that it had been called out as one of Berthillon’s specialties. And then I thought Pistache (pistachio) would go brilliantly with the strawberry. So it was just about which other flavor might compliment those other two. Salted butter caramel is always a good choice. But, when we got there, three of the five flavors that caught my eye weren’t on the list. I suppose they rotate between the flavors, as well as adding a few seasonal ones (Basil Pineapple Sorbet anyone)? This is not your American ice cream full of chunks and swirls and brownies, (although a few do have chips). Each type is one distinct flavor, or maybe two, distilled to its essence. Berthillon is famous for the intensity and boldness of its flavors, the ice cream or sorbet capturing the true quintessence of chocolate, or coconut, or cinnamon.
Our first week in Paris was spent with me stuck finishing a writing project inside, and rainstorm after rainstorm outside. The temperature didn’t go above 60 degrees fahrenheit, and when it wasn’t raining the sky was filled with ominous clouds. This is the view outside the bedroom window, taken around 8:30 PM. Although we couldn’t see the sun much of the time, it didn’t set until 10:30, slightly disconcerting, but kinda neat.