Tag Archives: France

Traveling in Europe: Calais

Europe 2011: Calais

Click on the above picture to go to the album.

Well, it seems a year after my travels I’m still going through photos. Life just got busy and I got distracted. So, tracking back in time, I needed to get to Calais from Belgium because I had to catch the Dover ferry to England and then get to Brighton for the British Fantasy Convention, held at the beginning of October.

Calais, travel, war, photos, Europe, France, French coast

The bunker in Calais. I’m not sure if it’s from the first or second World Wars.

There were ferries closer to where I was in Belgium but it turned out none took foot passengers except for the Dover ferry. By this time, I was getting a cold and my feet were actually blistered from walking so much. I was a bit tired. The train to Dover from Ghent took 2-3 hours with a stop in Lille. It was a beautiful clear day in Calais, a fairly modern looking city but then it was probably bombed a fair amount during WWII. I stayed in the Hotel Richelieu, a very short walk from the station and run by a man who was slowly renovating each suite. Breakfast was included but  declined as I needed to get up early the next morning to catch the ferry.

Calais, France, travel, Europe, Dover ferry

Calais’ warm, brown sand beach.

I wandered down to the beach, passing a bunker that I explored. It was sealed but obviously left over from the war. The beach itself was this amazing very fine-grain beige sand. I took my shoes off and walked into the water to soothe my feet. I wandered after that, taking a few pictures, then stopped in a cafe. I thought, because I was in France I would find cider, and using my very sad French, prefacing it first with “My French is not very good” (in French) I asked, “Vous avez cidre de pomme?” My answer was “quoi?” by a rather rude waiter (who tried his best to ignore me). I repeated and he said non so I ordered a glass of red wine. When it came time to pay the bill,  and I didn’t understand what he said, he reverted to English.

Later, when I wandered into a chocolate shop and repeated the experience I began to suspect that the people of Calais won’t speak English if they can get away with it. With ferries from England you can expect that they deal with English daily and maybe it’s a resistance to assimilation or the belief, when in France do as the French. I at least tried but they certainly didn’t give much for trying.

Calais, gardens, travel, peacock, France, Europe

The very large floral peacock on the main street in Calais.

I didn’t have time or energy to explore farther afield but Calais seems a small resort town. I found what I thought was city hall, with a lovely floral garden and a foliate peacock across the way. That evening I went to Le Restaurant Ancienne and had sea bream with balsamic rucola (arugula), tomatoes, bell peppers and mashed potatoes. Dessert was creme brulee with caramelized strawberries and lemon. It was creamy and all very good but too much for me to finish. In Europe so far, I found that unless you were ordering a bottle of wine, restaurants only have one choice by the glass.

The next morning I took a taxi to the ferry dock. I’m very glad I did as it turned out to be a very long and winding way. I would probably have missed the ferry and been exhausted. It didn’t cost that much for a taxi and I had a pleasant enough journey chatting with a man and his sons. The ferry ride was about three hours and for some reason, none of the sites seemed to have given an accurate time for the crossing.  I got to see the white cliffs of Dover but had no time to dally on the other side and made my way to Brighton.

Dover ferry, travel, France, Calais

The only ferry that takes foot passengers is in Calais. The Belgian ferries are only for cars.

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Machine Animals and Giants

Nantes, Machine de L'ile, machine animals, Jules Vernes

The Sea Diver is about 30 feet tall and was looking for his lost niece. Photo by misterstf flickr

I seriously want to go to Nantes. Where is that? Good question. I didn’t know until a few months ago but then I’m not the biggest brain on geography, especially if I haven’t been there. When I saw an article on a giant spider that was built there, it piqued my interest. Nantes (pronounced nont)  is a tiny place in France, well, relatively so with a population of about 800,000 and sits on the Loire River. It is famed for being an important historic city in Brittany and being the birthplace of Jules Verne.

Maybe Verne’s fertile bed of great imagination, he who was pretty much the father of science fiction, left a seed of creativity that continues to grow. For Nantes is a place of magic. Giants have been seen on the streets and enormous sea creatures are being born. In fact, these creatures have toured to other cities. Marionettes (first the Little Giantess and of late the Sea Diver) as tall as 9 meters have walked the streets. Elephants, spiders and squids of enormous sizes have also been seen.

These animals are like animatronics and marionettes and most of all, amazing works of art. Made of wood, with moving parts and very lifelike in proportions and expressions (except always larger) they are creations of Royal de Luxe and Les Machines de L’ile. The first is a theatrical group that does street theatre and was first conceived in 1979. The pictures of the giant awaking show the scope of the piece and the crew required to move the marionette through the streets. How does one manipulate the “strings” of a 30-foot puppet? By having scaffolding that is even higher.

These amazing pieces are made of wood for the main sculptural elements but various mechanisms and hydraulics are added for the functionality. The related company, Les Machines de L’ile is a factory in Nantes where the creatures are created. La Machine is the performance company that takes the shows on the road, such as in Japan or London where the giant 50-foot spider, La Princesse, crawled through the streets.

François Delarozière is the main designer of the pieces but it takes a large crew to fabricate each sculpture and of course many people to run it. Royal de Luxe’s people all dress in costume, adding to the out of time and place feel. Weighing in at over two tons for the giant or 40 some tons for the Sultan’s Elephant, these works are not cheap to make. They come in at millions of pounds (or Euros), moneys brought about through different cultural mandates, and free to the public. (Indeed one would have to close their eyes to miss seeing these grandiose creatures.)

Some would call these sculptures steampunk, that genre of science fiction that emulates an earlier period of the Industrial Revolution, often in Victorian times, where brass, levers, pneumatic tubes, punch cards, steam and alternative methods of locomotion are the norm. And indeed, there is an essence of otherworldly or of a bordering time that the pieces bring about. The diver harkens back to Verne’s novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and is the star of the Estuary Festival, a big thing for Nantes, a long-time shipping port.

Although some critics consider these performance art affairs to be a waste of money I think they are an awesome statement of humankind’s imagination. If we were only to turn our minds to more events of this magnitude and less on how to maim, subjugate or denigrate others, then in truth we would live in a magical world. I would love to see such works as these performed in North America. Jules Verne began reaching into the great unknown of what-if in a different way. The artists of La Machine and Royal de Luxe keep that magic alive.

Royal de Luxe’s Giant in Nantes: http://www.socyberty.com/Folklore/A-Giant-Awakes-in-Nantes.763695

Les Machines de L’Ile: http://www.lesmachines-nantes.fr/english/

Le Princesse in Japan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACH3leVMFIU

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