Thursday, June 21, 2012

Really Wrapping It Up - Trees and Other Good Things

We've put the prettiest of our photos in a gallery of best shots. Here are just a few final thoughts on what we saw.


Paris: We liked it, but didn't fall in love with it. Partly it was the crowds: even in shoulder season the famous parts are just crammed with tourists from noon on. Cannot imagine what it would be like on a hot July day. Our advice: get to anything famous before it opens; see that one thing in relative comfort; spend the rest of the day in a park or in a café. (Or better still, a café in a park, as found in the Tuileries and Place des Vosges.)

The central part is for the most part bright, clean and walkable, and with lots of trees (see below). Some streets are lined with unbroken rows of identical six-story stone buildings and these can seem forbidding—especially with no sun. The suburbs, as seen from trains going in and out, get a bit sketchy with heavy graffiti and dingy streets, but no more so than any other metropolis.

We found no trace whatever of arrogance or hostility in the French who meet the public. On the contrary, every single clerk or waiter was at least polite, and often graciously helpful. This could be because we knew the magic words: the cheery Bonjour Madame/Messieur the moment you meet their eyes. They always respond with a musical (descending major chord) Bonjour, Messieur'dame and everything is fine from there on.

Our accents improved steadily and we could measure our progress by waiters' reactions.

First week: David: Un café crême. Server: Un... David: Un café crême. Server: ah, café crême, d'accord.

Second week: David: Un café crême. Server: Un café crême? David: Oui. Server: d'accord.

Third week: David: Un café crême. Server: Oui. Et pour Madame?

It was a big achievement when the waiter did not feel a need to echo your order back for confirmation.

Other Towns

Marian booked this tour into nine (9!) towns besides Paris. Of these, our favorites, worth recommending to other tourists, would be Dinan, Bayeux and Nantes. Dinan was just a fun place to walk around, with its medieval walled center; we also had the best meal of the trip at the "Fleur de Sel". Bayeux is centered on a gorgeous cathedral, but has the tapestry and is a convenient base for the whole D-Day thing. Nantes is not the prettiest place, but we enjoyed the treasure hunt for Estuary Art, and it has the amazing Brasserie La Cigale (not to be confused with a completely different place in Paris), the amazing Elephant (when it's working) and it's a good base for countryside and coast trips.

The Countryside

France is a big country (largest country in the European Union, twice the area of Texas) and this trip covered one small corner of it, the regions of Normandy and Brittany. But here are our strongest impressions of that corner:

  • Trees!
  • Green!
  • Tiny roads!
  • More trees! and Greener!

We thought New Zealand was green. Normandy and Brittany in the spring are even more saturated with shades of green. New Zealand stays ahead in the scenery race because it mixes in snowy mountains. France is definitely altitude-challenged. The hills of the Coast Range back of Palo Alto would qualify as a major mountain chain in France. But goodness, was it green.

The other thing: trees. The French love trees. They plant them (we saw new tree plantings at Mont St. Michel, in Tuileries, and in Nantes) and once they're grown, they prune them into amazing shapes. They line all their major streets with trees; they plant straight lines of trees across the countryside and along any lane. The trees grow to amazing sizes. Every day we'd be stunned by the size of a chestnut or a lime or something we couldn't identify.

The tiny roads thing could have been a problem without the GPS. There seemed to be a lot more of these little tertiary roads than there were in Germany. Every village has a snarl of tiny streets and between villages is a spiderweb of ten-foot-wide paved lanes. With the GPS, this was just an amusing adventure. "Oh look, she's guiding us between a farmhouse and its barn, how interesting." Anyway, these roads are maintained beautifully. Just as in Germany, if we saw a pot-hole it was worth a comment.

Trees, trees in hundreds of shades of green, and cute little villages connected by a web of tiny roads. That's the lasting impression of Brittany and Normandy for us.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Wrapping it up 3 - French Restaurant Experience

Ah, France, where Julia Child and so many others learned to cook, where the very idea that eating could be an art was invented (by Brillat-Savarin).

