Things to do in early autumn in Nantes

We arrived on a perfect Sunday, blessed with blue skies and warm weather.

I included Nantes on our itinerary because a colleague said Les Machines des L’Ile was on her top 5 things she saw in France. Mmm. We must have very different tastes. It hasn’t made my top 5, not even my top 5 things to do in Nantes, but I am glad we came to Nantes.

Initially, I was less than impressed. We walked from the main train station to the other side of town, where the island that Les Machines are on. A walk of about 35 minutes.

It must have been a BIG Saturday night the night before. Smashed glasses everywhere, rubbish galore, bins overflowing, masses of cigarette butts, vomit, smell of urine. Then there were the homeless and beggars. And graffiti. I thought we’d made a poor choice to stay here two nights. Too real. Too grotty.

The Ile de Nantes was bustling. There was a huge sporting showcase going on. All manner of sports organisations there to tempt families. Which meant lots of people watching. Waking back through the commercial centre meant we missed all the grottiness.

So here’s my top 5 things to do. (Remembering we were there on a Sunday in September. Many of what we enjoyed may not be open at different times of the year.)

1. The Jardin des Plantes de Nantes is beautiful. There were plenty of flowers blooming. It is also an entertaining garden with quirky displays.

A living sculpture. Fantastic detail.

The photo doesn’t quite show it but the different grass is planted in he shape of a Christmas tree. So it’s the shadow of the living Christmas tree!

The ducks can’t read. Keep off the grass!

A mass of flowers with a giant garden bench (with a man about to walk under it.)

2. Sit in deck chairs at the bar alongside the river offshoot near the main train station. Perfect Sunday afternoon people watching and atmosphere soaking. Drinking a shandy type beer on a hot afternoon in the shade of big trees. I can’t remember the name of the bar but sitting on the desk chairs was cool.

3. Go to the fun fair (except it may have packed up and moved on). We are not fun fair people but we couldn’t resist seeing if they are different to Aussie fun fairs. No they’re not. But it was fantastic to ride the giant Ferris wheel and get a view over Nantes. €5 well spent.

Mr S also tried the gooiest lolly ever. It hangs like stretchy string and is constantly re-wrapped around the stand. When you buy some it is wrapped like a lolly pop. Except it is chewy and stretchy. The violet taste was different.

4. Walk around and admire the architecture, including the chateau of the Dukes. (We didn’t bother going inside to the museums.)

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5. Have a Sunday early afternoon sparkling wine and feed on the boat on the river where Les Machines are. It’s a quirky bar. The staff had been to Australia and so got our accent immediately and didn’t think we were English.

I’d say yes to visiting Les Machines and even having a go on the merry-go-round. But even the elephant, as well made and interesting as it is, didn’t make it onto my top 5. Maybe I am just not into steam punk? It’s people and buildings that interest me more than machines.

As an addendum to the mixture of glam and grotty, our apartment was the same. Crisp, clean and modern in the actual apartment but housed in a dark, dank and scary block. I felt creeped out on my own. Not sure if any other apartments had people in them, the strange noises and pitch black corridor was the thing of nightmares.

Clearly summer was over and university was resuming. There were streams of young students pulling their wheeled luggage from the train station. Luckily for us, we’re not back to work for several more weeks.

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Giants and standing stones

In Brittany, there are hundreds and hundreds of standing stones, from around 3,000 before Christ.

Most are set in lines, with alignments extending for over a kilometre. We visited two sites – at Carnac and Erdeven. The stones are of varying sizes. Walking among them, which we could do freely, leaves you with a feeling of wonder.

Why did they build these? What sort of megalithic society had enough wealth that individuals didn’t need to produce food but could have people build these? Who decided to start it? Did someone suddenly think this would be a good idea and then others copy? Along the lines of “I can make one bigger than yours”.

There are also dolmens, ones set with roofs, used as burial sites for important individuals. Photos of this didn’t turn out. Case of you really have to be there.

And then there’s the giants. Huge stones set upright – some have fallen. We visited the largest one which sits on its own at Dol-de-Bretagne earlier. It’s further north. Here’s the ones near Erdeven.

I’m so glad these were on our trip. For those wanting travel tips: don’t bother with the little train. If you go after summer, you can access the main sites free until 5pm, though there’s plenty of evidence that people bend the little fences to gain entry. They understandably restrict access as all the people walking on them is affecting the stability of the stones. The alignment at Erdeven is a little off the main track, so you can walk around at your leisure.

