We live within spitting distance of a castle. Well, okay, you would have to be an Olympic-level expectorator in order to fling a globule far enough to hit the château from our house. But it’s literally just down the street, about a three-minute walk. And we have the privilege of seeing it pretty much every single day. Given that we are so fortunate to be in such an enviable position, I thought it was high-time to dedicate a post to the spectacular medieval monument in our backyard.
Not surprisingly, our neighborhood castle is locally known as Le Château de Fougères, usually accompanied by the subtitle: la plus grande forteresse d’Europe (the largest fortress in Europe). Now, I have to say that I’m a bit skeptical as to whether the claim to be the largest fortress in Europe is true. The walls of the castle encompass an area of two hectares. [For the people living in the three remaining countries still desperately clinging on to imperial measurements – United States, Liberia and Myanmar – this is essentially the equivalent of five acres.] The massive fortifications of Carcassonne springs to mind. But the boast might just be true. By a technicality. In carefully specifying that the Château de Fougères is the largest fortress (i.e., only the area within the walls of the castle itself), they are excluding any fortifications which include any part of a village, city or town. While Carcassonne’s town walls encompass a much larger area, the castle (fortress) itself is much smaller than Fougères. Clever, eh? A crafty bit of marketing worthy of P.T. Barnum himself.
The château sits upon a rocky promontory which was almost completely encircled by the Nançon river. It’s an unusual site for a castle. Medieval fortresses were generally placed on high ground or a position which afforded broad vistas in all directions, the theory being that it was better to see and be seen for long distances. The Château de Fougères is sited in a place which has none of those characteristics. It huddles down in a cramped little river valley which is almost totally surrounded by tall hills on nearly all sides. Indeed, the upper town which it guards sits loftily on a much higher plateau overlooking its protector. One would normally expect to two positions to be reversed.
Notwithstanding its low position, the fortress presents a grand and imposing edifice on all sides. As you drive toward town from the west, crest the hill and descend into the Nançon valley, the vast walls and towers suddenly reveal themselves. Wow!” Was all we could manage to utter when we first laid eyes on it. To be honest, I think I actually said something like “Holy shit!” (Cherie managed to keep it clean – I’m definitely the potty-mouth in the family). As if it needed it, the deep grey local stone lends a somber and forbidding aspect to the structure; the ultimate in local sourcing, the stone for the castle was quarried just a few meters away in the surrounding hillsides. In fact, the largest of these quarries was still in use until the beginning of this century.
A huge postern gateway stands elevated at the highest point of the rocky promontory on the west end of the rectangular fortress, but the main entrance is situated on the eastern end, looking out on a lovely cobbled square with stone and timber-framed buildings home to souvenirs shops, bars and restaurants. Inside the first gate is an outer bailey, completely surrounded by fortified walls and towers. This leads through to another gateway and the larger, main bailey where the lord’s hall and various other buildings were located. Tragically, the once grand hall was destroyed in the early 19th century; only the foundations and a few other elements of this structure now remain. The main bailey gradually slopes upward to a small inner bailey in the east end. This is where the first defensive structure is thought to have been erected.
There has been some form of fortified enclosure at the current site of the castle since at least the 11th century. It likely began as a timber tower or hall surrounded by a wooden palisade. In the Middle Ages it was a strategically important site, standing on the eastern marches of Bretagne as a bulwark against all-comers, usually the English or the French Crown. Fougères was one of a string of several fortresses sited all along the border between what had been an independent duchy and France. Over a period of some 700 years, the château was beseiged on numerous occasions. As far as I can tell, it was taken at least five times – once by a spanish mercenary. The last storming of the gates was done by the Chouans and Vendéans in 1793 during the counter-revolutionary struggle gripping France at the time. This castle has seen a lot of action. It’s a miracle that it still stands.
But its life wasn’t over after the 18th century. Oh no. In the 19th century the château became a private prison and, following that, housed a shoe factory. Just like our tower. The town purchased the entire site in 1892 for the current equivalent of €280,000 and restoration began over the ensuing decades. It has always been a major tourist attraction; even in the 19th century it was visited by the likes of Balzac and Victor Hugo. But now it’s more popular than ever. Particularly in the summer, the castle is heaving with visitors. We buy a season pass for a ridiculously low price (something like €17) so we can walk in whenever the mood strikes us. It’s nice and quiet in the off-season so sometimes we virtually have the place to ourselves.
The substantial walls are strengthened by formidable towers, most of which you can tour. They have been beautifully restored and contain interesting sound and light shows illustrating the history of the castle and marches of Bretagne. One can also walk a good portion of the ramparts and the views of the surrounding town are exceptional.
Also of note is the adjacent mill house (just inside the lovely 15th century town gate of Notre Dame) featuring four waterwheels; there has been a mill attached to the castle since the 12th century. And the beautiful 14th century Eglise St. Sulpice, just across the street from the château is well worth a visit in its own right.
We feel so fortunate to have such an important, impressive and beautiful castle virtually on our doorstep. So far, it never fails to cause us to gasp in awe. And I doubt it ever will. Shame on us if we should ever come to take it for granted. We love taking Saxon for a walk around the château in the quiet of the evening as the fading light heightens the mysterious ambiance of the walls and towers looming overhead. It’s a terribly overused cliché, but I can think of nothing better than to describe these walks as “magical”. I hope you all have the opportunity to experience it as we do.
Cabin fever had finally gotten the best of us last weekend. Trying our utmost to stay at home, isolate as much as possible, wear our masks, and do our part to keep ourselves, our neighbors and the country safe from Covid-19, we had not really traveled anywhere to sight-see since the pandemic began. But working on the house non-stop had been getting monotonous. Our retirement plan had always been to intersperse home projects with travel. So, finally, we forced ourselves to put down the tools and hit the road.
We only had an afternoon and we didn’t want to go far. Somewhat at random, we spotted a town named Mayenne on the map. It’s a medium-sized town to the east, about 44 kilometers from Fougères. Google told us that there is a château in the center of the ville which was all either of us needed to know. Mayenne it was!
