Rennes, Nantes, Rennes, Nantes

What a treat to open the door to our garden first thing this morning, comme d’habitude, and feel an unfamiliar blast of bracing air. This is end of summer weather in Brittany, and, after a season in which I’d thought I’d never feel cold again, I was close to elated.

It also gave us an excuse to putt around the apartment rather than throw ourselves outside to accomplish something, anything.

We’ve spent some time exploring Nantes, which Bretons will tell you is really a Loire-Atlantique city. Officially, that is not true, but you do sense a cultural difference. It has throughout its history been a vital port with links to the world, and for that reason lacks the insularity common to other parts of Brittany. It’s bigger, more sophisticated. Its monuments are massive in scale and achievement. Leading artists are more apt to visit it than Rennes. We visited a James Turrell show at the art museum. You can spend hours, and breakfast, lunch and dinner, at the vast, delightful and grandly conceived Jardin des Plantes.

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Rennes and Nantes are both among Brittany’s leading cities, however, and engines of growth in one of the few regions of France to have added employment in the last decade.  Citroën was founded in Rennes, and provides an automobile tech sector that is growing, among other industry sectors. Rennes is one of France’s economic centers for telecom and electronics. Urban investment is expanding the train station to double the number of passengers and the neighborhood of the Gare is a scene of major development projects.

New housing includes this snazzy number by “starchitect” Jean Nouvel.

Nantes is growing rapidly in population, economic terms and creative enterprises. New architectural projects and other urban investments are drawing all kinds of creative and entrepreneurial talent from Paris and other parts of France, to a city that is already high on the list for livability, affordability and beauty.

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The city has its own term for start-ups: les audacieux. I would apply that term to both cities in general, for the direction they are giving these cities of the future. It would not be a mistake to live in either of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Les marchés de Rennes (the markets)

Americans love the European markets. And we’re no exception. Although Portland’s Farmers Markets, at which we were regular participants, are just as good there’s a longer tradition here, as is the case with almost anything of course. And you know who else loves the markets? The locals! I enjoy the happy din of people buying wonderful food as much as the selection of super fresh and tasty weekly groceries.

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The Marché des Lices in Rennes, the first of several we visited in the city, has stood in the same spot for 400 years. The architecture of Les Halles, the market hall, is more recent but proudly utilitarian and functional while also being beautiful, made of brick, iron and glass.

florist at Rennes Market

Les Lices is a weekly Saturday market, and we can’t pass up the sheep’s milk ricotta, spit-roasted chicken, brioche loaf, figs, peaches and the huge lettuces for little more than one euro each that are so fresh they hardly age over a week’s time.

woman seller and woman smoker, rennes

There is an organic market on Thursdays on Place Hoche, I have heard, and a Wednesday market in our district, the Ste. Thérèse which is actually too far from our house to bother. There are others.

And today, on a tip from friends Ruth and John, we made a delightful stop at the daily Les Halles Centrales market at La Criée.

market vendor in doorway

We left with some tangy goat farmer’s cheese, a sweet-smelling melon, a few galettes (buckwheat crepes) for me to experiment with, and a kilo of fresh Breton mussels that carried a whiff of sea on them, which became lunch. You’ll have to take my word for it, they were soft and delicious.

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The seafood stands at these Breton markets are fascinating. I didn’t realize there were so many edible types of snails and barnacles.

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We have frequented the markets in Nice, France and I have to say from what we’ve seen so far, Breton markets can top them for variety. But — it’s all goodness.

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Photography

A few years ago, somewhere, I discovered the Breton photographer Guy Le Querrec. I was smitten. Splendidly observed for telling gesture and detail, often catching people being human in humorous ways, his photographs can be visited again and again.

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So I was delighted that in walking distance from our rental apartment, there was a large exhibition of his works. Among his most impressive, ironically, are those taken on the Sioux reservation in South Dakota. They are mesmerizing.  They reminded me of a film I’ve recently seen, “The Rider.” Not because of the similarity of content, but because both were made on a US Indian reservation by foreigners who were able to capture something magical that might elude natives or non-native Americans.

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There is a lot of photography to be seen in an hour’s drive radius from Rennes. Last week we dropped into the picturesque town of La Gacilly which for 15 years has mounted a summer outdoor photography festival. There are hundreds of photographs, some enlarged to a massive scale, posted through the streets and alleys, and large field – turned – gallery where multiple artists’ projects are exhibited. For hours, I was in heaven.

Among the very impressive works was that of Mathieu Ricard, France’s most famous Buddhist monk.

La Gacilly photo exhibition, Brittany

His photographs will stay with me a long while. Humbling, humbling stuff.

Next up: the Doisneau show in Dinard.

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Castles

There are 35 chateaux close enough to Rennes to see two or three in a single day trip. Over the final two days in possession of our rental car, we knocked off four: Josselin, Chateaugiron, Vitré and Bois Orcan. My favorite of the four, Josselin, today literally towers over a canal where barges idly cruise by.

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The castles are the stuff of fairy tales. In fact, they brought to my mind the French fairy tale book I read over and again as a child, which neglected with the usual Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Puss in Boots stories in favor of the pure medieval fables that never became Disney and ballet favorites. I’ve never gotten over the loss of that book, and can’t even remember its title, to my everlasting chagrin.

