So here I am, justa’ walkin’ down the street, saying “Hey – whose castle is this?”
Not far from my hotel and right on the tram line in Nantes, stands the Chateau des ducs de Bretagne, a 15th century castle built by Francois II, the last Duke of Brittany, and his daughter, Anne of Brittany, who ruled twice as Queen of France. What a surprise to find a castle right in the middle of my part of town. It even has a moat! You can wander the courtyard, ramparts and moat areas for free from 8:30AM-7PM. Look for the gargoyles!
Anne of Brittany was born here on January 25, 1477. Brittany, with a population of about 1 million, had established itself as a principality, issuing its own currency and referring to themselves as “dukes by the grace of God.” She became a duchess at age 11, queen of France at age 15 by marriage to Charles VIII, widow at age 21, and queen again at age 22 by marriage to Louis XII. She died on January 9, 1514 and was buried in Saint-Denis Basilica, with her heart placed in a crowned, heart-shaped reliquary Duchess Anne is remembered as being instrumental in uniting the principality of Brittany with the kingdom of France.
The chateau houses the Musee d’Histoire – 32 rooms on three floors, covering eight centuries of Nantes history. The reliquary holding the heart of Duchess Anne is one of the first relics you see when you enter the first room. The first seven rooms will take you through the history of Nantes up to the 17th century.
In Room 11 I learned about France’s involvement in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade – a subject I was painfully unaware of. France ranked third in human exports behind Portugal and England. Nantes (and I would later discover La Rochelle) were the top two ports in France for the export of human cargo to the Americas and the French West Indies. Between 1701 and 1711, 75% of the French slave trade set sail from Nantes. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Nantes derived most of their wealth from two sources – Africa and America. Ship owners in the Feydeau district lived in mansions paid for by the trade of these “moveable assets” and the import of New World commodities such as sugar, coffee, indigo, cocoa, tobacco, and cotton.
In 1685, Louis XIV signed an edict known as The Black Code, containing 60 legal texts overseeing the administration of justice in the French Caribbean, and the control and trade of Negroes and slaves in those areas. Additional regulations were added as late as 1825. The entry in my copy indicates that slavery was abolished in France in 1848. I would learn later on in this trip that France went through Abolition twice…
In Room 23, I found some fun artifacts from the Industrial Age (1815-1914) including a biscuit roller displayed with packages of biscuits from the period (we call them cookies in the U.S.) and a display of canned goods.
The final rooms were devoted to World Wars I and II and included the first 3-wheeled wheelchair I had ever seen, this one designed for a disabled soldier. There were displays showing uniforms for soldiers and prisoners from the internment camps, and information about the French Resistance.
Hours: July 1- August 31, 10AM-7PM, outside of those dates, 10AM-6PM every day except Monday.
Ticket price: 9 Euros
Tips: It will take about 3 hours if you visit every room, which I did not. I missed two floors for lack of taking the elevator. I also could not tarry long in the rooms with wooden ceilings; the mold count in the city was very high yesterday, and these rooms exacerbated my ability to breathe (note to asthmatics…)
Shorter, targeted itineraries are listed in the back of the black visitor’s guide, including one itinerary geared towards children. The museum is fairly well signed, but pay attention to the routes in the guide if you are trying to see everything (or conversely, the shorter, targeted tours). Also be prepared for a lot of stairs, as not all sections of the chateau are accessible from the elevator.
* * *
Heather Daveno hails from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day and a self taught textile artisan by night. In her spare time she is a “hobby historian” and is currently researching the female side of her family history for a book she plans to write, titled: “The Matriarch Diaries.”
You can see her current textile projects at August Phoenix Mercantile and her travels at Daveno Travels.