You don’t forget the Taj Mahal. The soaring symmetry, the smooth, creamy stones that glow in the morning light, the calm peace of the parrot-filled gardens after the jumble of noise, smells and people that is India; the majesty, plain and simple. It’s an awe-inspiring, life-changing experience and a trip to India is made that much better for seeing it. Great, beautiful, BIG things, like the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, the Duomo in Florence, can change and affect us (beyond taking an “I was here” photo to post on facebook and show to your grandkids); the big things are important for sure. But the very juiciest aspect of travel in my opinion, the real reason we love to do it, are the little things. The particular rhythm of a place. The quality of the light. The rituals of daily life. The man selling bunches of lavender on the sidewalk. The statues that guard drinking fountains. The butterfly flitting from blossom to blossom.
Seeing how the rest of the world works, discovering new and interesting things that open our eyes wider to the large (and yet so small) world around us, are the golden things. Often these are things that locals don’t even blink an eye over, but as a foreigner they’re confusing and fascinating and illuminating: “Oh so I don’t get my coffee to-go in a paper cup and drink it while I’m walking? I sit here and you bring me an espresso in a demitasse, or if I want it with milk I ask for a café crème (which doesn’t come with cream, and I can just forget about half and half) and I drink it and watch the world go by? Sure, I can do that.” You might recognize a few of these things from your own world. The things that are just commonplace and everyday, but that maybe you see tourists taking photos of, or find foreign friends asking about.
Well this is one of my discoveries. A little thing. And if you already know about it, well, you are far more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than I. Or French. This is basically* the best thing ever. You know when you’re looking at the dessert menu, and you wish you could just have like, a few bites of everything? But there aren’t enough of you to order one of each, so you end up with just one choice but you spend the rest of the night wondering about what you’ve missed (no? just me?) Well they’ve got a solution and I am obsessed with it. It is called café gourmand and is on the dessert menu at some restaurants**. It is a café (always always always an espresso) and three or four small portions of dessert, usually whatever is on the main menu, although most traditionally chocolate mousse, apple tart and crème brûlée. Is that not the best? Not only do you get to try a little of everything, but it is just the right portion AND it is a surprise! Like your birthday! I admit that I may be partially biased by my love of all things tiny, but I think I am going to order this forever and ever.
* At a party the other night the French people were saying that the Brits commonly overuse the words “basically” and “actually”. I just laughed because I am so guilty of that.
**This particular one we enjoyed at a great restaurant in Nantes called L’Industrie, which I will speak more in depth about soon!
I have only one regret about the month we spent in Nantes, and that is that we didn’t get a chance to make a second trip to the seashore. Nantes, although very nautical in feeling and surrounded by rivers, is actually an hour by train from the ocean, the Bay of Biscay. There are several seaside stops on the train, including La Baule, a very large, very popular beach, but we chose Le Croisic, I think because Lonely Planet mentioned there would be boats. Indeed, the seaside town had a very nice harbor dotted with vessels. The road was lined with restaurants touting fresh seafood, gift shops and ice cream stalls, and the side streets rewarded wanderers with more little shops, lovely churches and quaint scenes. We followed the harbor all the way to the point, along docks lined with fishermen-grizzled old professionals and vacationing kids and parents alike- scooping nets of crabs out of the water. We saw several enormous jellyfish quickly and delicately swimming by. After passing through a benefit party for the local lifeguards and ocean rescue crew which provided ambient bagpipe and other Celtic music, we came upon a just-big-enough lighthouse. On the other side a small, uncrowded beach lined not with sand, but the larger “pebbles” (rocks, stones, shells) you find on some beaches. This beach was extremely tough on unaccustomed feet.
What I liked best about Le Croisic was that it was busy, as any seaside town is during the summer, but not too crowded. It was just right and perfect for a sunny summer’s Saturday.
Nantes, France is about as packed full of churches as you would expect a thousand-year-old city to be. There seems to be one around every corner, including out the window of our rental apartment. They rest their ancient bones around the corner from a café, a boutique, a sushi restaurant, folded into a young city which is constantly changing and growing. Streams of people flow by, not even glancing up at the building towering above-the old uncle at the party, they’ve heard the stories he has to tell before. But for a traveler, during a heat wave in a city with very little air conditioning, a cool, dark, quiet cathedral is a welcome respite, admiring the vaulted ceilings and painted frescoes, a pleasure.