We did have several excellent restaurant meals in France: perfectly cooked, beautifully presented. But our day-to-day search for calories brought a lot of irritation with it, too. France is where you cannot buy lunch before 12 or after 2pm, or find breakfast on a Sunday before 9am. And where you should never go into a restaurant for supper unless your schedule allows at least 90 minutes for your meal, and it's a struggle to keep it that short. But hold the complaints while we talk about something consistently good, breakfast.

The Universal petit déjeuner

Go for breakfast in an American restaurant and you'll choose from a multi-page menu; in England, from a variety of yummy-greasy fried foods (fried bread, num!); in Germany from a spread of breads, cheeses and sliced meats. But in France, there is just petit déjeuner, which is:

  • Coffee (espresso) with zero, a little bit, or a lot of hot milk (café, café crême, or café au lait respectively),
  • A deliciously buttery and flaky croissant,
  • Orange juice, at additional cost,
  • Outside Paris, a 10-inch chunk of baguette in a basket with butter and jam packets

Petit déjeuner is available at many cafés, although rarely before 8am, often not until 9am, and "never on Sunday" or at least, darn hard to find on Sunday. But when you can find it, it's economical, ranging from €8 ($11) in Paris to as low as €4 ($5.50) in Nantes. It's good, and it's filling: even the Parisian version with only the croissant stuck with us until lunchtime.

And when you can't find a café, there'll be a bar that will provide the coffee and may suggest that you provide your own croissant from a nearby boulangerie.

Light Meals and Snacks

On many days we ate lunch in the car. We kept the trunk of the Renault stocked with cheese and sausage and water and soda. Find a boulanger and buy a loaf or baguette for €1.50, maybe some fruit if we saw a market, and stop by the side of the road and picnic. But some days that wasn't possible and we had to find a lunch place.

In any American town, if you find yourself in need of some calories, it's easy to find a quick snack or a light lunch. Macdonald's and Arby's and Applebees are everywhere, serving around the clock or at least, sunup to sundown. In France, the universal quick meal is some form of the crêpe, served in a crêperie (or in Paris, from a street vendor). A crêperie can be found near the center of any town, from a large village on up. There's a square in the center of Quimper where there are five of them.

The basic item is a single large crêpe. It's laid on a plate and some kind of stuff is put on it, then it's folded artistically toward the center of the plate and served. The menu will have a long list of different kinds of stuff: sweet stuff—from the basic sugar sprinkle (crêpe au sucre) or a drizzle of caramel or Grand Marnier, or a glob of ice cream; and savory stuff—egg, ham, cheese, a scoop of cooked mushrooms.

When the crêpe is made with buckwheat flour it is called a galette, at least, in Normandy and Brittany. It's a darker brown and a little crunchy around the edges. A savory galette is often served with a bit of green salad on top.

One crêpe costs from €2 to €6 depending on the stuff. We ate a lot of crêpe luncheons, some crêpe suppers as well and an occasional crêpe afternoon snack.

In the larger towns you can usually find a place selling sandwiches, Italian style panini, to go; or a place that sells pizza or hamburgers; or a McDonalds (we never got that desperate for calories).

We were happy to have a good boulangerie near us in Nantes where we could buy a sandwich or a packaged salad to go. But out in the small towns a crêperie is about the only choice for a simple—and a delicious—lunch.

In any size town, at almost any time of the day, you can find a boulangerie that sells delicious bread and scrumptious pastries and a brasserie that serves boissons (drinks)—hot or cold, alcoholic or not.

Restaurant Meals

OK, it's the end of a long day of touristing and you want a proper meal. In any sizable town there will be several restaurants, and you wander through the middle of town going one restaurant to the next, reading the menus that they all post on the street, as well as the chalkboards where most of them will post what is fresh or different today. You pick one that's serving things you like at prices you accept and go in. Smile and say a bright bonjour, madame! or bonjour, messieur! to the server who looks inquiringly at you and add Deux, pour manger (Two of us lookin' to eat) and you get seated and get handed what we call the menu. But it's la carte because menu means something else.

