Saturday, April 01, 2006

Nantes: Overview of Day 1

Dr. B, Lucy and I woke up early to head to Montparnasse train station for our 8 AM trip to Nantes on Thursday. We were out of the house 1/2 hour after we planned, but it was plenty of time anyway. (We had decided to be cautious, knowing that doing anything in France could lead to some sort of problem, so we planned to leave at 6 AM.)

We boarded the train, and stuffed Lucy under the seat. As we left Paris, my ears were popping due to the train going through several tunnels (I have no idea why.) I read my book, Dr. B prepared his talk, and we watched the scenery go by, enjoying our first glimpses of the countryside.

Upon arriving, we were met at the station by a woman from the lab, and she took us to our hotel. She told us, "This isn't really rain, you know." as a steady drizzle fell. Nantes is located at the joining place of three rivers, and is close enough to the ocean for the weather to be, well, a bit wet. We went into the hotel, who told us our room wasn't ready yet, as it was only 10:15. Dr. B and I agreed to meet in the lobby at 5 PM. The hotel staff started cleaning with our room, and gave me a cup of coffee while Lucy and I waited in the breakfast room. When it was ready, we took the tiny elevator to the 4th floor, and found a very pleasant room, with a full bath, a large bed, and cable TV (including International CNN, which I left playing most of the time, despite the news that repeated every 15 minutes--it was just so nice to hear English news!)

I took Lucy for a walk, and after bringing her back I set out on my own to explore central Nantes, and to find something to eat. I walked among the narrow cobblestone streets, thrilled to find several medieval half-timbered buildings still in existence. Nantes did not, apparently, cover up or destroy these buildings, as Paris did in the 19th century. The trees were blooming, and the grass had turned green, where you could find it. I enjoyed my walk, though I got a little lost because I couldn't find a Nantes map in the hotel lobby. Eventually I worked my way back to the little street I had been looking for, and stopped in a crêperie for lunch. I had brought my book, and so I settled in and read while enjoying a galette with cheese, mushrooms and tomatoes, a bolée of cidre (brut), and a chocolate crêpe.

When I left the restaurant, I was disappointed to see that the light drizzle was gone, replaced by a full-on rain. (I guess this is what they might call "really raining".) I had an umbrella, but this rain was accompanied by strong wind, so the umbrella didn't do much besides keeping my hair dry. I walked among the streets, looking in shop windows and taking a few pictures. I was hoping to find a shop that really caught my eye, so I could escape the rain for a minute, but I felt guilty going into shops if I knew I wasn't going to buy anything. After about an hour, I noticed that my pants were wet from my thighs to my knees, and from my lower calves down to my shoes and socks, which were completely soaked. Though I knew it was a cop-out, I ducked into the Galeries Lafayette, which is a department store we have in Paris, to dry out. I knew no one would bother me, and wandered around for 30 minutes, allowing my pants to dry--well, at least the thigh part. (It just feels so gross to walk around in wet pants!)

The rain didn't let up, so I wandered some more, and ducked into a church, to look at the gothic architecture. There are a lot of churches in Nantes from this period, and the one I made it into was the Basilica. Unfortunately, however, during the bombings in WWII, the churches lost all the medieval stained glass, which was replaced by modern designs that just didn't impress me. One of the rose windows in this basilica was even bricked over, which was kind of sad. I was able to hear a string group practicing with the organist for an upcoming service, but the intonation was not very good, so I was kind of glad when they stopped!

As I left the basilica, I realized that I was really, really tired, so I went back to the room to rest, eat chocolate and cookies, and dry out. Those hairdryers come in handy when your pants are soaked.

Dr. B came home, and though he wasn't very pleased with his own talk (he is his own worst critic!), he was very impressed by their lab, research, and staff. We took Lucy for a little walk, and then brought her back before heading out to find something for supper.

We walked quite a ways, but I wasn't willing to "settle" for a crêperie again for dinner--I was hoping to find something pretty special that we could still afford. (My sister's visit earlier this month sort of poked a hole in our bank account!) We kept looking, and finally came upon a place called "Le Petit Bacchus" that was located in one of the old half-timbered medieval buildings. They had a menu that included 3 courses for less than 14 euros, so we decided to give it a try. The dining room was warmly decorated in shades of peach and beige, with white tablecloths and tea lights.

We both ordered different things off the menu (except for choosing the same dessert), and as each course came, we were wowed even more. The entrée arrived, and I could hardly believe my eyes. In front of me was a piping hot triangle of a delicious sort of quiche-like tarte thing, made with cheese and eggs, atop a salad which included mache nantaise, delicate vinaigrette, more balsamic vinegar around the plate, sliced grapes, sliced cherry tomatoes, chives, carrots, and various other vegetables--but it was presented so beautifully, it looked like those dishes you see on the food network that are so pretty you are afraid to touch them. Gorgeous, and delicious! Dr. B had a Chevre Chaud (hot goat cheese) salad, with crispy toast and home-smoked lardons, plus an assortment of veggies and salad. Though it was probably terribly gauche, we shared forkfulls across the table.

Next came the plat, or main dish. I had chosen the fish (merlu I think?) and it was displayed in a similar manner, with the piece folded to form a square, and layered atop more fresh vegetables, with a sweet pepper chutney-type thing, asparagus, thinly-sliced zucchini and eggplant, and balanced atop a bed of saffron rice. Every bite held new flavors--my only complaint was that the fish wasn't boned as well as I would have liked. Dr. B had "Choucroute aux Fruits de Mer avec sauce Beurre Blanc"--sourkraut with smoked salmon, roasted salmon and merlu, topped with a delicate butter sauce. It was absolutely delicious, and arrived in its own copper pot. The smoked salmon was a bit too smokey, but the sourkraut itself was divine (yes! sourkraut--divine!!!), and the sauce made it just that much better.

Dessert for both of us was "Gateau Nantais", which was a sort of dense butter cake, soaked in some sort of liqueur. It was arranged beautifully on the plate with crème anglaise (english cream sauce--like melted vanilla ice cream, essentially), red-fruit coulis, mango (?) coulis, strawberries, some weird little orange fruit that looked like a cherry tomato, but tasted really different and good and I have no idea what it was (it had long, spikey dried leaves attached). There was also a shot-glass sized pot de crème au chocolat with whipped creme flavored with something (pistachio? it was green) and fresh mint. It took all of the self-control I could muster not to lick the plate.

During dinner, we drank a local white wine that was available in 1/2 bottles, and afterwards enjoyed coffee before heading back to the hotel. Dr. B said a little prayer over his cup (please, please, don't let them have ruined a perfect meal with bad coffee) and was happy when the coffee turned out to be excellent and strong.

The whole meal, which closely resembled the meal eaten in the movie "Le Divorce", only cost us about 40 euros, unlike the several thousand they paid in the movie. We were absolutely overjoyed, and discussed moving to Nantes or buying an apartment here to visit when we live back in the US as we headed back to the room to pick up Lucy for a stroll along the Erdre river. (Yeah, the meal was that good.)

We both fell into bed, exhausted, looking forward to a day of sight-seeing on Friday.



At 5:11 PM, April 01, 2006, Blogger Chelee said...

Oh thanks for all the detail. I felt like I was peering over your shoulder at that meal.

At 2:15 AM, June 12, 2006, Blogger Elizabeth said...

This is wonderful!
I am going to be an exchange student in Nantes this coming school year, and any information I cant find is fantastic! Especially because I am a Minnesota Native and I know I can trust another midwestern girl ;)


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