The day was lovely. Sunny. Blue skies. Winding country roads. Very french-y and just what the doctor ordered. We knew that we would be visiting a museum at the château so we left Saxon at home to guard our little tower. Besides, he doesn’t do well in warm weather so it was better for him to remain inside the cool of the stone walls.
Mayenne, the town, is situated alongside Mayenne, the river, which runs through Mayenne, the departement. They really like the way Mayenne sounds.
We maneuvered our way into the old town and found a shady spot to park the car. After getting our bearings, we made directly for the château. The château sits on a bluff running alongside the waterway which bisects the town as it makes its way south to eventually flow into the Maine and then Loire rivers. There has been a castle in this spot in Mayenne since at least the beginning of the 10th century. And before that there had been a Roman fort controlling the area. Remarkably, one can see elements from all of these periods in the remnants of the edifice which still stands today. The building houses a very good museum with a small but well-curated collection of artifacts on display representing the history of the local area. The architecture is varied and in good repair following recent restoration/preservation work. And we had the place virtually all to ourselves. Which is a shame, really. These museums rely heavily on the income they receive from tourist admissions in order to maintain the sites and carry out research. Like all museums and historical attractions, they will undoubtedly suffer a dramatic deficit in their funding due to the effects of the pandemic.
After the museum, we wandered around the streets of the old town. Then our stomachs reminded us that we hadn’t eaten lunch and demanded attention. We never argue with our appetites. So, we found a nice boulangerie, grabbed some quiches, drinks and dessert (duh!), and spend some quality french time in the square just watching the world go by. I highly recommend it.
Our stomachs satiated, we strolled around a bit more, happening upon a church. The Basilica of Notre-Dame yields an impressive appearance on the exterior, boasting flying buttresses enfolding a large apsidal eastern end and an impressive stairway. However, we found the interior to be somewhat wanting. Only elements of the nave piers and some scant carving remain of the original 12th century building. The majority of the church appears to be a 19th century reconstruction. Still nice, but a little disappointing. Are we getting too picky now that we’ve been in Europe for almost two years? Perhaps. But I would say that it is rather a case of becoming more discriminating.
Although we only allowed ourselves three or four hours in Mayenne, our visit was rewarding and relaxing. Just the thing we needed. It’s a pretty town with lots of shops and some lovely-looking restaurants that we will have to sample the next time we find ourselves in the area. It felt good to stretch our legs a bit and indulge in our craving for the history and beauty of France. This country never disappoints.
Not much to report, really. But an update on our tower renovation is in order. And I thought I would end with an observation on a mundane aspect of daily life here in France that we found to be, well, a little different.
The Covid-19 solitude continues unabated although we ourselves have enjoyed the company of the two builders who have been working away in the upper level of the tower. Despite delays in obtaining materials, a situation completely beyond their control, Stuart and Kelson have managed to beat what was once an ill-conceived attic space from the 90’s into a much more functional and beautiful master suite. Gone is the raised stage-like platform that beat like a drum every time someone took a step on it. Our two british ex-pats have been able to lower the floor, transforming an awkward lean-to into much more useable floor space and head height around the perimeter. The “open concept” bathtub and washbasin in the orchestra pit has been, thankfully, wiped from memory too. Now, there is a definable bedroom, closet and bathroom – all on the same level.
It’s Beginning to Look Like a Bedroom
As you can see, there is still much to do. Flooring, for a start. But Cherie and I plan to lay it down ourselves. We hope to have that done in a month or two. Our other british ex-pat, Mark, handles the plumbing and electrics. He will be coming in the next few days to complete all of the electrical and plumbing tasks that remain to be done. Still, we are excited to finally see so much progress. The once-tired and neglected top floor will soon be our most private inner-sanctum. A warm and inviting place where we can – and will – sleep in until the crack of noon. And when I say “we”, I really mean Cherie. She is truly a world-class sleeper. Our new master suite will be a perfect place for her to get lots of practice.
Speaking of Covid, France will be slowly easing its lockdown measures on the 11th of May. We will now be able to travel up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from home and many more businesses will begin to resume trade. This is exciting for two reasons. First, and most importantly, the easing is confirmation that the death rate from this horrid disease has been steadily declining in France. So, too, have the rates of new infections and patients requiring intensive care treatment. At long last!
For us, the easing is also exciting because for the past couple of months, we have only been able to obtain building supplies by delivery. The irony of having all of this time on our hands but no way to get the things we need to work on the house has been a little frustrating.
Which brings me to the subject of deliveries in France. Having purchased an embarrassing number of items online from a comprehensive array of sources (from large online-only retailers all the way down to private individuals), we now feel that we have earned some authority on the subject.
At its core, there is an inherent contradiction at play in France when it comes to delivering packages. On the one hand, french delivery services display an almost fanatic concern to inform you about the status of your package. Ordered a pair of tweezers? Prepare to receive an almost daily onslaught of emails, voicemails and text messages (SMS) updating you on the progress (or not) of your precious purchase. On the face of it, this might sound like extraordinary customer service. And I suppose it would be if the were providing information that actually matters. But 90 percent of the time, they are just getting in touch to inform you that the thing they told you yesterday hasn’t changed. Great. Thanks for that. I mean, we’re not expecting a life-saving kidney in the mail. Relax, guys.
And, like the boy who cried wolf, this surfeit of useless correspondence lulls you into a state of complacency, bordering on apathy. After a while you no longer read or listen – straight to the delete button. But the annoying thing is that, occasionally, they will slip a crucial nugget of information into one of these messages that changes everything. “Thank you once again [for the sixth time] for your purchase of the tweezers. We are pleased you chose to shop with us. As a welcome gift, we are offering you 10% off your next purchase.” and then “Unfortunately our delivery service informs us that they are unable deliver packages to your area. We have canceled your purchase and will refund your money [which may take weeks].” Wait, what? Why didn’t you know this three weeks ago when we ordered the tweezers and provided you with our address? Did things like this happen before we had the Internet? I don’t remember. But it makes one question whether or not we are actually better off now than we were before the ubiquity of online services.