Mont Saint-Michel

It’s crowded. It’s very touristy. It’s packed.

It’s worth it.

The outline from the distance is so iconic. Impressive now, I can’t imagine how it appeared to the peasants centuries ago.

We drove, arriving around 11am, with plenty of other visitors. But there is stacks of parking. It is all very organised.

The shuttles from the car park to the island run like clock work, shuffling people on and off. The shuttles are free and take around 10 minutes. (Why would you pay to sit for longer on a horse drawn buggy?)

Getting in the island is free. We walked around, up the ramparts, along streets, passed the abbey. You only pay if you want to go into the abbey, which like most people, we didn’t.

We walked half way back to the car park, but as it was so hot and my knee was playing up, we hopped on a shuttle bus. It probably would have been better to walk to the mount, so we were looking at it.

Leaving at 12, we heard the bells ringing for about 15 minutes. We kept glancing back, in awe of the changing light on the abbey.

It’s not night. The mount is in shadow of a cloud, except for the top of the steeple!

Hanging about in Saint Malo

We like hanging about a place for a bit, rather than packing up and moving every day.

Lucky for us that we had booked six nights in the one spot as it took four days for the French brand tyre for the French brand car to arrive at the falsely named “Speedy” tyre service.

The tyre mechanics rightly picked us as incompetent in French traffic. The workshop was on a corner of a busy roundabout. The only way out was to brave the traffic of cars, buses and trucks fresh from the port and just reverse into the traffic and have faith in the brakes and eyesight of the oncoming or turning drivers. Something we didn’t have. The second time we were there (the tyre will be ready Wednesday, yeah right!) the mechanic walked onto the road and stopped the traffic for us. The third time (it will be ready Thursday morning, but it wasn’t and we didn’t go until we rang them) the mechanic reversed the car out for us.

We explored the inter-muros (Walled City) quite a bit, wandering down alleyways, peering in doorways.

And admired the changing light and tides.

The grumpy girl in the boulangerie even warmed to Mr S.

Remember our visitor from day 1? The oversized sea gull.

Mr S weakened, just as the Boulangerie girl weakened and almost smiled at Mr S. Mr S fed the bird quite a few slices of expensive French ham. And I am certain we were not the first to feed him, patient thing that he was.

The other birds that captivated me were the simple sparrows. In mass they looked quite impressive, especially lined up on the roof tops and chimneys.

The day we finally got the tyre fixed, I was able to breathe. (I did have a moment of tears – largely from frustration.)

My advice is if you have a problem with Europcar, don’t bother with phoning or emailing the contact details. Go straight into an office. We finally did and we’re offered a new car on the spot. We gave the tyre place a few hours grace, knowing a car would be there for us the next morning if we needed it.

We celebrated with oysters and beer. Local oysters have a delicate flavour and are much lighter in colour than Sydney or Pacific oysters. Much better than the mussels. See the little plastic lemon squeezer? It’s in the shape of a little bird. With one little sliver of lemon, a little squeeze pours out the juice. The oyster man sells hundreds of these to oyster lovers like us.

That night we ate at an Algerian restaurant. Flavoursome and tender, although we couldn’t have what we wanted. Actually only half was really available. The waiter was so friendly and entertaining that we didn’t mind.

“Our” square at night.

And on the last morning, as the sun hit the roof line.

I’d recommend a week here any time.

Day trip to Dinan

We established that the boat down the river Ranch was only going on Tuesdays (with no thanks to the Tourist Office and little thanks to the tour boat company).

[Lest you give me advice that I should say bonjour madam, to receive better service, know that I always start with a bonjour and even ask my questions in French. After all, the tyre mechanic understood me! As did the mechanic that phoned me from road side assistance when I said we no longer needed help as my husband changed the tyre.]

I had my questions in French ready for the ticket office: how long is the journey by boat; when does the bus leave; can we return by boat. The ticket seller said it may be better if I ask in English! Answers: 2 3/4 hours, buses leave at 5pm and 6pm and no, the boat is remaining in Dinan overnight due to the tides. A friendly English tourist behind us, tells us we will enjoy the trip and the bus ride is a nice ride through the countryside.

We buy two tickets and are told to go to the end of the car park and turn left. We do. Into the deserted ferry wharf, following the sign that says “Boarding”. We approach the boat painted with Dinan that is at the end of the wharf, from the entrance painting “Boarding”, to be told to go back around the wharf to the end of a boat ramp. Signage is not big here!

