Continental Adventures Pt. III: Nantes

Oh, what a difference ten days can make. Last weekend we were having a fun visit with our old friend Yann, his wife Clare and their two children, Victore (age 6) and Honore (age 2 1/2). And now they are trying to figure out life in corona lock-down. A huge thank you to them for spending so much time with us, showing us their wonderful city and little corner of France! In the rapidly shifting sands of the new coronavirus reality, it already seems a lifetime ago. Other friends in Spain are now in total lockdown, being chased home by the police when they went for a walk in the park, thinking that the isolation started 24 hours later than it actually did. Our thoughts go out to everyone who is worried and inconvenienced for now, and to those for whom the economic impact of the pandemic is going to have lasting consequences for months and years to come.

The final stage of our spring break trip unfolded in a part of France we’d never visited before.  In 2002-3, Michael and I became friends with Yann Guillo, a French law student studying for a master’s in international law for a year at Cornell.  He joined the choir at Sage Chapel we were singing in, and over the course of that year we found we had much in common.  Yann needed housing during the summer of 2003 and stayed with us (providing a lovely soundtrack with his impressive guitar playing).  We have stayed in touch ever since, but hadn’t seen each other since the summer of 2005, when we stayed with his family on the magical resort island off the coast of Brittany, the Île de Groix.  This sojourn in London offered the best opportunity in years to reconnect in person and so we embarked on a 10-hour train journey from Barcelona to Nantes—almost all of it on TGVs.

A city once dominated by maritime commerce and the associated supporting enterprises (like shipbuilding), Nantes has undergone something of a renaissance in first years of the twenty-first century.  While still embracing its history (and acknowledging the dark elements of that history, like its role in the slave trade), Nantes has a youthful and artsy feeling to it.Nantes is a city that has used the industrial infrastructure of it’s ship-building past and embraced a funky, trendy, art-loving creative spirit.

On the left of a Jules Verns themed, three story carousel, one of the three parts of a project called Les Machines de l’Ile, the Machines of the Island. (Jules Vernes is a native of Nantes) The Loire River passed around an island in the middle of Nante on which this project can be found. Les Machines is a project that is part sculpture, part artwork, part robot, part steam-punk, part immitative of nature, it’s impossible to describe with one idea. Its artistic vision has created mechanical animals and trees and this carousel to entertain and astound visitors. They are currently working on The Tree of Hebron, a multi-story animated tree with birds and animals of all kinds that will be built on the north bank of the river. The models for these are what compose the gallery below.

The Chateaux of Nantes.

The Nest, a cafe at the top of the Tour de Nantes, which has 360 degree view of the city below. You can even see one cracked open on the rooftop of a building below.

We had planned a trip to visit with Yann’s parents who live near Mont St.-Michel on the Normandy coast, but due to the virus, we dicided to not risk exposing them unknowingly. Instead we headed to Pornic and beach community on the coast, and across the mouth of the Loire to Saint-Nazaire, one of only two ship-building towns left in the EU.

Left: putting on our shoes after a romp in the sand.

Our final full day in France we left Yann and family in peace and headed to Angers for part of the day. Angers is the closest city to Nantes with one of the famous châteaux of the Loire Valley. The Château d’Angers is a massive fortress (the main gate at right) built in stages beginning in the 9th century. Blowing light rain limited the amount of time we wanted to spend on the parapets, though the view was impressive. There were even pretty substantial gardens at various points inside the walls. The interior rooms had displays related to both the history of the castle and the those who occupied it, including John the Good and his son Louis, Count of Anjou, who commissioned the famous “Apocalypse Tapestry.”

Even last Sunday, there was something eerie about looking at this stunning series of tapestries, which once covered more than 140 meters, of which more than 100 remain. Depicting scenes from the Book of Revelation, the characters had been transposed from the first century CE Mediterranean world to 14th century France. As you may know, that was a calamitous century in Europe, especially for England and France who were engaged in the 100 years war–interrupted by the arrival of the Bubonic Plague. The shadow of war, plague, and political tumult hangs over the tapestry. It seemed, well, a bit . . . contemporary. As the French might say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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