As the expected time for delivery approaches, the second phase of concern kicks in. You begin to receive anxious messages from the couriers, requesting that you assure them you will be home on the day of delivery. This might be just once, but can be several times. You know, in case you’ve had any sudden change in plans that might inconvenience them and disrupt the entire chain of delivery across France. Couriers here become distraught at the mere possibility that there may be an unexpected hitch. And, if you’re not home to receive delivery, forget about it. They will almost never leave the package on your doorstep. It’s just not a thing here. The only time they will leave a package is if it is small enough to fit through your mail slot, or if you have a lockable package box (which, to be fair, many french people do). On the up-side, this practice eliminates the porch-pirate industry. But it makes receiving a package delivery another one of those all-day affairs – like having cable installed, or waiting for an electrician to show up.
Here’s where the contradiction comes in. In spite of all the confirmations and reconfirmations, during which you have nearly sworn on a stack of holy relics that you will be available to receive delivery of your package, they may, or may not actually show up. And this, ironically, does not seem to cause them any concern at all. All of the carefully scheduled, confirmed, reconfirmed, earnest affirmations and reassurances in the world will not (and often won’t) guarantee that your package will show up on the appointed day, let alone within the appointed delivery window. You may even receive a call from the driver on the day of the scheduled delivery, informing you that he or she will be there in an hour. But then, nothing. They might show up the next day or two, or later reschedule for delivery the next week (after which comes another series of emails, calls and texts).
This all holds true, whether it be private couriers or the national post system. So far, we cannot find any pattern in this delivery chaos. It’s a mystery to us. So much so that we now call it: French Roulette. You just never know if your package will show up when expected, or even at all. I acknowledge that this is definitely a first-world problem. In the scheme of things – especially in this time of pandemic – it’s a rather trivial annoyance. But it does tie up a surprisingly considerable amount of time and effort. And we are retired. I can’t imagine how people manage it when they have busy lives with work and children.
This is why many tend to make use of points relais. A point relais is often a retail business which maintains a side hustle in acting as a depot to receive package deliveries. We’ve chosen this option many times and it’s generally quite reliable. A point relais can be found anyplace from a large supermarket down to a mom and pop tabac shop. We have picked up packages from florist shops, tailors, home decor stores, and grocery stores. It’s not a huge deal, I suppose. Just different. And that’s one reason we moved to France: something different.
Take care. Be Safe. Peace, and good health to you all.
If you feel the need for a moment of zen, I recommend tapping on the video below:
The house is quiet these days. No builders. No jackhammers. No appointments. Just Cherie, me and our dog Saxon. Waiting out the Covid-19 pandemic in our tower of solitude. Like many, if not most of you, the steady rumble of activity which once marked the passing of each day has come to a rather abrupt halt.
France has been in lockdown since the 17th of March. And it’s been a considerable change. Fougères is not normally a town that’s frantic with activity, but the streets are now nearly deserted throughout the day. We’re allowed to go out to buy groceries, go to the pharmacy, take one hour of exercise per day (providing it’s solitary and no further than one kilometer from home), or to take our dog for a walk to use one of his many favorite toilette spots around town. Spoiled for choice, really. We’re fortunate in that we have a small grocery store and two boulangeries within a couple of blocks walk from our house, along with a boucherie (butcher) and a poissonnerie (fishmonger). They are allowed to remain open so that everyone can still obtain food, wine, cheese, toilet paper, medicine, and – of paramount importance – their daily baguette. Even in the face of a national crisis, the French keep their priorities straight.
The deadly seriousness of current events has ironically been belied by the absolutely glorious weather we’ve been having during this period. It just goes to show that nature couldn’t give a damn about whatever ills humans are suffering. And rightly so. Since when have we, as a species, ever really given a damn about nature? At least nature isn’t intentionally hostile to us. I wish I could say the same about humanity. From our windows in the tower, we can watch the park’s resident team of goats, bees and chickens go about their business. I haven’t actually asked them, but I get the feeling that they are quite enjoying the respite from human activity. Like most of the other parks, the Parc du Nançon below us has been closed as part of the lockdown. As a consequence, the park’s domestic animals and wildlife have had the space to themselves. It’s probably just the intensified quiet, but we swear that the birds are singing more spiritedly and more often. And the squirrels are much more visible. No humans. No dogs. Air pollution levels have dropped considerable since the lockdown too. What a blissful vacation the park’s flora and fauna are having!
If all you watch is YouTube, you get the feeling that everyone who has been under lockdown is already beginning to go a little stir crazy. People are bored and resorting to watching a steadily degrading selection of Netflix series or performing increasingly stupid human tricks. But we still have a huge amount of work to do on our new house. So boredom hasn’t yet taken hold. Except, perhaps, for Saxon. He is pining for the parks and greenways and he doesn’t understand why we can’t take him for long walks. So, yeah, the dog’s a little bored.
Construction work on our house has ground to a complete halt. Technically, the lockdown rules allow builders to continue to work if they are able to maintain social distancing. However, they can’t really obtain the materials they need to keep busy. Most of their suppliers have shut down operations. So, in effect, the lockdown has halted nearly all building activity. But the list of small projects which Cherie and I can accomplish is long and we’ve continued to steadily tick them off. Our guest bedroom is now 95% complete after we posed the last wallpaper panel and finished the trim and paint for the en suite bathroom door. The radiator is still a hideous green banana color and there is a small section of baseboard which I need to make; but other than that, we have our first nearly-complete room.
