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Four Irresistible Museums of the Loire

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One of the things I love about France is its tradition of unusual museums; just down my own road is a cow museum and a bell museum.

On a recent visit to the Loire (not the Loire of chateaux but a different, hidden, green Loire, the Loire département) I found four offbeat museums that might provide a welcome break from all those hikes, vineyards and medieval villages.

These museums speak to me for a reason: they try to protect knowledge about traditions and crafts that still existed until recently but risk being forgotten.

Musée de la Soierie

Bobbins used for silk weaving

Weavers had to know exactly which bobbin to use when

The museum of silk (and we do all love silk) sits in an unlikely venue – the town’s 18th century former hospital. The village of Charlieu is the ideal setting, on the other hand: about 150 years ago, when the canuts or silk workers of Lyon rebelled against exploitation, merchants broke their rebellion by bringing their business here. They turned the village into what one businessman calls the “Taiwan of Lyon.”

Musee de la Soierie, Charlieu

These days modern plants have taken over from painstaking manual labor

Working conditions for the 10,000 silk workers were harsh and factory floors were unbearable, without electricity . No protective eyewear was available, and there was little ventilation.

The loud machines clanged incessantly while burning steam heated the air and filled eyes, nose and throat.

Silk museum or Musee de la Soierie

Making spools from skeins, one of the first operations in silk-making (and not an easy one with those nearly ethereal threads)

Threading silk required small hands so women and often children were recruited, at low wages and, in those days, with little regard to their health.

It’s amazingly intricate work, with thousands of threads lined up perfectly – a single thread out of line can ruin an entire bolt of cloth. A small loom might contain 4000 threads, while an intricate design on a wide cloth might require 20,000 – all of which needed to end up in a precise location. Antique computers, first made of wood and then of iron, helped sort the threads, otherwise an impossible task.

Silk Museum, Charlieu, Loire, France

Every single thread must be in its place

What used to be a thriving industry slowly dwindled in the face of cheap imports and the replacement of manpower by machines. By housing the history of French silk weaving under a single roof the town of Charlieu paints a picture of what life in a silk factory was like. The old machines are still in working order and the shrill sound of a single one makes me wonder what the decibel level was like when dozens filled a single open space.

I had no idea making silk was so complex, from the sorting of yarn bundles, their winding into reels, the warping (placing threads next to one another until the right width is achieved), dyeing, dipping and actual weaving. Looking at a square of bright soft cloth now, I understand the hours of sweat and solitude that once went into making one just like it.

Musee de la Soirie, Charlieu

Left, old-fashioned computer to place threads exactly where they belong

These days of course the sweatshops are gone and all that remains of the silk trade in Charlieu is a yearly celebration in honor of Our Lady of September, organized by what is now the last remaining weavers’ corporation in France, the Corporation des Tisserands.

Two lovely museums of the Roannais are housed in the former Hotel-Dieu in Charlier

Both the silk and hospital museums are housed in what used to be the Hotel-Dieu of Charlieu, the old hospital building

Musée Hospitalier

Right next door to the Musée de la Soierie is the hospital museum, set in the familiar environment of what used to be the town’s religious hospital – religious because in the past hospitals were staffed and managed by the Medical Orders of the Catholic Church, not the state.

Chapel of old Hotel-Dieu in Charlieu, in the Roannais

The magnificent altar in gilded wood (classified a National Monument) is dated 1733. A window opened from the inside so patients could attend mass while in bed.

The hospital was already mentioned in historical texts as far back as the 12th century but may have been founded even earlier by Benedictine monks, its origins shrouded in history.

It served many functions over time, including a maternity and an old men’s hospice, until it was forced to close in 1981 because the aging building simply wasn’t up to modern standards.

Looking at the spacious ward you can’t help but compare it favorably with some hospitals today, so overcrowded patients are spilling out into the hallways.

Hotel-Dieu, Charlieu

The former Hotel-Dieu hospital ward, where nuns once cared for patients; at the back, a French window opens onto the chapel so patients could follow church services without getting up

While we might appreciate the extra space, we might be less nostalgic about the obsolete medical instruments exhibited in the examination and treatment rooms.

Keep walking and you’ll find a beautiful wooden apothecary, now classified as a National Monument; a linen room with giant wardrobes donated by local families to nuns taking their vows; the operating theater, a relatively modern amenity; and diverse objects reflecting the hospital’s history right up to its closure.