All restaurants offer one or more menus, set three-course meals at a fixed price. Each menu lists a choice of a few entrées (starters), a choice of a few plats (main courses), and a choice of desserts, for a flat price. The cheapest menu we noticed was €14; €17 and €20 menus were common, and at the high end you can pay €50 and more.

If you don't feel like eating three courses (and we often didn't), you find that all the same entrées, plats and desserts are also on la carte with individual prices. So you tell the waiter you like to order a la carte, perhaps the entrée of the salade niçoise and the dessert of fondant chocolat. This is perfectly acceptable; however, if you do the arithmetic you find that the menu is the best deal. Three individual components out of the €20 menu, ordered a la carte, will add up to more than €20, often quite a bit more. Also, sometimes there are arcane and unstated rules about which items you can order. More than once we ordered something a la carte and were told we couldn't have it—it was only on the menu.

Restaurant suppers were generally good and sometimes very good indeed. The drawbacks? Too many calories, and especially, too much time.

It's an important principle of French life that you never hurry a meal or a drink. Once you are seated anywhere, you are free to occupy that chair as long as you like, right up to closing time if you want. The staff will never do anything to hurry you. Since this is the rule, meals are paced very, very slowly.

After you've placed your order, there'll be a wait. The entrée will come, and you'll eat it and after a while, that plate will be taken away. And after a while the main course will arrive. When you've disposed of that, there'll be another pause before the dessert arrives. And when you are done with that, the plate will be taken away and that's the last you'll see of the waiter. They won't bring the bill; you have to catch their attention and ask for it. You can be holding your credit card when you ask; they still won't bring the credit card machine until after they've brought the actual bill and you've had a chance to read it.

To go into a restaurant, order, consume, and pay for a three-course menu will take at least 90 minutes, more often two hours, sometimes longer. Now, mind you, the restaurants don't even start serving supper until after 7pm, and if you go in at 7:30 you will likely be the only clients until after 8. So you don't eat until 7:30 or so and you don't get back to your hotel until 9 or later.

OK, no big problem, you're on vacation, so what? Well, so what is if you also want to pick the keepers of the 75-100 pictures you took today, and write a blog post, and get a few minutes to read or relax, and still get to bed before midnight. The formal restaurant meal just took too big a chunk of our day, and we avoided them when we could.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Wrapping it up 2 - Our "Chipper" Credit Card

For years we've been hearing how European credit cards have a "chip" and operate with a PIN, while U.S. credit card systems have refused to change away from the mag-stripe card. We saw the chip/PIN setup in New Zealand, although our U.S. cards were accepted there. But we knew that in France, vending machines and possibly other places would not accept the U.S. style card. What to do?

Fortunately, this year Chase began offering a Hyatt card with a chip that European machines can read. It also has some other benefits for travelling, notably it does not charge a fee for a transaction in a non-U.S. currency, as most other cards do. So we signed up for one and can report that it works very well.

The first big test was on arrival day when we used the Hyatt card to buy train tickets from a vending machine at the airport. It worked without a hitch, and we were off. It worked smoothly buying tickets at vending machines in the Paris Metro, and for bus tickets in Nantes; and in gas stations and grocery stores. Every restaurant in France uses the same little card reader. When the waiter sees you want to pay by card, he brings the little machine to the table, sticks your card in, keys in the total bill amount, and in a few seconds the receipt prints out and you're done. The Hyatt card worked in all these cases.

There is one difference. European bank cards have the PIN encoded in the chip. After inserting the card in the machine, you key in your PIN, and it's verified from data on the card without an internet access.

The Hyatt card does not have a PIN; it is a so-called "chip-and-signature" card. What this means is that the waiter's little machine in the restaurant can't authorize locally. It has to make an internet call to the card provider to get the OK. It does that and after a few seconds, Autorisé appears on the screen. Then it machine prints two receipts and you have to sign one.

Some of the restaurant card readers couldn't handle this. The waiter would have to take it back to his desk and stick it in a dock so it could do the internet thing. At other restaurants the portable card reader was (presumably) wifi-enabled and could get the authorization at the table.