The plaques describing the histories of the chateaux referenced the regular slaughters of the middle ages. How could Charles Perrault and the other fairy tale authors from the period have conjured up such an alternative, romantic world of chivalrous and heroic knights, and virtuous ladies?

Fittingly, at Vitré the World War I memorial is placed just before the gate to the castle. The slaughters aren’t just a thing of the distant past.

wwI memorial, Vitré, Brittany

Many of the castles are still lived-in, presumably by descendants of the Dukes and Princes who built them. Leaving Josselin in the evening, I spotted an elderly woman making her way along the cobblestones before turning towards the castle, knocking on a small door, and, soon after, walking through.

woman returning to her castle, josselin

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Escape from the heat

The whole world is burning, and France is no exception. Our first week’s temperatures in Rennes made it impossible to explore the city after about noon. The only consolation came from checking temperatures elsewhere in France, where they were even higher with more humidity. We lucked out this time, it appeared.

So we sprung for a car rental and hit the famous Brittany coast. We can reach the coast in about an hour from Rennes, but we wanted to go further so one day we went along the Emerald Coast to Cap Fréhel in the north and the next to Carnac and the Golfe de Morbihan in the south.

Carnac beach, Brittany

These places deserve their vaunted reputations. Gorgeous beaches, picturesque hamlets and a laid back vibe gave me fantasies of settling in for the summer months. Also: crispy buckwheat galettes and aromatic cider (I returned to Rennes with a case bought from an apple farm)! We were surprised to see so much heather.

Cap Fréhel view Brittany

The thick morning mist, ocean breezes and more moderate heat made for a delightful respite as well. Too bad car rentals are so expensive in Europe as we’d have liked to explore these areas for longer.

Cap Fréhel, Brittany and heather

So, yeah, if we do settle in Nice, we probably escape the terrible summer heat there with a summer rental somewhere on the Breton coast.

 

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Settling into Rennes, France

We are staying in a lovely, tranquil neighborhood of stone Breton houses. The roofs are quite pitched, and they are made of exquisite coal-colored tiles. From the airplane window they seemed to belong to a French fairy tale film set.

rennes neighborhood house

Our first day was dealing with the first steps of a bureaucratic process that starts once you arrive in France to establish residency.  Any France expat web site will tell you what is involved. Then we walked until we hurt taking in the city center. Today, our second full day here, we met friends in the parc du Thabor and heard about their experiences in getting settled (easy), before making our way back to our garden apartment to escape the heat of the day.

The city is clean and quite attractive. The  parks are large and spacious, the architecture — spanning medieval to modern day — is impressive, and the public transportation is fantastic, encompassing a great system of buses and a wee efficient underground. (The Socialist Mayor believes in urban investment.) Of course you can walk everywhere if so inclined.

Rennes street scene

Europe is having an awful heat wave, with temperatures higher than ever recorded, up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 F) in parts of Spain and Portugal.  It’s hotter than “normal” in Brittany, too, but the temps are still below 100 F and the air is dry. There’s a breeze. At night we are cool and can easily sleep. Compare that with how the heat wave has impacted another French city we love, Nice, where it’s a humid 84 F at 11pm and blazing hot by 7am. Luckily, the heat wave is supposed to break in a few days. In any case, Brittany seems like the right place to spend a summer.

 

 

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I will miss Portland

portlandI am very excited to be leaving for France. My head is filled with thoughts and images of what I will see and do. That’s not to say that I won’t miss many things about Portland, my  beautiful and nurturing home for the last 24 years.  They are innumerable. But here are just a few:

the lack of pretension. Portlanders have a sophisticated nose for authenticity. Don’t try to get around without it. Just be yourself.

the neighborhoods of old craft houses. Yes, 3000 houses have been demolished to make way for apartments (we have an affordable housing crisis and people are still moving here in droves), but the character of the Northwest Hills and East Side neighborhoods is still defined by leafy streets, flower-filled gardens and early to mid-century 20th century homes;

the east side areas of pubs and vintage shops that populate formerly industrial areas (see  pic above) with all their midcentury color and low-rise architecture;

the evergreen trees. They are really old. The are tall. They provide shade in summer, and a gentle beauty in winter. Forest Park is an urban haven for hikers and joggers (and some people end up living there). The Columbia River Gorge, the Coastal Range and Mt. Hood are close by for hikes. Beyond are even more forest-bathing possibilities;

the Asian and Mexican eateries of Beaverton and the Jade District. Summer means sweet corn tamales from a tienda on the East Side. On a cold rainy day, nothing beats the dumpling soup at Nak Won;

the joie de vivre. I see that expressed in the din of wine bars and craft brew pubs, the crowds at Feast, in how much people like to eat, drink and party, and see it in the regular murals festivals, the ribald naked bike ride, the desire in Portlanders’ DNA to break new ground in the way things get done.  See: tiny houses, pot, Tom McCall.

I won’t go over all of Portland’s problems, those that have surfaced as the city evolves into a big city from its po-dunk origins, such as an explosion of homelessness all over the city, the unattractive high rises springing up fast to create much-needed housing and the growing strain on city government and their ability to think creatively, because they aren’t any different from what’s going on nationwide. But I will miss what makes Portland special.

Of course, you could take all that and chuck it for what I will really miss, which is the friendships I’ve gained from living here. More on that later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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