I chose Nantes as a destination mostly on a whim, and partly because of the Beirut song. I knew I wanted to go to Brittany, and I figured Nantes was a good starting point. As it turned out, I was right about it being a good starting point, but I completely underestimated how much I would like the city itself.
It took a little more than six hours by train to get to Nantes from Clermont-Ferrand. I’ve spoken about how much I like train travel before, but the last leg of this particular journey was my favourite to date. I had a ten minute change of trains in St-Pierre-des-Corps (they’re really into long, hyphenated place names here) and I was at the platform in plenty of time. I did not reckon on the thronging hordes of French travelers who all wanted to get on the same train.
I packed pretty light, considering how long I’ve been away and the fact that I did not originally plan to stay long in Israel, or backpack through Europe at all. That said, I present a bulky figure. I have one large backpack/suitcase on my back, one smaller backpack on my front, a still smaller backpack/purse also slung across my front, a liter and a half water bottle, a jacket over my arm, and a large straw hat. I’ve become adept at juggling this mess, so much so that I rarely need to put anything down when buying éclairs and train tickets, my two most common purchases.
I barely managed to get into that train. In fact, I never made it past the steps. There were so many people crammed into the entrance – not even in the compartment itself! – that we literally could not move an inch. When the door closed it nearly caught a trailing strap from my biggest backpack. In that tiny space were crammed myself and my luggage, two man-sized bicycles, five guys and their luggage, and another woman and her luggage. She was likewise in a stairwell. We made eye contact, had a moment of silent but perfect understanding, and sat down in unison on the steps. I did not even bother removing my various bags, assuming rightly that I would have to stand up to let people off at every stop.
I passed a very pleasant two hours there on the steps, reading my book and being interrupted only a few times by the train stopping to let people on and off. The crowd did not thin noticeably until the last half hour of the trip, when I actually managed to enter the compartment and sit down in a seat. This was my least favourite part of the ride, though I did enjoy watching a group of young deaf students speaking to each other in what I assume was French Sign Language. There’s something quite romantic and decidedly un-Western about sitting on the floor of a crowded train with a like-minded group of young people.
At Nantes I met my host, Hussein, and pretty much collapsed into bed. We chatted in a combination of English and French for a couple of hours, but I was so tired that I couldn’t bring myself to do much more. Hussein is from Pakistan, and speaks a truly impressive number of languages. He just successfully defended his PhD, and told me that he has spent the past week in a state of semi-vegetative recovery. I told him that I have several friends doing their Masters’ in Europe, and he said, “When you do a Master’s you have friends. You go out to parties and bars. When you do your PhD, non. Rien.”
I spent a comfortable night and woke up late, which was fine since the weather turned out to be less than perfect. Hussein and I had a lazy morning with tea and gingerbread, and I eventually rolled out at about eleven-thirty. The night before I had taken the tram system to get to Hussein’s house, but I hadn’t had a chance to really admire it. I’m aware that I get a little ridiculous about public transportation, but bear with me for a moment. The Nantes tram system is amazing. It’s clean, quiet, smooth, goes all over the city, and costs barely anything. I cheated the system only a little and got two full days of tram travel for three euros. I could have done it for free, but I like supporting public transportation, even though it’s clear the system here doesn’t need it!
The weather cleared enough for me to take a little walk along the Loire with my lunch, which was half actual food and half éclairs. I tried a coffee éclair this time as well as the usual chocolate, but neither was good enough to rank in The Hunt for the Perfect Éclair. They were both good, just not good enough to merit recognition. Then I headed back to the tram to go see the Château des Ducs de Bretagne. The Château was gorgeous, and I ended up spending several hours walking around, then napping and reading on the lawn. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves…
I took some time off from Duchess Anne’s Château to visit the cathedral of St. Pierre, located only a few meters away. It was the polar opposite of the cathedral in Clermont-Ferrand, with soaring white columns, marble statues, and light-coloured stained glass. There were some beautiful tombs and chapels, and I spent at least an hour walking around taking photographs.
Duchess Anne herself is a fascinating historical figure. She was only 11 when her father died in 1488 and she became the Duchess of Bretagne. The political situation required her to marry, so at age 13 she was wed by proxy to Maximilian I of Austria, making her officially Queen of the Romans. France was having none of this provocation however, and King Charles VIII of France came to lay siege to Rennes. Maximilian failed to come to his besieged wife’s aid, Rennes fell, and Charles and Anne became engaged. Austria protested on the grounds that Anne was technically already married to Maximilian and Charles was officially betrothed to Maximilian’s daughter, but George R. R. Martin traveled back in time and told them all to cool off because he wanted to watch how it all played out so he could write a book someday. Pope Innocent VIII said, “Good enough for me,” and the marriage was validated in February of 1492, making Anne Queen of France.
The King, however, took away the Duchy of Bretagne, annexing it to France and enraging Anne. It was not a happy marriage. One part of the contract stated that whichever spouse outlived the other would retain Bretagne, but it also stipulated that if Charles died first Anne was legally obliged to marry his successor, thereby ensuring that France would remain in control of the Duchy. Despite the tragedy of it all, it was probably a good thing her four children by Charles died in infancy and early childhood, because that could have been awkward. She eventually married Louis XII of France, who annulled his marriage to his previous wife in order to espouse Anne. He allowed Bretagne to remain partially independent. She died at the age of 36, beloved by her people in her roles as Duchess and twice Queen of France. Her funeral lasted forty days, and according to her will, her heart was removed, encased in a gold reliquary, and returned to Bretagne. Anne is remembered as highly intelligent, politically savvy, and a patron of the arts. She started a sort of finishing school for young girls, loved music, and collected books and tapestries, unusual occupations for a Medieval Queen.
Back at Hussein’s house I ate the delicious and spicy (for me) curry he had whipped up, and we watched a Bollywood movie so full of ridiculous fight scenes that I’m surprised the screen didn’t shatter. I can never tell if Bollywood movies are intentionally funny, or just incidentally so, but I was absolutely in stitches throughout. There was more than one scene where the hero literally beat up an entire village singlehandedly. It was amazing.
Right now I am on another train headed to Saint-Malo, where I will be surfing for two nights. The weather is once again grey and rainy, so I hope it clears up tomorrow! I want to go see the tidal islands, and get myself out to Mont-St-Michel. I’ll still do it if it’s raining, but I do hope it clears up. I’ll check the weather tonight. My host, providentially named Michel, may have some recommendations for rainy-weather activities. He’s picking me up at the train station too, which is so nice of him!