After the spectacularly attended start of the Vendee Globe the day before, the port of Les Sables d’Olonne began returning to post pageant normalcy. Three days before a homeward bound flight, ptatlarge headed for Paris. The smaller train line from Les Sables d’Olonne to Paris switches to a main line in Nantes. Vague memories of a majestic cathedral pictured in a college history book began to tug at me. What’s the rush? The train stops. I stow my duffle bag in the well-organized train station at 10 A.M. and hit the street.
The broad boulevard that fronts the train station is dotted with small hotels and businesses. Across the boulevard is a lovely park. The city seems pocket-sized. How lost can I get? I head for higher ground up a narrow street that borders one side of the park. I know that if I keep scanning the skyline, the spires of the cathedral will lead me to its altar.
The cobblestones of the smaller streets glistened in the light autumn mist. The old architecture and lack of McDonaldry make me feel as if I’m an extra in a François Truffaut movie.
One of the best things about trying to find something in new city is that serendipity rules. In the next four hours, I’ll find that imposing cathedral and a handful of unexpected bonuses. At many intersections within the old city I feel I’m living Robert Frost’s poem 'The Road Not Taken'. In my version, if you don’t like the road you chose, you just walk back and start again. Or you keep going and wonder what’s around the next corner. What you’re looking for and what you’ll find…well, that’s all part of the adventure.
The first surprise is the Jardin des Plantes. The sprawling botanical park was the brainchild of Louis XIV in 1688. Even in November, the muted pastels of autumn are set off by several shades of dense green from evergreen, shrubbery and lawns. Shouts of children horsing around a park playground balance the serenity of the still waters of ponds that snake through the grounds.
Exit the park gate and follow a hunch to follow the sign for Musée des Beaux Arts, the Chapelle de l’Oratorio and higher ground. The Musée on the right will have to wait for another time. If I’m going to spend time indoors, it’s the cathedral I want.
Halfway down the street, the nave of the cathedral pops into sight, preceded ironically by a most worldly poster for a modern dance company performance. Got to love France. The religious and the profane within the same blink of an eye. Both will attract an audience. And perhaps some of the same one. Mon Dieu.
I feel smaller and smaller as I circumnavigate the nave to reach the façade of this magnificent structure. I push open a great oak door. I’ve entered St. Peter and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
If a peasant were born the year the first stone was laid in 1434, his lifespan probably would be less than the fifty years it took to complete the façade. The Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the French and American Revolutions and America’s Civil War passed before the last stone was laid on Christmas Day, 1891.
Daylight filters through stain glass windows in what seems a mile overhead (114 feet, to be exact). The echoes of visitor’s footsteps float like clouds amongst the massive vertical columns. I’ll spend the next hour craning my neck to appreciate the stained glass, vaulted ceilings, the small chapels in its nooks, and those massive pillars that support the immense cathedral.
My major goal fulfilled, I hit the street again. The square in front of the cathedral is quietly commercial. The locals drive by without looking up. The ancient cathedral is as much part of the landscape as the gray November sky overhead. Time to head back to the train station but not in a direct line. Narrow cobbled streets, spokes from the hub the cathedral represents, point in all directions. Deep breath… how about that one?
Five minutes later another ancient vision appears at the end of a narrow street - The Castle of the Dukes of Brittany - an ancient fortress dating back to 1499, recently restored. And another feast for a tourist. Moats, drawbridge, parapets, sculpted facades, watchtowers, spires, and bell tower. Perfect for a production of Cyrano de Bergerac (which it was) and destination for loads of students and their teachers.
My zig zaggy route back to the train station passes park fountains, hotels, and small businesses. And, mais oui, one sex shop.
I find my way back just in time to catch the 2 pm train to Paris.
While I’m typing away for this story, I research Nantes. A four-hour assessment has its limitations. Pocket sized city - Not. Try 270,251 according to a 1999 census, behind Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse and Nice.
This city on the Loire River been around since before Julius Caesar referred to it in Commentarii de Bello Gallico, the translation of which Ms. Conlon drilled into me in ninth grade Latin class.
In 2004, Time magazine described Nantes as "the most livable city in all of Europe.” I would return in a heartbeat.
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