A beautiful sunny and 75 F during my first three days in Nantes. Gorgeous. I’m staying at an “apart-hotel” in the middle of what seems like a nice, quiet neighborhood. It’s a big room with a kitchen and no housekeeping – and no overnight front desk presence – so you punch a code in to enter after regular business hours.

I can’t remember why I planned it this way (probably because of cost) but it’s turned out to be a perfect situation. Because Nantes – like all of France I guess – is teeming with incredible near-daily markets – so I’ve been able to eat-in after picking up some great groceries nearby.

Again, it was pure luck – but the place I’m staying is just down the street from Talensac Market – considered the city’s best. On Saturday morning, there were probably twenty vendors selling produce – and at least ten butchers, ten fish-sellers, 15 bakers and 15 cheese makers. I’ve never seen a market like it. There were long, long lines at several of the popular places. I guess the key difference I noticed here compared to American greenmarkets is that here you don’t touch the produce. You don’t collect what you want – and then pay for it. You wait in line – tell the seller what you want – and then the seller scoops it up with varying levels of deference to the customer’s input before weighing it. There are no plastic bags – or very few. You don’t really see them. Everybody has the reusable sack for any and all food-related purchases. I came armed with several on this trip. I wish NYC would get with the program on plastic bags but that’s a gripe for another day.

Everything food is cheaper or the same in France compared to the US except maybe lobster. I saw the most beautiful dark, red-hued, just-caught tuna in Nantes this morning and all the fish-sellers had it at about 25 or 26 euros per kilo. The same Atlantic Ocean I live near is just 60 kilometers due west from Nantes.

There’s one guy (along with someone who might be his wife) selling nothing but a bunch of varieties of raw, cured fish. I’m gonna try to find him tomorrow.

I’ve had a somewhat debilitating head cold going on 72 hours. I’m playing a game now which consists of straddling between taking it easy to gain full recovery – and marching full speed because I don’t want to waste my time here.

Yesterday, I went about fifteen minutes north of where I’m staying to see a full twilight card of horse racing at Hippodrome du Petit Port. The eight race program featured five “flat” races – or thoroughbred entries running on a grass oval of sorts – and three “haies” races – where the contestants must jump hurdles spaced out widely over a long distance run. Admission was 5 euros – and they handed you a free program on the way in.

Small, roughly nine-ounce pours of “1664” – the Bud equivalent in France – cost 2.5 euros. I had a sausage on a fresh baguette for 4 euros. The crowd swelled as the day went on – and the atmosphere wasn’t bad. This was racing at a significantly lower level than what I saw at St. Cloud a year ago but it was a well-organized event from the race caller to the people doing identity checks after entries were saddled to the guys replacing divots on the turf course – all the way up and down. It was a well-organized day. Most impressive to witness was the effort of several track workers forced to corral a runaway horse after the seventh race using only a white towel and a variety of soothing but forceful French phrases.

I did not place a bet because the past performance information didn’t allow me to make the kind of educated guesses I’m accustomed to at home. This hasn’t stopped me before of course – but I didn’t really feed the need to bet.

The third race on the card – the Prix Mellinet – was an 8-10 thousand euro claiming race for all horses four and up. The interesting condition here – one I’ve never seen before in the states for a regular race – is that all entries had to have a female jockey.
I’ll get more into a description of Nantes in a couple days. I really like what I see so far. It’s visually stimulating for sure. It’s quirky and different than the other French cities I’ve been to. But it’s totally French. There’s no tourists really that I can see other than a few here for a tech convention and an electronic music gathering.

I got on a bicycle a couple times today. The extensive Nantes bike share system costs just one euro for one day’s worth of all the 30-minute rides you want during a 24-hour period.

Usually leery of mingling with vehicular traffic, I’m more comfortable riding here than most places because of the nicely-planned, well-marked lanes for bikes only. There’s also many stretches in well-traveled, popular parts of the city protected from cars via sidewalk-like bikeways rarely seen in most urban areas given the fight for space.

In Nantes now after opening the vacay with three nights in Paris.

I took a high-speed train operated by SNCF from Paris-Montparnasse to the main train station in Nantes at midday Thursday. We covered the 240 mile distance between the two cities in an amazing two hours and four minutes.