The journey was very interesting. Across the bay to Dinard, down the river, which is massively wide, through two locks, under two opening bridges, passing a tidal hydro-plant, passing tidal mills, chateaux, farms, numerous water fowls. As the river narrows, there’s plenty of people having fun along the riverside – jogging, walking, fishing. Photos from the boat didn’t work as the windows were dirty and I didn’t want to go outside in the cold. Anyway it is hard to capture the experience of the locks and the width of the river.

There were quite a few fishing shacks in various states of sturdiness.

The port of Dinan is beautiful.

But we don’t want to stay here forever, so I listen up when a French lady asks the boat operator where the bus stop is. The answer, with a wave of the hand up the hill, is it leaves from the big square on the other side. Of course there are no brochures or maps so we just follow the crowd.

A steep, cobbled “road” which is mainly only for pedestrians (you’ll see a van in one photo and there was the occasional car – rules! Pfft. It’s France.) winds past unbelievably higgledy buildings. It’s awesome.

Pass a goat area just outside the city walls (but without goats), through the city walls which are incredibly wide, to more and more of the amazing half-wood buildings along the road that keeps going up.

The town is actually quite big. We want to find the bus stop and confirm the time, so head off to the tourist office. Oh dear! It shuts for lunch and won’t open until 2pm. The bus times displayed don’t include the bus to Saint Malo. So we head off to a lovely restaurant we saw on the steep pedestrian road into town, with a garden area in the sun. So peaceful. The waitress was sweet and friendly. Mr S ate Breton sausage, chips and salad. I ate the most divine honey goats cheese galette with salad. And a local beer to wash it down. Eat at La Fontaine du Jerzual. I will give them a good rap on TripAdvisor.

Back to the tourist office to find out about the bus times and bus stop. With map and timetable in hand, we set out to find the bus stop. It’s outside the front of the post office! As we walk down the street, a bus heading to Saint Malo passes us. There was one at 2pm which we would have made if we’d gone straight from the restaurant! Oh well, we have three hours to relax. Off down to the port for a beer in the sun.

Then a wander around town to people watch. Mr S poses in front of the statue of some local hero. (And then instant karma hit us for mocking their man – I lost my cardie, a lovely bright orange one and the only one I brought. How did I know this is what cost me the cardie? As our bus back to Saint Malo drove past, I saw my beautiful cardigan sitting on the stone wall in front of the statue. If we’d caught the 2pm bus, I wouldn’t have lost my cardie either.)

We sat at the outside cafe you can see in the photo, watching the passing parade of school kids and older folk. Mr S had a cafe au lait.

We nearly didn’t make it on the 5pm bus as the driver restricted entry. He would not have any standing passengers. Quite a few were refused entry. (It may have helped me recover my cardie if we’d been forced to catch the later, and last, bus, but oh well.) We made it on largely because an English lady, who lives here, sort of guided us onto the bus and blocked others. Also just making it on the bus was our fellow French boat travellers, including the one who asked about the return trip to Saint Malo. We gave each other sympathetic grimaces about nearly having missed this bus.

I can’t believe the bus trip, which is nearly an hour, costs only €2! It must be subsidised!?! The boat trip cost €26 each.

Many school kids didn’t make it onto the bus. They’d have to wait until the 6pm bus to go home. What a long day for them!

A pleasant trip through the countryside (and I wasn’t stressed at all so it is not the travelling on the other side of the road that does it, it is is having to drive our car that stresses me!). We walked from the bus terminus, outside the train station, approaching the walled city from a different direction.

Totally in need of a cup of tea to finish our glorious day.

Fear [AKA Mrs Bennett’s nervy turns] & tyres

It doesn’t matter that you know it is irrational.

It definitely doesn’t help when people tell you to relax.

Fear just grips your stomach.

I can feel my stomach tightening at the thought of hitting the road again.

The usual question for people who are gripped with fear, “What’s the worst that could happen?” often has as the response: fail a test, feel uncomfortable for a while, not get a job, be late for something. Not life threatening things.

I know that it is unlikely we will be in an accident and injured or killed. But really that is a pretty bad “worst case”.

But it’s the thought of being stuck somewhere and …

Actually, go back to my first statement. It’s irrational and I can’t explain it or rationalise or justify.

