Adventures and misadventures in France.

Posts tagged ‘Brittany’

Machines de l’Ile

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The Machines de l’Ile is a mechanical art exposition based in Nantes. Their whimsical attractions are mostly plant and animal machines inspired by the works of Leonardo DaVinci and Jules Verne.

The Elephant

The Carousel of Marine Worlds

The Heron Tree

Set to open in 2019, the Arbre aux Herons is still in the conceptual phase, but it’s going to be a towering feat of engineering and design measuring 50 meters across and 45 meters high. The structure will be an immense tree-shaped garden, include moving animal machines large enough to carry people throughout the branches, a bar, and swinging herons circling above. The creators have many of their preliminary designs on display including scale models of the tree, prototypes of the animals, a greenhouse testing the durability of various plants, and a single 3-story “branch” walkway.

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Beaches of France : Guerande and La Turballe

Part 3

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This funny instrument is called a vielle à roue, or a hurdy gurdy.

Guerande is a fortified medieval city just north of La Baule and St. Nazaire. We decided to drop by the inner city on the way home from our beach weekend to visit the original church, get some lunch, and maybe sample their Brittany wares. The region is known its heavy Breton influence, sailing culture, and coarse salt production. Today, the city is filled with artisans and their shops selling paintings and sculptures.

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Later in the afternoon, we wanted to get a look at the marais salants, salt flats, in La Turballe. Not much to see, just piles of delicious lying around.

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Oh boy! Salt!

Next to the flats, we found a parking lot with signage leading to a beach. Adding to our weekend of spontaneity, we decided to take a stroll to check it out. Fifteen minutes of marching through a forest filled with picnicking families and the beach finally came into view. On such a hot day, we were excited to finally see a natural and tranquil beach. We finally reached the top of the dunes and looked down to admire the clear water and the bay below.

The face of ignorance

The face of blissful ignorance.

Look at that view! The sand is so soft! Let’s go dip our feet in the water!

Hey that’s weird… there’s a woman swimming – naked? And there’s another guy and he’s – also naked? And those people over there… and… uh oh…

As it turns out, this particular beach was far more natural than anticipated. We had stumbled upon an unofficial naturist beach. Standing at the top of the dunes, we tried not to stare as couples, families, and groups of friends all paraded past us to enjoy their naked day at the beach. After a few moments of shocked silence and attempts at nonchalance, Max turned to me and asked:

Can we go back to the car now?

Maybe next time, Naked Beach.

Beaches of France : La Baule and Pornichet

Part 2

“The most beautiful beach in Europe”

The morning after our St. Nazaire fiasco, Max and I woke up early and drove to La Baule, a bay spanning 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) in southern Brittany. The enormous and beautiful beach is covered in restaurants and “clubs”- bars for parents to relax while their children engage in camp activites. The entire bay is lined with hotels, luxury apartments, and a rambla for long strolls.

We parked in Pornichet, the low-key southern end of the beach, and walked forever to find some sandwiches and gelatto in the main shopping area. We had the beach mostly to ourselves until mid-afternoon, when people flooded into the water or posted up in one of the rental tents. We had to be on the lookout for enormous jellyfish that regularly washed up on shore, but otherwise spent the afternoon reading relaxing in the sun.

European beaches are notoriously laid back, but coming from America, it’s still surprising to see women casually spending the day topless on the beach (more on that later). In France, however, toplessness doesn’t seem to provoke any attention, positive or negative.

That evening, we avoided the crowds by returning to Pornichet for dinner (more forever walking), and enjoyed a tasty seafood dinner at Le Normandy.

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Check out the lemon juice contraption.

Beaches of France : St. Nazaire

Part 1

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One Friday a couple weekends back, we had just arrived home from a long day of work. I was on the phone with my dad when Max suddenly burst into the dining room:

I’m on vacation next week! Let’s go to the beach this weekend! We can pack our bags and leave right now!