It doesn’t take long once you get outside Paris for the train to blast off into max fastness. My ears popped repeatedly throughout the ride. I felt occasional nauseousness looking out the window because the scenery is more blur than absorbable. It didn’t help that my seat faced the opposition direction of the train’s path. Wind turbines could be seen all along the route. They are a sight for sore eyes.

The train ticket cost 29 euros bought about a month in advance. I had a “second class” seat in a coach car that had a weathered, worn out interior. I stowed my suitcase on a rack near the entry door to the coach. Nobody checked my ticket at any point during boarding or on the ride.

To recap Paris a bit:

I joined Seb and his friends Kate and Marie for the Spiral Stairs gig Wednesday night in Barbes. Spiral (Scott Kannberg) was the second guitar player in Pavement and penned a handful of the band’s songs including Date with Ikea. A full US-based band backed him for the performance which is part of a Euro tour that comes after a slew of well-received dates in the states. Spiral opened the show with an explanation for an absence that kept him away from the stage since the Pavement reunion tour seven years ago. “Life got in the way,” he said.

Complaints about an inoperative sound monitor positioned in front of him was becoming a downward Spiral of whininess until I think Kannberg realized he might be losing the audience with an attitude that didn’t merit the somewhat minor obstacle of not hearing one’s own voice.

Assured by members of the crowd that his vocals were loud and clear on our end, he proceeded sans sour grapes. Admission was just 10 euros. The crowd at the Olympic Cafe numbered perhaps 75. Kennel District, Date, Two States and the PSOI number Caught in the Rain garnered the biggest reaction.

I found a really good beer bar Monday night near the Gare de Lyon. Tipped off in a roundabout way by the US internet resource Beer Menus, I enjoyed a couple of solid French-made IPA’s that stacked up decently with what I’ve started to become hooked on in NYC.

The name of the bar is Express de Lyon. Inside and out, it had all appearances of a pretty typical Paris brasserie. But a chalkboard menu of beer offerings was dominated by hop-heavy stuff rather than the basic lagers, saisons and strong Belgian ales usually seen at most French watering holes. Clearly, small beer-makers doing IPA’s is in its infancy here but the ones I had here offer promise.

The “Sous Senart” is a solid west coast US-style IPA golden in color at 7.6 on the Rick. Made at a small brewery south of Paris in a commune called “Epinay-sous-Senart,” it cost 4.2 euros for a 25 ml pour. As is custom at Paris bars, if you sat outside watching the world go by drinking same said beer, it cost a little more at 4.8 euros.

Also delish was the “Ad Lib,” made by the Hoppy Road brewery in Maxeville in the northeast of France. Dubbed a “session,” it’s only 4.0 on the booze scale but it was bursting with smell, fruity flavor and bubbles. Hoppy Road is launching with an official public grand opening of its space on September 30.

I ate an excellent salad topped with slices of terrine and only-in-France-type tomatoes for dinner at the bar. The proprietor was friendly – and clearly proud of his niche as a conduit for good beer.

On Tuesday night, I attended the Ligue 2 soccer match between Paris Football Club and Orleans. I wasn’t dressed properly and froze late in the match, a 1-nil win for PFC. After complete domination by the hosts, especially in the second half, PFC’s Malik Tchokounte stutter-stepped his way into an open shot to a score in the 79th minute. Attendance was announced at 1659 in a venue that holds 20-thousand. I bought a ticket at the door for 10 euros. From the center of Paris, Stade Charlety was easy to reach via a short walk from the commuter train stop south of the city. More of a track and field venue, it obviously felt flat with such a small crowd on a chilly night. The only beer for sale was of the non-alcohol variety so I got a hot tea and a sandwich with ham for 4 euros.

My hotel in Paris was fantastic. I booked it early at 65 bucks a night. It was tiny but clean and just steps from the Cambronne Metro stop on the 6 line.

There was no moment during the three days in Paris that I wasn’t wide-eyed with the intensity and craziness of it all. It’s really crazy. An amazing place. Far more intense, I beleive than New York. The Metro takes serious getting used to (odd car configuration and cumbersome transfer tunnel/stairwells) compared to NYC Subway but it runs way more frequently. You never have to wait. The street markets are incredible. The focus on politics, news and the arts is way more pronounced in Paris, for sure.

As I was leaving Thursday, I reflected on how little I actually I saw and did vs. what I planned. But no regrets. I was able to see Seb and Julien – two Toulouse guys – who I admire. I ate and drank well. And I hope to come back.