26. Les Vacances

August always presents a delightful dilemma.  What to do when you don’t have to go to the office for a month?  With no students in August, this is one of the aspects about my job that is unique and wonderful.  Of course, there’s work to be done, but for the most part we’re all free to do it from wherever we want, whenever we want.

Unfortunately I don’t work in a field (or at least in a position) that is famous for salaries that can pay for 1-month vacations.  Sitting at home seemed like wasting an opportunity not to mention, boring.  So, we drove to France for a few weeks!  No, France is not cheap.  However, luck is on our side and Marianna’s sister lives in Angers, France and left us her apartment while she vacationed at home in Italy.  Had she been living in Lithuania, we probably would have gone there.  The key factor to our decision was free lodging.

Angers is a quiet town in the northwest of France.  It’s position on the Loire river made it an important trading depot since medieval times.  Once trains became the preferred mode for transporting people and goods, Angers took a backseat to larger cities closer to the coast like Bordeaux and Nantes.  The city draws mild amounts of tourism for the famous castles along the Loire and excellent wines.  The Loire valley is full of well-maintained bike trails, making Angers a popular day stop on biking vacations.

It’s possible that we are the first ever family to choose to drive from Siena, Italy to Angers, France for a multi-week holiday.  We looked at the situation as an opportunity to experience something completely unknown.  We’d be able to live the reality of life in France, if only for a few weeks.  W planned day trips to other cities and left plenty of space open for new discovery. Yes, we were tourists, but we were way off the beaten paths of mainstream tourism.  According to many in Europe, traditional tourism has become unsustainable.  Here’s a recent article about protests throughout major European tourist destinations where locals feel flooded by wave after wave of tourists .  In contrast, there are tons of wonderful places, dying to share their history and culture with the world, that are overshadowed by conventional landing places.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with seeing famous sites but if I may, I highly recommend going in the opposite direction of the masses.  Beautiful and interesting things are hiding all over the place.

Angers is easy to compare to Siena because they are similar in size, Angers being a bit larger.    Both cities are day-trips for most travelers on broader journey and both rely heavily on the preservation and display of their medieval history.  They each have very well preserved medieval, historic centers.  Siena’s medieval historic center is much larger and far better preserved.  Many don’t know that during medieval times Siena was actually somewhat of a metropolis.  It was also spared during WWII, while Angers suffered some significant damage.  This means that Angers, like so many other cities in Europe was forced to rebuild.  If you’ve read other posts then you may see that I tend to be impressed by innovation and the creative re-utilization of spaces rather than simple preservation.  Don’t get me wrong though, I don’t think that anything should be torn down in order to build shiny, new stuff, but I do believe that innovation is always possible.  While the icon of Angers is a medieval castle along the Loire river, it’s easy to see that the city has made real efforts to develop and innovate both in the city center as well as the residential outlying areas.  As visitors with a three-year-old, there was only so much biking through wine country that we could do.  We spent much of our time in a newly redeveloped area of town that has a wonderful community pool with waterslides and a huge area for kids.  Around the corner from that there’s a massive botanic garden that caters mostly to families, full of playgrounds, rides, and educational areas.  In comparison, Siena’s residential areas outside of the old city center are rather barren when it comes to culture and activities.  That may come off as negative, I see it as an opportunity.  Hint, hint to the local administration… if you’re lacking creativity for how to reuse space go to Nantes, in France.

Just an hour away from Angers towards the Atlantic Ocean lies the city of Nantes.  We spent two days in Nantes with some friends.  Much larger than Angers, Nantes became very wealthy as a trading port during various moments in history, most notably (and sadly), as a hub for the slave trade.  There is a nice, public memorial along the river to the abolition of the slave trade.  Two days after we visited Nantes, the kkk and a bunch of self-proclaimed nazi’s made recent history in the US.  Maybe we could use a few more memorials like this one.

The memorial wasn’t the thing that surprised me the most during our visit to Nantes though.  A giant, robotic (and gorgeous) elephant has become one of the dominant icons of the city.  The old, abandoned shipyard along the river has been repurposed into an attraction that is difficult to put into words.  Many of the old factory buildings have been converted into cafes, restaurants, small businesses, and apartments and they are all cool.  I would have been mildly impressed at just that but Le Machines de L’Ile featuring a robotic elephant th

at gives rides to up to 30 people at a time as it wanders though the neighborhood, interacting with bystanders by spraying water through it’s trunk… well… that was unexpected.  The elephant is just the beginning too.  You can see a massive robotic spider, a crane that carries riders in a baskets and robot bugs for kids to ride.  All of these are part of the project expected to be finished by 2022 to create a huge tree made of a metal frame so large that it will be home to actual trees as well as all of the robots.  The goal of the artists driving the project is to give visitors the opportunity to experience what it is like to be an animal or insect.  Upon seeing it,  the elephant immediately become the highlight of every three-year-old’s life to that point.   It’s hard to say though who liked it more between myself and Sean. 

New attractions may be the answer to unmanageable numbers of tourists.  What if (and I know that traditionalists will find the following words hard to read) a city like Venice had more than just the beautiful, ancient city on the water?  What if there were also some new wonders to behold in the surrounding towns?  In The Netherlands a tulip garden and a town full of traditional windmills were created to divert hoards of selfie-hunting tourists.

The sheer audacity and scope of the insane project in Nantes has restored some hope for humanity in me.  The fact that artists were able to convince a city’s administration to make giant robotic animals and a tree the size of a skyscraper to house robots that people will be able to ride upon is so impressive to me.  Nantes has a medieval castle, a bustling restaurant district, excellent locally made food and wine, and hundreds of centuries of important history.  It’s obvious that someone intelligent asked Why stop there? And another intelligent person answered with Have you got any ideas?   If you think about it, that is the same attitude that built the Eiffel Tower in Paris and long before that the Piazza del Campo in Siena. 

Robots aside, our trip to the less-flashy and less-famous France was exactly what we hoped that it would be.  Something new and interesting.  We ate cheese, met up with French friends that live in Siena, met new people, tried to speak French, got lost a few times, and learned a little bit about a small corner of the Earth.  If you’re going to France, sure, check out Paris, but I also suggest Angers, Poitiers, Clermont-Ferrand, Nantes, Moulins, Annecy and anywhere else along the road. 

Here’s an album of some pictures from our trip and a few explanations of places that I didn’t write about here.  HUGE thanks to The Chabosseau family, their friends for showing us around Poitiers and Nantes, and their neighbors that let us sleep in their basement for three nights.

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