But Max, isn’t your friend’s birthday party this weekend?

Whatever, I don’t even want to go!

Didn’t you promise our neighbor we’d help her build a shed?

*Cough cough* Something came up, I’ll help her next week!

What are we going to do with the dog?

He can stay with my parents!

Where are we even going? Can we talk about this once I’m done with this phone call?

I just found a hotel! My parents will watch Jojo! Hotel booked! I just packed your toothbrush let’s GO!

So that’s how we found ourselves driving to St. Nazaire on a Friday night. We checked into the hotel around 9 pm, briefly conferred with the overly enthusiastic man at the front desk, and strolled into town to find some food. The city seemed pleasant enough, clearly a destination for tourism and shopping. But as we strolled through street after street of closed and deserted businesses, it became clear that finding dinner would be a challenge. Even the beach offered no dining options. Clearly, St. Nazaire was the worst city ever.

forty days of dating

In the end, tired and grumpy from hunger, we made our way to the only remaining option : Quick (French Burger King) in a shopping plaza just outside town.

Max posing with inedible statues

Not pictured: food

Mud and Le Mont Saint-Michel

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Max and I seized the opportunity of a free weekend day to visit the Mont Saint-Michel, an abbey located off the northern coast of France. The original structure dates back to 708 AD, and the abbey, surrounding city, and fortified walls were added between 966 and 1500. For centuries, the Mont Saint-Michel has served as a monastery, military outpost, prison, and site of Catholic pilgrimage. Today, it stands as a tourist trap and testament to enduring Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most visited in Europe, receiving over 3 million people each year.

I can remember seeing the Mont in French class videos almost every year of middle and high school. It’s been my top tourist attraction priority since arriving in France. Every weekend seemed like the perfect weekend to make the drive, but Max insisted on waiting until warmer weather. That finally arrived in July.

We left super early in the morning, dropped off Jojo, picked up sandwiches, and parked in the mainland lot. We chose the 45-minute walk over the shuttle. Soon we were standing at the base, with busloads of tourists flooding in around us. Inside the city walls, narrow alleys of souvenir shops and restaurants snake their way up to the abbey. There’s a scenic (and more spacious) walk along the ramparts, so we were able to bypass most of the crowds and view the low tide and salt marshes surrounding the island.

Normally, the abbey charges a small entrance fee, but we soon learned that the tour guides were on strike (typical France) to protest the lack of employee shuttles. One captivating 10-minute explanation from an employee later, Max turned to me and said:

If anyone else here tries to talk to us about the strikes, let’s pretend we’re both American and can’t speak any French.

So we were able to visit for free. The abbey is currently home to the friars and sisters of the Fraternites Monastiques de Jerusalem, who still run mass and other ceremonies throughout the week. We cruised through the self-guided tour of the different halls within the abbey- some of which featured spectacular views of the landscape, while others offered cavernous stone echo chambers.

Around noon, we had finished both the abbey and our sandwiches, so we descended back into the village looking for more fun-tivites. A kiosk offered inexpensive passes to (all four!) historic museums. Little did we know that this was a blatant tourist trap, so we spent the next two hours viewing “relics”, presentations, and videos that clearly hadn’t been updated since the 80s. Many “exhibits” featured mannequins dressed in medieval attire, presenting historic/legendary figures or life in the Mont Saint-Michel dungeons. Seriously, what is up with the mannequins? Yes, we attended every last “museum” – we were determined to get our money’s worth of shtick. Please, if you ever visit the Mont, DO NOT bother.

Clearly, after spending several hours crushed and propelled along by legions of socks-with-sandals, we were looking for a change of pace. The island is surrounded by miles of mud flats at low tide, so we kicked off our shoes and trekked around. Honestly, aside from the fantastic views and architecture of the abbey, this was the hilight of our day. Eccentric and sunburnt hippie-types lead guided tours of the mud flats- next time, I’ll be reserving tickets in advance.

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