By: Eva Kristinova (Sciences Po Toulouse, France)
Recently, during our brief spring vacation, I had the opportunity to venture out of the comfort zone of the immediate Occitanie region and visit the very exotic north-west of France: Loire-Atlantique. This cozy département, sandwiched between the unique cultures of Vendée and Bretagne (which also just happen to be historical rivals), is home to a very different side of Frenchness, which is nevertheless as French as can be, perhaps even more French than our beloved Toulouse! And I’m not just talking about the cheese.
When you travel to the Atlantic coast of France, and especially to a city with a major river running through, you never cease to hear about the importance of this maritime location. With the largest and newest residential area of Nantes located on an island, and along banks of the Loire, it should be no surprise to learn that water is a central component of every-day life. From the many private boats, small and large, happily floating in the docks to the bustling seafood markets. This water aspect is likewise crucial for the historical development of industry in the city, a legacy of which is to be found in the iconic Lu tower (named after a famous entrepreneur of the 19th century), as well as the much more recent cultural project “Les Machines de L’Île”. I should point out that the main attraction of the latter (a giant walking elephant!) is nothing compared to what is planned for this endeavor in the future.
Water has also played a major historic role for the city’s defences, a testament to which is the Castle of Nantes’ strategic position just behind the Loire. Like many histories, however, there is also a dark side to this one. With its easy access to the ocean, Nantes has played a crucial role in French colonial projects in the past, including the infamous slave trade. The city centre today houses a memorial on the events, and the pathway leading up to its entrance, displaying incased tablets with the names of tens of slave ships used in the past for this purpose, leaves a particularly strong impression.
ACTIVITIES AND ATTRACTIONS
Outside of visiting the many historical landmarks and museums on various subjects (the museums of Natural History and the Printing Press being among my favourites), there are plenty of other things to do and see in and around the city. Being at the mercy of my French correspondent, I did not have much of a choice in the matter, but let me tell you about two particularly exciting experiences… well, one more so than the other.
- Char à voile
When I first heard of this apparently really popular sport, I had no idea what to expect at all. But being in Nantes (and in France, for that matter) to learn French, can you really fault me for that? Turns out this sea-side activity takes quite some skill to master… which is why I definitely cannot claim to have done that. But hey, I survived. Thankfully you sit for the most part, but a word of warning to any potential enthusiasts: you better work those arm muscles, because trying to control the sail of the yacht through the strong Atlantic wind is no mean feat. I also wouldn’t recommend going round and round in circles like we were told to… your head won’t thank you for that.
Yes, for the first time in my life I also had the chance to participate in the extraordinarily exciting activity of fishing. Okay, that sarcasm is only partly justified, especially during those waiting times (which can last hours and cause your hands and feet to freeze… since we were basically in a forest in the middle of February). When you see that indicator ball suddenly moving however, it becomes a real spectacle. I still can’t believe I managed to catch all of four fish! Afterwards, the only question becomes, what do you do with them? And you get exactly one attempt to guess what the French answer is.
MORE FOOD? WHY, OF COURSE!
Yes, yes, we brought the fish home to prepare a typical family feast! Except we didn’t exactly, since there were way too many of them, so most actually ended up in the freezer. But anyway… you didn’t think I was going to post a blog entry about France without mentioning food, did you? Well, there certainly was plenty of it. I suppose I don’t have to mention more seafood, given the obvious connection to the location. What I want to talk about instead is… biscuits? Actually, yes. Remember that very first picture at the top? As you might have read from the caption, it’s an old biscuit factory. Biscuits are kind of a staple of the region, except they mostly come from Bretagne, who’s culture has been quite influential in the city of Nantes. One of my favourite moments (of which I unfortunately did not take a picture) was stumbling upon a tiny shop on a street corner in the city centre called “The specialities of Nantes”. It was simply full of biscuits, pies, chocolate and wine. A particular among them is the Gateau Nantais, a small almond-flavoured pie with a white glossy glaze so typical of French desserts.
And finally I can’t forget to mention wine. I was extremely fortunate to get a private tasting session with my correspondent’s amazing family. As a complete newcomer to the subject, I was astonished to find the many varieties of vines and vintages, the strict rules of etiquette and pairing of wine with food, as well as the sometimes rather complicated procedures of storage and transport. On top of all of that, I have never before (gasp!) drunk any wine! So, yes, an enlightening experience indeed.
ENDNOTES – FRENCH FILM SUGGESTIONS
I went to Nantes to basically get an intensive course of French, so we understandably spent a few evenings exploring the French cinema. Since I notably enjoyed a few of these films, I thought I would share for anyone interested: Les Tontons flingueurs; Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis; Astérix et Obélix : Mission Cléopâtre.
You’re welcome 🙂