Hospitals are rarely pleasant but the high ceilings and spacious wards are reminders that environment can be as important to wellbeing as care.

Hospital museum of Charlieu, Roannais

Historic apothecary (left) and one of the former examination rooms

Musée Alice Taverne

This next magical museum is all about the environment – the living environment. Just half an hour from Charlieu, in the lovely village of Ambierle, you’ll find answers to all your questions about how the French in this region lived 100 years ago.

The museum bears the name of Alice Taverne, a woman with what might be considered an unusual occupation for a woman. She was, in a way, a social archeologist.

Madame Taverne was a local woman fascinated by history. She began collecting everyday objects used between 1830-1930 by local people in the Roannais and the nearby Forez regions of the Loire. And room by room, she built her museum.

Various scenes of Alice Taverne Museum in Ambierle

Clockwise from upper left: a 19th century apothecary, a bourgeois sitting room, a workers’ dining room, and a clogmaker’s cabinet

Inaugurated in 1951, the museum is laid out like a house, with antique-filled rooms set up just as they might have been if people still lived in them. You can easily imagine what it was like to slurp a bowl of soup in a modest kitchen or sleep in a surgeon’s quarters. You can also visualize daily life in a watchmaker’s cabinet or a winemaker’s home, and learn about period clothing and local legends.

Perhaps the most unusual collection is out of doors. In a crowded courtyard, arcades have been set aside for equipment once used by blacksmiths, vintners, cartwrights, cabinetmakers and farmers.

Alice Taverne, one of several lovely museums of the Roannais

Making barrels was once a full-time trade

Carriage in courtyard of Musee Alice Taverne, Ambierle

Looking at that carriage and wondering, wondering…

What started out as a cursory visit stretched into hours as each room, each object drew me into a time and place I could almost sense first-hand. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that I would have climbed the hill to Ambierle by horse and cart rather than in my own car…

Musée de la Chapellerie

If you’re as fascinated by traditions and culture as I am, perhaps the most intriguing of these four museums is located a bit more than an hour away in Chazelles-sur-Lyon. This small town in Lyon’s hinterland was famous for two centuries for its felt hats made from rabbit and hare fur. I’m not a fur enthusiast, but in their heyday in 1930, the town’s 28 hat factories employed 2500 workers.

Chapellerie museums

Fur is sorted and treated on the factory floor with the help of these machines, which are still in working order

Machine from the hat museum

A variety of machines were used to treat the hats as they were shaped

The use of felt dates back to the Neolithic. Felt was used extensively in Asia for yurts and clothes and archeological digs in Pompeii found hat-making traces in that lava-entombed city as well.

Hats were hugely popular not long ago. Remember the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s? It would have been unthinkable for a man or woman to be seen leaving home without a hat. By the 1960s, hats had become unfashionable and hatmakers ran out of jobs, the last factory sliding its doors shut in 1997.

Chapellerie, hat museum in the Roannais

Every possible shape of hat under the sun was once made here

Now, the art of millinery is making a modest comeback in this town. The museum has its own hat design line and collection and offers made-to-measure hats. To make sure the knowledge and craftsmanship isn’t lost, professionals pass on their knowledge to fashion students through workshops and classes.

Hat creations at the Chapellerie, one of the unusual museums of the Roannais

Granted, these are more for show than wear but… wouldn’t it be fun!

As you leave the museum, the hats on display (made of everything from felt to feathers) in the inevitable shop attract the most attention. Men, women and children stare at themselves in the mirror, their heads covered in the tiniest or largest or brightest or most intricate hats, irresistibly drawn to the fleeting promise of a sense of glamor.

I know, I know. How could I resist?

Things every Woman on the Road should know

This article is part of My Rhône-Alpes, a series in which I explore the stunning region in which I live in Eastern France. Thanks to Loire Tourisme and the Rhône-Alpes Tourist Office for organizing this visit and hosting Women on the Road. Opinions are my own: I’m opinionated and plan to stay that way. 


  1. Lane on June 3, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    These all sound like great finds. I’m definitely putting the hat museum on my France travel list.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 3, 2013 at 10:49 pm

      France is filled with quirky museums – and they do show things in-depth so you get a real sense of what things were once like, not just a superficial look.

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