Our beautiful new door handles have been fitted to our bathroom doors. I know it doesn’t sound like much. How hard can that be? Bloody difficult, I can tell you. But only because I very unwisely chose to purchase british door handles and locks. You see, the hostility which the British and French have felt for each other for hundreds of years has been at a low ebb over the last century. But it still exists. And this cultural antipathy manifests itself in thousands of little ways. Frustratingly, one of these ways it makes itself felt is in door hardware. To my dismay, I discovered that british handles and locks do not match up with french doors and frames. Which is to say, the english male bits don’t fit in to the french female bits. While this metaphor has been overcome thousands of times in cross-Channel conjugal relations (as the many resulting french/english children attest), it remains an insurmountable obstacle when it comes to door hardware. As a result, I spent a ridiculous amount of time reconfiguring our french doors and doorframes so that they would accept our new british door handles. What a pain! But they are now both in place and looking rather spiffy. Brass on the outside and polished nickel on the inside. Now we can enter the closed borders of our guest bathroom without hindrance and Brexit when we’re done.
Mind you, the house is still a disaster area. Boxes, furniture, construction materials and dust everywhere. But our kitchen is in a working state. Even though there is still a considerable amount of decorative finishing which needs doing. Our evenings are spent in this room watching Netflix or YourTube, with dinner plates in our laps and tea served on our little terrace table-to-be. We’ve managed to cobble together two dining chairs into a sort of loveseat with a sheet over it to protect from all of the dust. Reasonably comfortable, but a pale comparison to a proper couch. A few months ago we bought a big, beautiful new television. It’s still in the box. Sigh! But, PERSPECTIVE, as I always say. Tragically, there are millions of human beings living in terrible, horrible conditions around the globe. And this pandemic has thrown many millions into economic distress, not to mention the thousands of deaths resulting from Covid-19. How’s that for a little perspective? Our petty complaints are nothing in comparison. Cherie is quite good at remembering that. Thankfully, she is also persistent in reminding her all-too-fallible husband that we are very fortunate indeed.
Currently, we’re engaged in a standoff with a stone wall. We’re determined to reveal the stone wall in the place which we have dubbed the Rampart Passage, an area which will serve as a laundry room/way out to our terrace on top of the old town rampart to the east of the tower. To our advantage, there is two of us and only one – stone wall. And we have tools. Apart from being, well, stone, the wall also has the advantage of being covered with multiple layers of concrete and paint. Lots of paint. Hmnn … I can see what you’re thinking: the odds don’t look good for a happy outcome in this scenario. At least not one in the immediate future. And you’d be correct if it weren’t for two secret weapons at our disposal. The first weapon is an over-sized vat of paint stripper. While we’re generally loathe to use chemicals when we can avoid it, this is war. And we intend to win it. The Geneva Convention doesn’t apply in this case. So chemicals it is. The second weapon at our disposal is our stubbornness. Yes, forget your cleverness, your intelligence, your ingenuity, your hordes of skilled workers with years of specialized training. There’s nothing that sheer, ignorant obstinacy can’t accomplish. And we have plenty of that. So, look out, stone wall! An idiot armed with an oversized brush, a bucket of hazardous chemicals, and the utter inability to comprehend when he’s beaten is coming your way. Let the games begin!
As always, we’ll keep you updated on developments. We hope that when the the worst of this crisis is over and things begin to return to some kind of normalcy, the builders will return and we’ll have more dramatic changes to report. And we’re also hoping to get out to do more sightseeing. We really enjoy it and we’re happy to share our travels with you. To all of you reading this – hang in there, stay safe and healthy, and stay occupied in whatever way makes you happy. Cherie and I wish good health to you and your loved ones. We’ll all get through this Covid-19 crisis together. As always, stay in touch and please share your comments. We really enjoy reading them. See you soon!
Things have been happening on the Tour Desnos Project. Some good. Some not so much. But, good, bad or sideways, enough has occurred that we thought an update was in order. I’ll try to be brief, but I’m self-aware enough to realize that brevity is not an attribute I possess in great abundance. I fear, dear reader, that you are all too conscious of this fact as well. Still, here goes …
The house in Fougères was fairly quiet in December. Not a lot gets done in France at this time of year, particularly in the construction trades. Still James, our loyal and determined general builder chap, was able to complete the floor in our new kitchen. It turned out just as we had hoped.
The kitchen fitters finally showed up in the last days of December and installed our cabinets. Well, almost. It turns out that the kitchen company forgot to include our combination microwave/convection oven, as well as a couple of glass panels which fit into the sides of our drawers. Proving that bad news comes in threes, the company also sent the wrong cornice mouldings for the tops of our two tall cabinets which stand at either end. A little frustrating, but we were so elated to have finally achieved the kitchen installation overall, it hasn’t damped our enthusiasm.
Astonishingly, the fitters for the countertops duly appeared, as scheduled, a couple of weeks later and completed the installation. The countertops are ceramic. So, while they appear much thinner than normal counter materials, they’re really durable, won’t stain, and can withstand high heat — no need for trivets or hot pads to protect these surfaces from searing pots and pans.
We love to cook and we love eating even more. Cherie is the true chef de cuisine in our family and I happily serve under her as the sous-chef. So we can’t wait to finally have the kitchen we wanted in which to spread our culinary wings. Of course, the kitchen isn’t finished yet: the doorway to the pantry must be framed in; the range hood (la hotte) must be extended to the ceiling and painted; and we have to get an electrician in to install a new fuse box dedicated to the oven. And, importantly for me, I have been tasked by the chef de cuisine with building a work table which will stand in the center of the kitchen. [In addition to being the sous-chef, I am also the menuisier/ébéniste (carpenter/cabinetmaker) in the relationship.] But more on that much later, as this piece of furniture will have to wait until I have a finished workshop where I can build it. All in all, though, the kitchen works have been real progress that we can see. Something to cling on to as we wait for other parts of the house to transform.
Two steps forward, one giant leap back. On the off-chance that I have lulled you into the false impression that we are finally over the hump, I offer this little nugget of harsh reality: our project manager quit. Or, to be more accurate, he has decided to retire due to health reasons — in the middle of our project. He dropped the bomb on us by email. Needless to say, we were stunned, hurt, angry, and feeling bereft all at once. That was on a Friday. I think we reached peak-anxiety on Saturday. In an earlier post I had alluded to our ship of state being in the doldrums. With this most recent development it felt as though we had lost our ship’s sails and were now adrift without hope in a dead-calm.