The cathedral, the church of the Bishop of Nantes, is called Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul (St. Peter and St. Paul’s Cathedral). Building began in 1434, and was completely finished in 1891. In all that time, and since, it has been damaged many times, including during the French revolution, and when the city was bombed in 1943, and finally in a fire in 1972 when it was almost completely destroyed. Some of these various lives are evident if you look closely, but overall, it is completely harmonious and you would never know that it took so long to complete, or that it has been almost entirely restored from the original. It is built in the style of Flamboyant Gothic. One gentleman on TripAdvisor gave the cathedral a “Poor” rating, with two stars out of five. I’m not sure what he was expecting; a floor show with dancing nuns? A higher ceiling? Sandwiches maybe? Ratings sites are ridiculous. Also sometimes useful. It’s a total love/hate thing.
Below is Église Saint-Louis, more commonly knows as Notre-Dame de Bon-Port. Begun in 1843, and located near where the port used to be, it is beautifully visible from the river. Saint Louis is the patron of sailors going off to sea. The dome was inspired by St. Peter’s in Rome.
The Basilica of Saint Nicholas, with the tall spire reaching up to the sky, was built in 1854 in the Neo-Gothic style and its bells make a beautiful cacophony.
Église Sainte-Croix is a surprise in the middle of the Bouffay district, a mixture of styles, including Baroque, Flamboyant and Neo-Gothic. Originally built in 1685 it was the site of the chapel of the nearby Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany. The church seems to have changed along with the city. It was damaged, along with almost everything else, during the bombardments of 1943.
Just the other day I wrote about “mainstay institutions” and how they can sometimes rest on their laurels. Just a few hours after that post, we went off to have moules frites (mussels and fries) at a restaurant that seemed to get decent reviews, Aux Moules du Bouffay. It seemed to get a nice mix of locals, French from the rest of the country, as well as tourists. But more than that, it seemed like a place that had been there for a long time, doing its thing, an idea irresistible to me. Now, moules frites is not a fancy meal, just comfort food, almost fast food. Some believe it to have originated in Belgium (apparently the Belgians were eating French fries as early as the late 1600s) and then became popular in France. Others believe France to be the origin, but the dish is available nearly everywhere, especially by the sea. The general conceit behind this type of mussel dish is that the shellfish are steamed until open in a broth of various liquids and aromatics, possibly including white wine, beer or cream, shallots, parsley, tomatoes, chilies, bacon- so that the mussels are infused with all of the delicious flavors and you also happen to end up with a sauce in which to dip your fries.
At Aux Moules du Bouffay, as we were eating our cold entrées, or appetizers- salmon terrine (very good, bits of onion complementing the flavor of the salmon) and herring salad (extremely salty, even for herring), we kept hearing the sound of a microwave beeping from the kitchen. We looked at each other curiously, wondering what they were microwaving, hoping it wasn’t the mussels. When the mussels arrived, the sauce seemed very hot, while the mussels themselves were just warm. It was quite obvious that the mussels had been steamed separately, while the hot sauce (provençal for me-tomatoes and parsley, and onions and bacon for Guillaume) was applied on top. This was confirmed as we walked back through the restaurant and passed the open kitchen where a man was scooping mussels out of a giant pot and ladling sauce from a steam tray overtop. The mussels weren’t bad at all, but the whole point of this dish from my perspective is that the flavorings are imparted during cooking, not pasted over the top. Each mussel that is sucked from the shell should carry with it that elixir of wine, spices, onions, garlic… For all I know, this is the way they’ve always done it here, and maybe at other restaurants as well, possibly it’s even a tried-and-true restaurant technique, but somehow it smacks of wanting to turn out many plates fast. As a home cook, I know how easy they are to make, and how good they can be if done well.
The building itself is full of ancient charm; very narrow, sandwiched between larger, terraced restaurants on either side, built of stone, mortar, and timber, old stairs winding up to the second floor. Apparently there is a tradition to leave pennies in the large gaps in the walls between stones. This old charm is juxtaposed with new insouciance; a bucket of water for cleaning left on the floor during dinner, broken glass lingering next to a planter on the terrace, ancient lanterns never cleaned. This doesn’t not add to the environment, but I can’t help but think how it would be regarded anywhere else.