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October 31st, 2008

Nantes Culture

It's all but impossible to write when I'm at a con. There are things to do, people to see, dinners to cadge off editors. Sights of historical interest to visit.

I see that ellen_kushner has pretty much covered the Elephant Ride, which was spectacular (if cold), so I'll stick to what I did on Thursday, while she was being interviewed. Which was visiting the Nantes Cathedral and the Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany, which houses a historical museum of Nantes.

But first I had lunch. The soup here is creamy without cream in it, rich without being heavy, full of flavor. I try to reproduce it at home without success. What I had yesterday was beet soup, a whole big whacking bowl of it, with chopped cucumber in the middle, followed by a slice of extremely leeky leek quiche in a crust you could have packed books in and shipped to New York without any harm coming to them, bar a smear of grease. Tasted good, though. And I like a crust that fights back. A truly heroic cup of Lipton's Russian Earl Grey set me up for the Cathedral.

It's lovely. High Gothic, which means towering arches and columns, tall, delicate windows, and plenty of wall-space for art. There are even remains of the original polychrome painting in a couple of the side chapels, which, for my money, are far superior to the 19th c. paintings and modern sculptures cowering in the corners. There was a big exhibition of modern religious art illustrating the more spiritual bits of Dante's Inferno and Paradiso, very black and white and graphic and massive. It's probably just me, but I thought it looked kind of sad and lost against the unyielding stone of the cathedral--all except a single, life-sized bronze skull resting on a large, bronze book right in front of the main altar. For some reason, that worked in a way that the "sweat stains of all the women in history, with iron gisants" didn't. Maybe because it didn't need a footnote to be comprehensible? Or maybe because skulls always work in cathedrals.

Oddly enough, there weren't any on the tomb of Anne of Brittany's parents, Francois II and Marguerite de Foix. Just angels and the gisants, of course, and four truly beautiful statues of the Cardinal Virtues, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice. I love Prudence, who has an old man's face set into the back of her head, her long hair his beard (for the wisdom and hindsight of age), and a pair of compasses and a mirror. I'm still working on the posting pictures thing, but here's a link to a picture of her I found on-line. Justice is pretty striking, too. Heck, they all are. I'm sure Marguerite and Francois are, too, but they're really hard to see from the floor.

I wandered around the cathedral for a while, then pressed on to the chateau. I couldn't decide whether or not to go into the museum, so I climbed the ramparts and walked around. They've been beautifully restored, and a very wide, with high sides, so it was perfectly easy and pleasant to walk around them, the only frissons coming from looking down through the slits through which (I imagine) they dumped boiling oil or similar on attackers. There's a moat now, purely decorative, added when the Loire was pushed, by docks and quais and parking lots, away from the foot of the chateau and out of sight.

Once I'd gone all the way around, it had started to rain, so I decided to visit the museum.

The literature described it as labyrinthine, and the literature was correct. Upstairs, downstairs, through corridors and halls, following numbered arrows past numberless models of ships and maquettes of the city at different times in its history, portraits of famous men, and their furniture and silverware. The most interesting section was about the Nantes slave-trade, which they were very forthright about. This happened, it was awful, this is how it worked until it wasn't profitable any more, at which point it stopped. Manacles, manifests of human cargo, all neatly docketed and explained. Chilling in the extreme, and very, very informative

The prettiest section was about the great industrialist Lefevre-Utile, who made cookies in 1846, and whose company (now owned, to my great dismay, by Kraft) is making them still. Alphonse Mucha did a bunch of posters for him, but the most famous is by the otherwise unknown Firmin Bousset, who created "The Little Schoolboy" ad campaign. Lefevre also built a wonderfully baroque tower on his factory, which looks like something out of the Arabian Nights, and now houses a theatre, a restaurant, a bar, a Turkish bath, and performance spaces. Apparently, you can climb up the tower, 136 steps to a revolving platform. I looked at a picture on-line, and that's certainly not going to happen, not in this lifetime. The Turkish bath, on the other hand. . . .

Not this weekend, though. After freezing on the elephant and a lovely early dinner with a French author, Anne Fakhouri, with whom I have traded middle-grade books about changelings, Ellen and I decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and retired early to our room to read and rest. Tomorrow, after all, is another day.

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