After the initial panic, we were able to look at the situation a little more clearly. We finally decided that, in the final assessment, the withdrawal of our project manager was a net-positive. Why? We were never very satisfied with the way things were being managed. Progress on our house renovation had been very slow and many of the roadblocks felt to us as though they were entirely avoidable. So, on balance, we think that we will be better off simply managing the renovations ourselves. As with most things in our family, Cherie will be in charge; mine will be a support role where, for the most part, I simply try not to get in the way and keep my crazy ideas to myself. For the time being, we’ll see how this strategy plays out.
Now, I had honestly hoped for brevity, but it’s become apparent that I have failed in that ambition. “All ye who enter this blog expecting a quick read, abandon all hope!” But stay with me anyway. There’s more to tell.
So, in spite of the setback with our project manager, we’ve managed to move forward on a couple of things. James moved on to working on the new bathroom that will serve as an en suite for the guest bedroom and more generally as the bathroom for the main floor. So far, a doorway to the bedroom has been knocked through, the old wall where the second door will be has been taken out, the old floor has been jackhammered out, a couple of trenches for utilities carved out, the space has been framed (mostly). Nearly an entire day was dedicated to boring a 100mm hole through the exterior wall for an air extractor fan. The wall turned out to be around 1.8 meters thick, entirely of stone with rubble infill!
We also wrangled in a couple of british friends to help us with some odd jobs. Some of these tasks I would normally take on myself, but all of our tools are in storage. Adam and Katie are a great couple who are really handy; they have a lot of experience renovating old houses and classic boats in England and France. So far, they have been busy reducing and capping off old radiator supply pipes, finishing our range hood, and taking large loads of rubble and other junk to the dump. Currently they are tearing out the big old fireplace which dominates the séjour. Cherie’s sister Kasi is right: “Damn, that fireplace is ugly!” We can always count on her to say it like it is.
Cherie and I continue to nibble around the edges of the project. We’ve finished painting the guest bedroom (except the door), bought and painted a ceiling rose from which the chandelier will hang, and picked up a couple of vintage pieces of furniture (wardrobe and two bedside tables) that we think will work well for this space. We also accomplished a partial move of our things in storage — just the bare essentials that will enable us to live at the house while construction continues. The aim is to move in as soon as our kitchen and bathroom are functional. As James says: “All you need is input and output.” Construction guys. You gotta love ‘em. I prefer to think that there is just a little bit more to life (love, art, music, etc.) but you can’t deny the essential truth of his philosophy.
That’s the state of play so far. La Tour Desnos is beautiful, and promises to be even more so once we’ve finished the renovations. But it’s also been a towering frustration thus far. We hope that we have turned a corner and can now expect greater progress. So far, so good on that score. Will we be able to move in by the end of February? We hope so. As always, stay tuned.
This morning I’m drinking a nice cup of breakfast tea (milk, sugar), munching on a freshly baked pain au chocolat from the boulangerie just up the street, and reflecting on the flood that almost was.
You may recall that the house we are renting in Malestroit stands on the banks of the river Oust (pronounced “oost”, like “boost”). It’s a beautiful, tranquil watercourse meandering southeast from the central spine of the Breton peninsula in the north down to the town of Redon on the border with Loire-Atlantique in the east.
It so happens that this seemingly bucolic river is prone to flooding. We had heard the stories, seen the photos of past inondations. Sounded pretty grim and looked even worse. Tales of homes submerged and views of boats being paddled down the street past our front door. Ask anyone who has lived here most of their lives (which is nearly everyone) and they are eager to raise their eyes heavenward and regale you with accounts of the floods of yore.
Dotted around town are small round plaques mounted on walls to commemorate the high water marks of various past floods. Apart from scaring the bejeezus out of the two of us habitual hill-dwellers, for most visitors these markers stand as low-rent tourist attractions; it’s common here to see tourists pointing at the plaques and enjoying a moment of schadenfreude. Rarely a day goes by in Malestroit without watching an out-of-towner gawp in astonishment at the town’s past flood levels.
In the past, l’inondations, or, les crues were relatively rare events. Old-timers here have told us that they had only witnessed one or two floods in the past. But in the past 25 years there have been several significant floods. Instead of a 50-year event, they now seem to be happening every five to ten years. As a debating proposition, it becomes increasingly more tenuous to deny climate change as one finds the homes of one’s neighbors regularly awash in river muck with greater frequency.
This time the river began to seriously rise about a week or so before Christmas. When it began to look serious, the town government sprang into action in an impressive manner. They have a sort of civil emergency corps made up primarily of volunteer retirees who are reasonably well organized and get to wear bright orange vests as a bonus. [The French love a good uniform, baldrics, badges, hats, clipboards – anything that marks them out as being an official something.] Two of their members visited our house a few days ago to look in on us and ask if we were prepared. All in warp-speed French, of course. I managed to get the gist of what they were saying and answer with near lucidity. Satisfied that we were not completely incompetent, they then took a rough inventory of the furniture on our ground floor, though I wasn’t sure why.
Two days later I found out what they were doing. In the morning, as flood waters were continuing to rise, a town work-truck pulled up, one of the occupants knocked on our door, shook my hand and cheerily confirmed that, according to the previous furniture assessment, we required eight blocks.
Huh? As I puzzled with his announcement, wondering if, in all likelihood, I had misunderstood him, he and his associate unloaded eight large blocks, the kind used as footings for temporary cyclone fence panels for festivals and such. Soon the men finished piling the blocks neatly on the sidewalk next to our door. They smiled again, shook my hand, and careened the truck down the street to the next house.
