Nantes hamster hotel
HAM IT UP
A hotel where you get to live like a hamster? It's just part of the theatrical appeal of the French city of Nantes, as Christian Koch discovers.
It’s 7am and you’re awakened with a jolt by footsteps on the cobbles outside. You scurry down the ladder. Pace the woodchipping-paved floor. Swill from the trough, gnaw at some grain. Then, exercise. What better than the giant hamster wheel for a treadmill-style workout? Just as you’re getting into your stride, you remember – you forgot to close the shutters last night. You turn around to find two middle-aged French madames peering in, bemused expressions scrawled across their faces. Sacrebleu! Have I really turned into a … hamster?
Such is the crimson-faced, existentialist crisis awaiting guests at Villa Hamster – a rodent-themed gîte in the French city of Nantes. For €100 a night, people can stay at the eccentric bolthole (equipped with hamster headwear and afore-mentioned wheel), experiencing what it’s like to be a pudgy-cheeked lump of fluff for a day. In fact, Villa Hamster is pretty normal for Nantes – a playful metropolis on the Loire revelling in barmy projects like this.
We arrive the night before, diving into Nantes’ medieval quarter and walking down rue Rabelais, named after the bawdy 16th-century writer who proposed people wipe their bottoms on swans’ necks. Doubtlessly, he’d approve of what we’re about to sample next…
Villa Hamster is burrowed away inside a 1700s-era building. As the keys turn, we discover a <bijou> space resembling a hamster’s cage. Dominated by a huge metal wheel, there’s a plastic container of oats dangling over a mini-kitchenette, and a water tube should you fancy a drink. The bathroom (hallmarks: farmyard-style trough and grain all over the floor) lies behind some blackboard sliding doors (on which somebody has chalked the word “Erotique!”). As for the bed, it’s garreted away in a cage-like loft, accessible via a ladder and a scramble on all-fours.
Sure, Villa Hamster has (creature) comforts: an iPod deck, rain shower, even a Nespresso machine. But there’s no TV, no mini-bar and the only entertainment appears to be a hamster cage and wind-up mouse. We settle down with the reading material (a novel about a man trapped inside a hamster cage) and steel ourselves: it’s going to be a long night…
Villa Hamster is the brainchild of Yann Falquerho, an architect with disc-shaped fluoro-pink glasses who lets the property through his urban gîte company, Un Coin Chez Soi (uncoinchezsoi.net).
“With Villa Hamster, I wanted to create something unique,” says Yann, as energetic as an ADD-riddled rodent himself. “When I said, ‘I’m going to create Villa Hamster, people said, ‘You are mad!’”
The villa opened in 2009. Since then, it’s hosted roomers from as far afield as South Korea and America. One visitor brought his own hamster along, another proposed to his girlfriend donning the joke-y in-house rodent millinery. Many habitués arrive because somebody has given them the experience as a present, while others indulge in less salubrious pursuits (“Sometimes customers say to me, ‘It’s good! We’ve made love there!’” says Yann).
Other Un Coin Chez Soi lodgings include Le Santeuil (chandelier-festooned apartment), Villa Cheminee (rent a house perched atop an ex-power station chimney) and Captain Nemo’s Cabin, a Jules Verne-themed flat (Verne hailed from Nantes), replete with pilchard tins, nautical ‘shower tank’ and steel bridge. Yann is particularly excited about La Folie on Râve de Plage (“folie” means “madness”), opening this summer. A wooden box on the beach, there’ll be a water-bed, while the only way of glimpsing the sea is by bouncing up-and-down on a trampoline. Yann plans to rent it out by-the-hour, so people can “watch movies or make love”.
Wandering around Nantes, it makes perfect sense something as bonkers as Villa Hamster thrives here. Thanks to canny urban regeneration and an artsy-leaning administration, the formerly-industrial city now feels like one big Situationist art prank. Locals bang on about Nantes being “full of secrets”, meaning you could stumble into recording studios in buses, an aluminium-shrouded high-rise designed to look like Manny the Ice Age mammoth (Tetrarc) or the building whose façade reveals tomorrow’s weather by flashing red for ‘sunny’ or blue for ‘rain’ (De Temps En Temps). It says it all, that in 2009, live wolves were placed in the moat surrounding Château des ducs de Bretagne.
The city’s creative hub is Île de Nantes, an island in the Loire. Here, in a breezy hangar, resides the most powerful symbol of Nantais’ rejuvenation: The Great Elephant. A cousin of the Sultan’s Elephant which lumbered through London in 2006, Le Grand Elephant is a four-storey-high, 50-tonne pachyderm that transports people for rides on its back, trumpeting and spraying water as it goes. Typically, you enter the jumbo through a hole in its derriere.
Les Machines de l’Île is the company responsible. When Let's Go visits, grubby women in overalls are working on the Jules-Verne-inspired Le Carousel des Mondes Mains (Marine Worlds carousel), an inconceivably-huge merry-go-round, where tourists can ride flying squids and crabs. It opens in summer 2012, a time when Nantes flaunts its innovation to the world.
Armchairs will pop-up on pavements. There’ll be supermarket art (you could find a masterpiece betwixt the peas and fish-fillets in the frozen foods aisle). A cultural trail, Voyage à Nantes, will link attractions, while the Estuaire festival will see art installations extending 40 miles up the Loire to the seaside town of Saint-Nazaire. And to commiserate Paris not getting the 2012 Olympics, Nantes will be hosting its own Games. As you’d expect, sports such as ‘Banaball’ (basketball played with bananas, no less) are on the menu.
Not only is Nantes quirky, but it’s also eminently habitable (Time magazine described it as “Europe’s most liveable city”). Thanks to large student numbers (51,000 of them), it’s lively too. Thursday evenings are known as “Night of the Student”. We find many of them slumped over beers and Nietzsche at Le Lieu Unique, a cultural centre housed in a former biscuit factory, now comprising a bar, art exhibitions, hammam and erm… breakdancers.
Later, over at L'Art-Scène bar, students with rockabilly quiffs and mutton chops appear, ghost-like, eager to tell you all about their taxidermy thesis or blues bands. It’s not long before bonhomie-ridden locals are introducing themselves, buying beers and trying to drag you to random house parties.
At 2.30am, we retreat to our hamster-hideout. There, devoid of television and with Villa Hamster too small for hide’n’squeak games (sorry!), we spend the night mindlessly scaling the ladder and notching up revolutions inside the wheel. It’s not long before you start empathising with our furry chums, mentally composing a note to Brigitte Bardot about their shoddy, cage-like existence.
Yes, Hamster Villa might be strange, but for a frisson of rodent-life, it’s unsurpassable. Sadly, it might not be around for much longer.
“I think it would be a good idea for me to close Villa Hamster,” says Yann. “Okay, it’s been a success, but it’s ephemeral.” But don’t fret: the architect has another project in-the-works: a domicile based on “going back to the mother’s womb”. It really couldn’t happen anywhere else.