Having to wait the extra 10 seconds while the card authorizes, and having to sign, are minor inconveniences. We'd prefer a chip-and-PIN card, but this one certainly worked. And it saved us a ton on currency conversion fees.

By the way, our bank, the Stanford Federal Credit Union, does not charge a conversion fee on ATM withdrawals in non-U.S. currencies, either. It was converting our €200 withdrawals at the going conversion rate for Euros, with no extra percentage added on. So that was good.

Wrapping It Up 1 - Cars and Driving

Driving Miss Clio

The Renault Clio is a fine little car, similar in size and amenities to the Toyota Yaris, a little larger than the VW Polo. It suited our needs well. There was plenty of room for our luggage when traveling between hotels, and lots of back-seat space for coats, hats, umbrellas and other stuff we carried every day.

We drove Clio a total of 4300 kilometers (2670 miles) in five weeks, mostly two-lane and smaller roads. We checked the mileage on only one tank of diesel but for that tank, she got 4.8L per 100K. That figures out to a bit over 45mpg.

Our trip would have been nearly impossible with the Garmin (the portable GPS that we borrowed from Bill). This is a sample 10-mile square from our Michelin road map:

How to get from here to there is not readily apparent, to say the least. To make matters worse, road signs seldom included distances. A sign would mark the direction to Rochefort-en-Terre, for example, but not that it was 20 km away. By the time the navigator (Marian) found Rochefort-en-Terre on the map and discovered that we didn't want to go that way, we were halfway there. Driving in towns was even more confusing. No town or city that we encountered (except Paris) had anything that even vaguely resembled a grid system ‐ no cow paths had been replaced or straightened before they were paved. And most of the streets were one-way (a good thing, considering their width). But Penelope, our Garmin, always got us to our intended destination, although a good part of her conversation was, "Recalculating."

The roads we used (because Penelope seemed to prefer them) were often tiny, lacking a center line, just wide enough for two cars. You need to know where your right wheels are, so when there's an oncoming car you can safely get that reassuring tickerty-tickerty noise of the tall grass hitting the side mirror. Even so, there's always that moment of panic when you think maybe this time the two driver's-side mirrors are going to slap together with a spray of glass and plastic. But no, it never happened.

We didn't put a scratch on Clio, and there were only a couple of scares, and we only got honked at once. Some of the credit for that record goes to David's (usually) alert and conservative driving. But a lot of credit has to be given to the French drivers, who are universally alert, polite, and generous. Only a few times did we see aggressive driving and that was almost always by somebody in a german-made car. Go figure.

Especially in cities and towns, the French use lots and lots of roundabouts. We love roundabouts! Why? Because they eliminate left turns! With a roundabout, you never have to stop and wait and make a left in front of oncoming cars. You just slide into the roundabout, go around until your exit comes up, and exit. Nothing but right turns, ever. So easy; so safe.

The only driving-related problem was parking: where to put the car safely and legally in order to take a picture, get a snack, or for the night, was often a stressful issue. It got so our routine joke was, on seeing any parking lot with spaces, "Quick, let's park!"

Along the Breton coast we saw a lot of rental camping vehicles and these beasts are every bit as large as the rental RVs on American roads. But in France the roads are a lot smaller and the parking a lot scarcer. We would never, ever take a camping vehicle into France. Much better to have a small car and use hotels or hostels.


Friday, June 8, 2012

Cherchez L'Éléphant

In the morning we had breakfast for the third and last time at the nice place two blocks away from our hotel. The waitress recognized us and knew what we wanted for our petit dejeuner.

Then we emptied all of the stuff out of Clio that had accumulated in her in five weeks of daily use. When we were quite sure nothing was left behind (pro tip: check under the seats with a flashlight) we drove her to the EuropeCar office, only a few blocks away, and turned her in. Oddly, they didn't want to charge our credit card now. After finding we didn't have a fax number, they said they would send the bill in email. Strange, but if they can wait for their €1100, that's OK with us.