Our neighbors later explained that the town government does this for everyone who may be threatened with flooding. The blocks are for raising furniture up off the floor and, if actual flooding of the home looks to be imminent, members of the police and/or fire brigade will come to help do this for those who are unable to do it themselves. By the time the blocks were delivered, Cherie and I had already spent a few hours moving what we could upstairs and elevating everything else off the floor. But it was really nice to know that the town government and community was so caring, prepared and organized. We have several elderly neighbors on our street who would be in a sorry state were it not for this kind of assistance.
As the days progressed, so did the flood waters. Soon, the river had breached its banks at the back of our garden and began to slowly creep toward the rear of our house. Neither of us had ever experienced a flood before, so we were a bit stressed out. It was like watching an incoming tide slowly moving up the beach. Except in this case, the tide just kept coming closer. Never receding.
And it just kept raining. Finally, the river had reached the edge of the terrace in front of our back door. We were convinced that we would soon have water covering our ground floor. But at least the rain had stopped. The next morning we woke up to find that the river had retreated back down to the bottom of our garden. Saved! We were so relieved. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a miracle. But it was remarkable how far the waters had receded overnight.
So now, in the aftermath of the flood, as the morning light is finally beginning to edge out the gloom, I can again see the songbirds skipping about the full length of the back garden – all of the way to the river’s natural banks. The background roar of the floodwaters as they tumbled through the town has now gone. The normal sounds of life in Malestroit have returned: an occasional car trundling down the street; the metallic rattle of madame’s La Poste delivery bike and the attendant slap of mail being thrust through our neighbors’ post boxes; the periodic bouts of animated chatter in whirlwind French outside our door as acquaintances come across each other in the street (here, everybody knows absolutely everyone else); the quiet creaks and bangs of window and door shutters up and down the street as they are opened in the morning and closed again in the evenings in an almost ritualistic expression of French-ness.
It’s funny how quickly we’ve grown accustomed to the daily rhythm of life here in France. That became acutely apparent when the floodwaters began to disrupt the normal flow of the sights and sounds which have so indelibly become a part of our daily lives. It made us realize how integral the river is to that life here in Malestroit. When the Oust is out of sorts, so is the entire town. For our part, we’re just happy and grateful that the waters never breached the house. With a little luck, we will have moved to higher ground in Fougères long before the next flood. Fingers crossed!
I sat down to write this thinking that I haven’t really much to offer that’s new. We haven’t made any interesting excursions to places of fascination. No big events to report. If our family was a ship, it feels as though we’ve sailed into the doldrums, waiting for the wind to pick up. And waiting …
Much of this has to do with our house and the renovations we were hoping to achieve before we moved into it. The pace of progress is agonizingly slow. It has been frustrating and a real test of our patience. Yes, it’s true: we’re retired at a fairly young age and we’re living in France. What more could we want? A fair point. And one which, especially I, have to be mindful of. But no matter how exceptional the circumstances, living in a kind of limbo, not having a place which really feels like our home is unsettling. We’re finding it hard to really get comfortable and feel that we actually live here. I suppose we still feel as though we’re still just visiting this wonderful country. Temporary. Non-residents. The doldrums.
But, about four weeks ago, things suddenly began to move. Our sails began to luff a bit and our ship just started to make way. Our project manager was finally able to secure a general builder who can do nearly all tasks except plumbing, electricity and finish plastering. They have very strict qualification rules in France so it’s difficult for builders to be jacks of all trades. Even more prohibitive are the insurers of building trades. Licensed contractors are required by law to guarantee their work for 10 years. Which I think is pretty great. The downside of this is that insurers are very reluctant to insure builders for more than one area of work. They assume that one cannot be sufficiently competent in more than one specialization to be able to guarantee their work will hold up for at least a decade. So you tend to get a lot of specialization here.
Our guy, James, is British, but has lived and worked as a builder in Brittany for 19 years. We like him and he seems to be doing good work so far. I’m happy to report that our new kitchen now has a solid concrete floor on top of which James began to lay our stupidly-expensive new/old clay tiles today. We can’t wait to see how it looks when he’s finished laying the tiles. A finished kitchen floor – it will be a real milestone for us.
We had originally planned to keep the existing plaster ceiling in the kitchen and add false wood beams to it, mirroring those that are already in the adjoining séjour (living room). James had a hunch and wisely thought to first investigate what was under the plaster ceiling. He discovered the original thick wood joists and a further large wood beam. A bit of a surprise. Although it wasn’t exactly what we had envisioned, we decided that we should simply expose the original joists and beam and make a feature of them. This not only has the benefit of being more authentic to the house, but will also be less expensive than installing new false beams. We happened to be there on the day James planned to rip out the plaster ceiling so I joined him. Together, we made quick work of it. All we needed were ladders and claw hammers. Dust masks were handy too! After a couple of hours we had pulled all of the plaster, lath and cellulose insulation down. A quick trip to the town dump (la déchèterie) and it was job done. Later that week James installed the new plasterboard between the joists and beam and prepped the gaps at the tops of the walls so they can be filled in by the plasterer. So far, we like the look of it and we’re happy with the decision to keep the original woodwork.
In the old kitchen area things got a bit interesting. When we bought the house, we noticed a small hatch in the floor. There was no obvious way to lift it, so we were never able to see what was underneath it. It remained a minor curiosity. However, a couple of weeks ago James needed to see how deep the tiles were in that floor in order to ensure that our new tiles will fit. So he took the opportunity to also crack open the hatch. What he found was an oddity of plumbing: a meter and a half deep concrete-lined pit into which empties three pipes at various heights and a pipe opening in the bottom to drain it. We tested it out and found that the old kitchen sink drains directly into this pit, as well as a rainwater drain from the front courtyard. We’re still not sure what the other pipe drains. So weird, we couldn’t help but laugh. It’s still unclear what we’re going to do to remedy this avant-garde plumbing arrangement. But, clearly, something will have to be done.
After the hatch unveiling, James was able to jackhammer out most of the hideous tiling in the old kitchen in preparation for laying new stone flooring. That area will be subdivided into a guest bathroom and a passageway/laundry area. For now, we’re keeping the old cabinets and sink in place so that we will have them to use until our new kitchen is completed and ready for action.
