Brittany has been a part of France for centuries but it still has a strong regional, historical and cultural identity all its own. Fest Noz (think a night’s worth of traditional music, dancing and drinking for the entire family), Breton language schools and any number of historical buildings help keep the region’s identity alive. Technically no longer a part of Brittany since 1962 when the French government created today’s administrative regions, Nantes remains inexorably linked with Brittany and is one of the hubs of the region. The Dukes of Brittany called Nantes and its castle home from the 13th-16th centuries. When Brittany became part of France, the château des ducs de Bretagne became a French royal residence. Today it is a symbol of both Nantes and Brittany as well as the last of the Loire Valley châteaux heading towards the ocean. If you’re visiting Nantes, it should be on your agenda and if you live nearby, you should take the time to discover it all over again.
Both castle and fortress coexist together–a simple glance around the inside courtyard shows the evolution from military stronghold to palace. The castle reopened five years ago after fifteen years worth of renovation work. The outside of the castle and its entrance recall the castle’s original role as a stronghold built to defend the Duchy against its French neighbors. You enter the castle via a stone bridge which leads to a (working) drawbridge over the moat. (The moat is surrounded by a well-tended lawn, a few flowers, benches and a nice path to wander along in search of a spot to picnic.) Entering the courtyard, the brilliant white tufa facades of the ducal palace and all the delicate carvings and architectural details are impressive and worlds away from the exterior image of the château. The ducal residence or Grand Logis is a late 15th century Flamboyant Gothic jewel. The Golden Crown Tower or Tour de la Couronne d’Or, on the other hand, shows an early Renaissance style. Those interested in doors, windows, and details will enjoy walking around the courtyard just taking everything in. You can also sit down at the little outdoor courtyard café and admire things over tea and coffee. Walking the ramparts, gives you a view of the city and another perspective on the château’s life.
While you can visit the exterior (ramparts, moat/gardens, courtyard) for free those interested in learning more about Nantes and history fans in general will enjoy visiting the Nantes History Museum. Part of the 15th century ducal palace has been transformed into a local history museum which tells the story of Nantes through the ages. For those interested in European or French history, the castle is most well-known as the place where Henri IV signed the Edict of Nantes in 1598. The edict put an end to the Wars of Religion and offered French Protestants certain basic rights. The museum seeks to teach visitors about a far larger scope and period in the cities’ life. The museum’s collection is arranged both chronologically and thematically taking you from Nantes role in Brittany through the slave trade/colonial period all the way up into today’s vibrant metropolis. The museum is modern in the best sense of the term–artifacts coexist with touch-screen multimedia stations, the lighting highlights both the exhibits themselves and the castle architecture around them, and film and audio add additional layers of information to your experience.
While the girls spent quality-time with their grandfather, we took a thematic guided tour of the museum. When he bought the tickets, Anthony chose to add on a guided lecture as well. He thought we were getting a thematic tour of the museum in general. It turned out that we took a thematic tour based around Nantes and the Slave Trade. I was not impressed with the tour. I didn’t learn anything new and could have probably given a more detailed tour myself. I’m not sure how much of this was the fault of the guide and the need to address the entire group and how much of it was my own personal background (two of my three degrees are in history). Based on my experience, while I can recommend visiting the museum without any hesitation, I would not pay more for a tour again. Regular museum adult tickets cost 5€, those under 18 are free, and young people 18-26 pay 3€. Special exhibits cost slightly more. Unless you find the current topic fascinating, there is more than enough to see in the museum without paying extra for temporary exhibits. Guided tours like the one we took cost an additional 4€ for adults (cheaper rates for young people and children over 7).
The castle is set in the center of the city and is easily accessible via public transportation. Nantes is doing everything in its power to make driving an unattractive option in the city center. Parking is scarce and expensive, everyone and everything takes precedence over you and it’s easy to get confused if you don’t know your way around. Park and ride solutions exist if you’re coming by car and are worth considering. If you’re staying in town, come back in the evening to admire the château’s light display. The night-lighting shows off the castle’s many architectural details and leaves a neat souvenir in your mind as you head off into the night in search of sleep and new adventures for a new day.