I didn’t feel stressed on the corrugated, dirt roads in the middle of Australia where there was no phone reception. Here I have a phone and can call for road side assistance. I just feel sick with stress driving here.

Still given that Mr S DID hit a gutter and give us a puncture, I feel there’s evidence my nerves are not just irrational.

We went to the tyre repair shop on Monday.

To get our French brand tyre for our French car in France will take three days. Luckily we are staying in Saint Malo until the end of the week. In planning this trip, I had given us the option of driving around Brittany each day or just hanging out. We have enjoyed the second option: just going slow in the walled part of Saint Malo. Which is lucky. Given our immobility.

We will probably catch a boat to Dinan and a bus back. (Customer service being what it is here, getting information is not easy. I asked at the boat ticket office if there was only boat a week to Dinan. Response: it is written there. Mmm. What’s written is the next boat leaves on mardi. Not the same thing. Went to the tourist office to find out information, eg the bus schedules. All my questions were, politely, answered with an “I do not know. I cannot help you.”)

We plan to drive to Mount St Michel on Thursday. Then we leave here to venture a short distance south. I am tempted to cut a few stops off from our itinerary and stay in a place a couple of nights extra, in order to avoid driving.

Mr S would say I am mad. And as I’ve already established, I accept it is irrational, but that doesn’t make me feel better.

What to do? What do you think I should do?

The tide goes out at Saint Malo

The tides along this part of the coast are massive. Low tide exposes a walkway to a fort and two little islands – called Grand Be and Petit Be.

So what else to do but join the others walking across to the fort and one of the islands!

First we walked to the fort. These photos are at the peak of low tide.

The tide was not low enough to visit the little island so we only walked to the big one. This photo shows the path to the little island, which is behind the big island, submerged.

I love the warning on the island. If the tide is coming up, do not proceed back to the mainland but wait until the tide recedes. (The next day!!!) Gotta love the French care factor! I read an article in an online travel magazine that said there are boats waiting to save tourists who are caught out. Don’t believe it for one minute. There were none to save you. There were boats having fun and fishing (I don’t think those two things are inclusive) but not to rescue late returnees.

Actually the health and safety fun police do not seem to have made it to France. There’s the driving along narrow pedestrian alleys. There’s unfenced drops over the side on piers. There’s an old diving platform left in a pool. exposed during low tide but strangely way out in high tide., as if the Loch Ness monster is sticking its head up.

Don’t get me wrong. I love that the WHS controllers haven’t got here yet.

All that walking and we need an ice-cream. Sitting in our square, feeding the sparrows, just enjoying life.

Lunch and a snooze, restored us for a walk around a vintage car display. It was heritage day so the town hall was opened. It is only open one day a year. Yeah, let’s walk through.

We headed back to see the change in tide! With three hours to go until high tide, the path is covered.

Back to our apartment for a pre-dinner drink, with the sun shining directly onto it, it was actually too hot on our balcony. The beauty of staying right in the action is you can pop home to rest or use the toilet or have a cuppa.

Then off to find some mules and frites. But first, let’s look at high tide.

Sunday night was much quieter with many restaurants closed. There was still plenty of options – if you want crepes or mussels.

Two years ago I was very disappointed with the “pint of prawns” I had in London at a famed pub that allegedly famous people frequent. Disappointed not because we didn’t see Madonna’s then husband but because the prawns were tiny. Teeny tiny. And they didn’t taste like happy prawns that had swum in the warmth of a clean ocean. Look, I’m not one to go on about things being bigger and better at home. Obviously bigger isn’t always better anyway. But the prawns were frankly not a scratch on Aussie king prawns.

As to the Breton mussels? I don’t think there are size restrictions to catching seafood when it comes to mussels either. These were teeny tiny. A massive bowl filled with what looked like baby mussels who had not yet reached their teens. I was never a fan of mussels until I went to New Zealand. The Kiwi green lipped mussels are divine. And hearty. And taste of a fresh living sea. I can’t see what the fuss here is about. We won’t be having anymore mussels here. (And probably not any other seafood. I have a thing against cream with my seafood so that rules out a lot of choice here. And I don’t want seafood wrapped in a pancake.)

We followed dinner with a walk along the city walls to watch the sun set.

Home again. I turned on the TV. So close to England, surely there must be an English show. Or a show in English. Mmmm. I could watch Apocalypse Now. Dubbed in French. Or a myriad of American dramas. Also dubbed. I chose quiet.