In the adjoining guest room we have continued to paint. Progress has been a little bit slowed by the bare plaster walls which suck up the paint and therefore required several coats. We intend to adorn the walls with framed wallpaper panels. Hence the bare rectangles you see in the photo. Cherie has been doing most of this work while I fiddle around with other tasks. James tends to rope me into helping him when we are there, but we’re happy to have me doing this as it saves us a good deal of money. I also took the opportunity to try out our new pressure washer. I have never used one before. But after having used it to remove a slick layer of algae from our sun terrace, I am a believer. There is nothing like having the right tool for the job and this electric wonder proved to be perfect for it. I can’t wait to clean more things – even if they don’t need it.
Lastly, we finally received delivery of our new kitchen fittings. Now there is a big pile of cabinets and appliances crowding our séjour. Unfortunately we had to postpone the installation date yet again (for the fourth time) because the kitchen space was just not going to be far enough along to allow it. Things got a bit heated between our project manager and the kitchen fittings company representative over this last delay and there were some very exasperated emails flying around for a couple of days. For a while there, it was looking like we would not be able to get the installation rescheduled until January. But, thankfully, a détente was reached and a date is now set for December 4th and 5th. Placement of the countertops will be done in the week following that. It has been such a long road to get this kitchen completed. We are keeping our fingers crossed that there will not be any further complications.
So, while the pace of our house renovation has been nearly imperceptible since last February, now there is finally some actual, visible progress. When will we be able to move in? That’s a question which is still seriously up in the air at this point. But at least now we feel like we are moving steadily towards it. We’ll keep you posted.
In other news, we somehow convinced the French government to allow us to stay in their beautiful part of the world for yet another year. Hooray! A couple of weeks ago we were notified by text that our Titres de Séjour were ready to pick up. A quick and surprisingly painless trip to the Préfecture offices in Rennes (conjure in your minds a very large Department of Motor Vehicles – and all that entails) resulted in us skipping merrily back home with our official identity cards. It felt like a real milestone. And a big relief. We will have to reapply again next year before we can then request permanent resident status. But, still, it’s good to know that we have reached a certain level of acceptance here in what we hope will be our forever home.
Oh, and we made a couple of new friends. Noël and Guylen are a french couple who moved to Bretagne from Marseille a couple of years ago. We met them while out on a walk one day and they invited us to their home for a visit. Amazingly, given what we consider to be our still rudimentary french, we are able to converse pretty well with them. They speak even less English than we do French, so we feel like this is a real accomplishment. Noël and Guylen are our age and have a nice older home in Plumelec, a small town just 20 minutes west of Malestroit. They have renovated quite a bit of it and made it a nice home with a zen-like garden. We shared crêpes and hot chocolate and discussed music, politics, regional differences, food, etc. It was a good time and we hope to spend some more time with them in the near future.
Speaking of friends, we had the pleasure of welcoming some old friends from Seattle for a visit to Bretagne. Larry and Shereen spent a week with us in October and we enjoyed showing them a few of the highlights of our corner of France. We have known them both for a long time, having met and worked alongside Shereen for 20 years. They are such great people and so fun to hang out with that we felt really honored that they would come all of this way to spend a good portion of their vacation in France with us. We strolled around Malestroit; took them to Fougères, of course; visited the historic towns of Vitré, Rochefort en Terre, Auray, and Josselin; and walked amongst the evocative neolithic stones at Carnac. Overall we were fortunate with really good weather and it was really good to see them again. Hopefully they left with fond memories as they continued onward to Le Mans for some racetrack adventures, then to the south of France and, finally, Paris.
That’s all of the news for now. Work on the house in Fougères is not as exciting as trips to Paris, for sure. But this has been our lives of late and we thought we should give you an update as to what we have been doing. We’re hoping that we can resume more interesting travels as things progress on the house and we find ourselves relaxing a bit more. There’s so much to see and do here. We’re eager to do it all! When we do, we’ll keep you posted. Promise. With fair winds and a following sea, we’ll get there soon.
As a certified Tolkien geek, I was bemused last year when Cherie and I first came across a road sign announcing that the next exit would lead one to Elven. How cool is that?, I thought. But we were on our way to Vannes down the road at the time so we didn’t stop to investigate. A couple of weeks later we discovered that there is a town called Rohan not too far away. Elves, Rohan. Surely we have discovered Middle Earth!
After a few further drive-bys (we always seem to be on our way to Vannes for one thing or another) we finally decided to check out this magical-sounding town of Elven. Would there be houses of sinuous design as at Rivendell? Perhaps timeless glades of statuesque mallorn trees such as would be found in Lothlorien?
Nope. Elven is really just an average French town. We stopped and had a walk around its small center, grabbed a couple of sandwiches and pastries and noted that the town unfortunately appears a bit down on its luck. We discovered a nice little chapel on a knoll and the parish church was undergoing an extensive restoration. But apart from that, we found nothing of particular interest. And definitely no sign of elves. How disappointing.
But. We also saw signs for the Tours d’Elven, or the Forteresse de Largoët. [Tours is French for “towers”] Despite the different names, these appeared to refer to the same site. Intrigued, we attempted to find it. Or them. Or whatever “it” was. Following the signs will get you nowhere. Literally. But with the help of Google Maps we were able to track it down. Finally, we had found it. Unfortunately, we found it out of season. A long rural driveway brought us to a lovely gatehouse with a not-so-lovely paper sign suggesting we try again a few months later, in springtime. This place was proving harder to get into than the Black Gate of Mordor.
One thing led to another and we had many distractions (see previous posts) to keep us away from the mysterious towers in the forest and we had nearly forgotten about them. But last weekend we were wanting to take a walk somewhere new. Suddenly I recalled the mythical Tours d’Elven. Quick, we thought, we had better seek them out before they disappear for yet another off-season hiatus. So we launched the Audi southward from Malestroit, tingling with the anticipation that, at last, we might finally catch a glimpse of this legendary place, shrouded by ancient charms as it was in the misty forest.