Then we got an all-day bus pass at a tram stop and set off down the length of the Île de Nantes on the trail of some more Estuary Art and the famous Machines de L'Île.

The Île de Nantes (eel duh nont) is an island in the Loire river about 3 kilometers long and 1 wide. Once the industrial armpit of the city with docks, factories and a large shipbuilding operation, it is now being converted into housing and recreation space.

Two huge cranes are relics of industrial times. Both have been declared historic monuments and left as giant abstract sculptures.

The Big Grey Crane at the west end of the Île.

Its load now is a kayak acting as a kind of weathervane sculpture.

The Big Yellow Crane can be seen from miles away as you approach Nantes.

The Westernmost art object on the Île (next to the Big Gray Crane) is "The Rings" (Les Annulaires) by Daniel Bouran and Patrick Bouchaine. It consists of eighteen metal rings, 3 or more meters in diameter, in a line along the waterfront. At night each is lit by neon embedded in the rim – all different colors. We're sorry we never had a chance to see them lit up. But you know, it isn't dark until after 10pm around here.

Rings looking east. Just looking through one ring makes things look different, like a frame.

Rings looking west. At this end you can almost get in line with them.

We had now reached the huge warehouse occupied by the art cooperative called Machines de l'Île.

Their metier is making big, organic-looking, moving animals, the best-known of which is L'Éléphant.

News photo of L'Éléphant walking around Île de Nantes in 2009.

Taking a ride on L'Éléphant was one of the first things Marian put in her plan, months ago, and finally here we were.

Elephantine disappointment!

All we could do was look at L'Éléphant atanding outside the Machines de l'Île workshop.

Overview of (nonfunctional) elephant.

Side view of (nonfunctional) elephant.

Un Bricoleur works on L'Éléphant.

Turns out that Machines de L'Île isn't only about L'Éléphant. They are completing a new project, the Marine World Carousel. It will have creatures to ride on three levels, all somewhat eerie moving sea beasts.

Carousel is to open July 15th this year.

Here is one of the smaller animals that will be placed within the Carousel.

Click through to see how you sit high up on the fish's back.

The Carrousel du Mond Marin is going to be spectacular but it is dwarfed by the planned project, the Heron Tree. So far the Heron Tree exists as concept art and partial prototypes only. If it is completed, it will be worth making a trip to France just to see it. Forget the Eiffel tower. Here is an early conceptual model of the Heron Tree.

It would be huge, 37 meters high (say, 10 stories?), with many of the branches walkable, and a giant heron flying above, carrying people in baskets. Here is a later design model.

Click through to get some idea of the details of this.

Some pieces exist. Here is the Heron that will fly above.

There's an operator seat and two passenger baskets.

Heron's wing articulation.

Heron's head. These people do nice work.

Look back at the detailed design model above. Notice the inchworm?

Prototype rideable inchworm.

The idea is the rider hauls on a lever to make it "inch" along the tree.

Like most tropical trees this one would have ants crawling up the trunk.

David didn't think the leg action was at all realistic.

The Heron Tree itself currently exists as a single prototype branch that you can climb.

Look again at the model and try to imagine the whole tree with 39 of these limbs.

The branch is lined with vegetation in containers, which they admit to having had some problems keeping alive.

It feels quite safe but gives a sense of being suspended in air.


Prototype branch with Big Yellow Crane and Carousel beyond.

By now it was 2pm and with some difficulty we found some kind of lunch, then went on to look for more Estuary art, although the Machines de L'Île is a hard act to follow.

Rolf Julius, "Air" wraps a building in perforated strips, plays quiet plinking noises for you if you stand under the eaves.

Van Lieshout, "The Absence," outside the School of Architecture, is a sculpture, a bar and perhaps a commentary on modern architecture.

Fabrice Hyber's "L'Île Flottant" is new for this season of Estuary art. It's a group of small boats growing trees, moored in a canal.


Across from L'Île Flottant, someone has created a series of figures using plastic packing tape built up on old iron bollards.



