Driving through the French countryside on our way to Vannes the feeling was of space. The fields here have no hedges or obvious fences, many have ditches along the road edges often filled with bracken and wild flowers, but the best sight was a field of sunflowers. There appeared to be lots of trees along the field edges and also many areas of woodland, really good for wildlife and birds. Fields of maize seemed to be everywhere waiting to be harvested, other fields already green with new crops and huge tractors busy preparing land for re-seeding. We settled in an area about 2 miles south of Vannes with tidal lagoons all around, gulls, egrets and a solitary spoonbill, it was a pretty area with small boats and a couple of bars.
Walking into Vanne using the dedicated pathways between cycle paths and roads, we eventually turned alongside the waterway ‘La Marle’ arriving at the quayside in the city after an hour and sat in the sun with a coffee watching the boats bobbing on the water. We had already picked up a tourist map and set off on a self guided tour of the ‘old town’ area, heading through the Town Gate St Vincent Ferries. It was built of stone with an archway that has three levels, smaller niches either side of a Coat of Arms and a statue of Saint Vincent at the top.
Luck was with us as we discovered it was market day, brightly coloured stalls of flowers, fruit and vegetables, nuts, herbs, mushrooms and much more besides. The whole place was buzzing with sights and smells, activity and voices, what a lovely atmosphere.
We also found a separate fish market bustling with activity, lobsters, shellfish, prawns and fish of every shape and size. It was such a shame we were not buying as we would have had to carry any purchases around all day. Great colour on that mackerel skin!
A large proportion of the ‘old city’ centre had half timbered buildings dating back to the 13th & 14th centuries set closely together with lovely coloured woodwork. With the aid of our map, we were following a route around the town which informed us about some of the buildings, one being called Vannes et se Femme. The figureheads of a couple are carved into the corner of a half timbered property and are now popular for tourist photos, and higher up just under the eaves is a small statue of Francis of Assisi.
The Cathedral of St Pierre is in the centre of this district, it has a mixture of architecture having been re built in 12th century on the ruins of the previous church. The large nave is from 15th century with no side isles; this is a very unusual design but makes it feel wide and spacious. Instead there are 11 side chapels with a highly coloured, beautiful stained glass window each, the coloured light was streaming making the whole space glow. The pulpit stands on the left hand side, heavily carved and ornate with a staircase leading from it on each side.
Leaving the centre after several hours we walked along some of the old ramparts and by the Prison Town Gate, a very impressive building even with only one of its towers still standing. It was built between 13th and 15th centuries and used as a prison in the 18th century, hence its name today.
Further along was a large stone building built on the site of the old Castle of L’Hermine, formerly the home of the Dukes of Brittany but today it is a hotel. The gardens in front were particularly impressive, flower beds of different shapes and sizes, and still full of colour so late in the season.
Moving south again after two days we arrived in Nantes. The day was cloudy but warm so we set off to explore. We found a pretty Japanese garden and admired the reflections in the water, huge bamboos and camillas flowering in October! Moving on we walked alongside the river, past house boats and bridges before the clouds started to release the rain. Thank goodness we decided to shelter because it came down in torrents for 30 minutes so we decided to take the tram back and dry our shoes.
Quickly retracing our steps next morning we obtained a self guided tourist map. The city of Nantes has developed a tourist trail guide using a narrow ‘green line’ painted on the pavements and roads around the major tourist attractions, it covers 12 km in total – we didn’t walk the whole distance! First stop was Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne (Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany), a large fortification originally on the banks of the River Loire when it was built in 1207, the river was later re-routed and the building now stands protected by a moat while the city has developed beyond the walls. The chateau inside the walls was white with black tiled roof, the dormer windows and the central towers were very ornate. Restoration took place during 1990s and finally reopened in 2007 housing the History Museum in 32 of its rooms.
We continued walking on our tour of the city. Following the green line made it easy to find the Jardin de Planter which was beautifully laid out and had meticulous attention to detail. The lakes reflected the trees starting to turn into Autumn colours and a connecting stream had a sculptural display of ‘lilies’ on single stems. We think water was being drawn up the stem which filled the ‘flower’, then being weighted with water, it bowed down emptying the flower, which released it backwards and forwards in a swaying motion until it was refilled again. The result was an ‘active’ sculpture which was very relaxing to watch.
The lawns were so perfect I actually touched one to see if it was real! Faces of birds/animals were made out of wood on top of posts with plants growing out of the top of them, very effective and probably a dozen in total. A sleeping dog had been sculpted out of grass and small grey sedums used to show its eyes, the nose and ears were dark coloured peat and it lay on the sunlit lawn with flowerbeds behind edged predominantly in white and yellows, it was very calming.
Following a walkway through pine trees we found it was lined with numerous different camellias, all full of flower invarious shades of pink and white. A large obelisk constructed in pale stone was situated with a backdrop of dark magnolia foliage behind. It was commemorating Jules Verne who was born in Nantes in 1828, he was the author of ‘Around the World in 80 Days’, ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ and ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’.
As we left the gardens through large wrought iron gates we spotted the ‘plant pot’ people looking down on us. What fun!
The cathedral of Saint Pierre & Saint Paul stands in the heart of the old city. It was built in the 6th century but destroyed in the 9th century by the Normans. It also had to be rebuilt several times before being bombed in 2nd World War and ravaged by fire in 1972. Consequently, the cathedral is virtually new, constructed with pale stone with an unfussy simplicity and full of light with modern stained glass windows that I really liked.
On our long walk around the city we found an old and very decorative shopping centre full of old world charm. The glass ceiling let in so much light that showed up the shop fronts throughout the three storey building. The columns, statues and wrought ironwork balustrades and lighting brackets really added to the chzrm of the shop fronts. I loved the shop that sold nothing but shirts in bright busy designs, a cake shop with picture perfect cakes and the chocolate shop with ‘Henry & Henrietta’ in a bath, plus many other amazing and expensive creations.
At the end of our tour with our ever present green-line guide, we effortlessly found the Opera House complete with pillars, shame we couldn’t see inside. In a large circular plaza there was a large water fountain to one side with a constantly changing water display, and surrounding the whole area were the most beautiful street lights which must have looked amazing at night.
For a perfect end to our day we indulged in a beer! Oh yes we did, and at great expense too, but it was 6.8 ABV and we enjoyed it for a good while before walking to find a tram. We had walked 7 miles (11.26 km) in total, into and around the city and the ride back was good fun and very quick.