We took the tram downtown for tea at La Cigale (we'll let its own website show you how cool it is). But while waiting for the return tram we noticed something going on in a skinny alley between two buildings.

We presume this is art-related?

If not, somebody's got a big mess to clean up.

And that, as they say, is a wrap. Gotta go pack.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Motor Museum, Gacilly, Rochefort

Did three quiet things today. We had a late start, owing to have to do a mega-post to the blog from yesterday, but that turned out for the best as the weather started horrible and steadily improved all day. We drove to the town of Loheac to visit the Musée de l'Automobile, which Marian kindly included in the plan as a "guy thing" for David.

It proved to be a large museum with strong collections of the major European makes, especially of course the French ones, and lots of competition cars.

The 1899 De Dion Bouton is the oldest in the collection.

1936 Peugeot Eclipse, note the headlights behind the grill.

Twenty formula-one cars lined up as if to start a race.

After a good browse and a good lunch at the local crêperie, we went on to the town of Gacilly, where we hoped to visit the studio of the sculptor Jean Lemonnier, whose work we had much admired at the nautical museum in Paimpol. The town turned out to be a pleasant surprise; it is full of artist studios. A photographer had a big outdoor exhibit going, but there were also studios of painters, potters, glass-blowers etc, all arranged along an inviting little alley.

Weir on the river Aff; large wall of photos in the left background.

Inviting alley of studios.

Unfortunately Lemonnier's studio was closed. No indication of why or for how long.

Marian checks it out.

At least we could see a few price tags on objects in the window, which told us that he was out of our league for shopping, at least for now. The little bronze bird in the middle, top shelf? €4000. We did enjoy his Fontaine aux Oiseaux in the village square, though.


Lastly we drove a few kilometers to the town of Rochefort-en-Terre, because it was supposed to be charming and had a view from the local Château. It was charming, if a bit over-touristed (for some reason, an awful lot of English-speakers roaming the streets here).


Central Rochefort

The Château did not provide any good views, contra the guidebook, but it had some pretty features anyway.

Pretty alley of trees.

An old wall that showed several different eras of building and remodeling.

Rose climbing on old stone wall.

Sipping café cremes we agreed that we were both good and ready for this trip to be over. Tomorrow we turn in our faithful Clio, then do a little more estuary-art hunting using public transit. We might or might not have time to blog the result of that.

At 6am Saturday our train leaves Nantes for CDG. We might or might not have time to post something from the airport. Ten hours later, but still Saturday, we'll be at SFO.

Early next week we'll post a bit of wrap-up commentary about Brittany, Normandy, and France in general. Thank you all for following along, it has increased our pleasure to know that other people are enjoying it with us.

Treasure Hunt on the Loire, Part Trois

We left St-Nazare to find Tadashi Kawamata's "The Observatory." All we knew about it was that it was a considerable walk from the nearest road. We started walking toward it.

"The Observatory" is far out in a marsh.

Much of the 20-minute walk was over a well-made boardwalk through reed beds.

We admired the reeds which were head-high and rustled in the wind.

A few people preceded us.

That was it: a well-made observation platform about 10 meters high on the shore of the estuary, for appreciating the surrounding countryside and, "looking for art in the movements of daily life."

One thing visible from the Observatory was the Cordemais power station, and beside it to the left, the next Estuary Art work on our list.

The little red and white stump to the lower left?

So after a 20-minute walk back to the car we went over there to see Nishi Tatzu's "Chimney House," a work that echos—or perhaps mocks—the chimneys of the huge coal-burning power plant behind it.

Whose house sits in the fumes?

"Chimney House" is cute as the dickens, and invites you to think about the relation between the power plant and your domestic life. But we can't find out how they made it. Was it built from scratch, or did the artist repurpose an existing tank or what? Well, never mind. It's cute and thought-provoking.

Plus, you can rent the little house, €99/night!

By now it was past 6pm. In order to have time for the pictures and blog, we bought sandwiches at a nearby boulanger and ate dinner in our hotel room. Another biggish day tomorrow.