This time, Fortune favored us. We arrived to find the gates open and welcoming – as long as we plunked down our five euros each, that is. Tickets in hand, we discovered that this is a privately-owned monument. The gatehouse/ticket office was built in the beginning of the 20th century as part of a regeneration of the property. It’s a beautiful stone cottage with classic, stately lines mottled with lichens and well settled into the landscape. One peculiarity of the gatehouse are the several stone hares which decorate the gable ends and entrance stairway. They’re beautifully carved. A bit fanciful and, in one case, energetically straddling the bannister leading up the stairway to the front door in a way for which bunnies are well-known.
Past the gatehouse a gravel road led us on a tranquil stroll through woodland filled with chatter of songbirds. In the distance, we could hear the baying of hounds on the hunt. Not surprising this time of year. The French are mad about hunting (also fishing). It’s not uncommon to come across an organized hunting party while driving country roads. They usually place a couple of warning signs on the roadside to let people know that there are armed enthusiasts milling about in a nearby wood or field. Proceed at your own risk. The sound of gunshots is fairly common out here in the wilds of Bretagne. It makes hiking the trails a more piquant experience.
Suddenly we emerged into a clearing filled with majestic medieval ruins. We assumed there would be a few remnants of broken wall jutting out from a tumble of brambles. We were mistaken. Confronting us at the end of the road was a moat guarding a stone gatehouse, behind which rose two massive towers. “Quelle surprise!”
The Forteresse de Largoët is a compact site, much of it in ruins, but dominated by its two magnificent towers which still reach to their original heights. The castle was primarily built in the 15th century and, at one time, formed a small island surrounded by a water-filled moat on three sides and a small lake on the other. The rear elements of the gate (two flanking towers) date from the 13th century. It’s the only gate complex that I’ve ever seen which has arrow slits opening into the gate passage itself. Ingenious and, I imagine, quite effective if attackers ever managed to batter the gate down and get into the passage.
The main tower (the donjon) is open to the public. It’s also open to the rain, the snow, the wind, and pigeons – sadly, it has no roof. So it is somewhat of a shell. But one can still wander about, investigate its many alcoves. [“You use this word, alcoves?” – that’s for all of you In Bruges fans. If you are not a fan of this movie, well … it beggars belief.] There are also two winding stairways which climb nearly the full height of the tower. At each level you can gaze out over the beautiful forest and lake, or wander into empty spaces still containing fireplaces, window seats, garderobes (medieval toilets), arched ceilings and wonderfully carved doorways. The larger halls and chambers of the two central cores running vertically through the donjon apparently had wooden floors which long ago rotted away, leaving precipitous views of fireplaces and other elements now hanging in mid air.
Despite its partly ruinous nature, the donjon is really impressive. Seven floors. Forty-five meters tall! It’s huge. And it must have been mind-numbingly expensive. Elaborately decorated with gargoyles, stepped machiolations, molded edgings, the entirety of the exterior and interior is faced in fully-dressed stone. None of your cheap rubble construction at Largoët.
The other tower, the Tour Ronde, is less statuesque than the donjon, but it, too, is beautiful and imposing. It was restored in 1905 when the top bits were reconstructed and used as a residence for some time. Unfortunately, this tower is closed to the public so we weren’t able to have a peek inside.
It’s easy to imagine how this castle in the woods must once have looked. In spite of the many ruins, the remains are substantial enough to allow one to form a full image of its walled might when the complex was complete and filled with the many inhabitants who must have lived and worked there. For the lords of Largoët it was surely a life lived in the height of fashionable architecture and security. Exciting as it is to explore such amazing sites, I am always left with a bit of sadness that a building of such beauty, so cleverly conceived, and having required such effort to complete, could be left to fall into ruin, largely forgotten or, at the least, discounted. A place no longer valued. To me, it’s a form of disrespect. Not just to the noble elites who conceived and enjoyed the many advantages of such a place, but also to the countless men and women whose names we will never know – those who toiled to build, maintain, and serve the Forteresse de Largoët. We could certainly do them more honor.
As for the elves? Not a one. Nor dwarves, hobbits, orcs or goblins. Not even an ent in the woods did we see. We certainly found the two towers. But Middle Earth? Well, I guess my search continues. Nonetheless, we had a fine day and we were so happy we persevered in our quest to find this place. Should you ever find yourselves in this magical part of the world, you will not regret a visit to the Elven Towers.
You might not have guessed by the lack of posts recently, but the past few weeks have been marked by quite a bit of activity for us. Nothing big. Nothing grandiose. Just busy with lots of smaller errands. Who knew retirement would be so exhausting?
It started several weeks ago with a flash trip to New York. You may have noticed in your own lives that financial institutions can be wonderful things: safeguarding your hard-earned money, investing for your future, contributing to the well-being of a thriving economy. But most of all, they make your dealings with them a bureaucratic misery. In this instance, all we wanted to do was move some money from one part of the bank to another. Sign a paper here, shake a hand there. Easy-peasy, right? “Absolutely,” says our kindly bank representative. “We just need you to do it in person. In the United States.”
“You are aware, kind sir, that we live in France, yes?”
“Yes.” (We had a vision of him distractedly searching for a summer home in the Hamptons as we spoke.)
“Right. Fantastic. Excellent news. Thank you very much Mr. Banker Person. We’re so privileged to have our life savings accepted into your caring, lovingly manicured hands. We would be more than happy to travel several thousand miles in order to ensure that your hallowed institution is not in any way inconvenienced.”
“Okay. See you soon. Have a nice day.” (Hmmnnn, that ‘cozy, light-filled, six-bedroom beach cottage with bags of character’ looks quite nice …)
At least one of us had to make a trip to the U.S. for the sole purpose of signing a paper. We decided that New York would be the least inconvenient destination as it is the shortest flight and would be the easiest to navigate around. Cherie has a pronounced dislike of flying, to say the least. Saxon even more so. It therefore fell to me to make this administrative leap across the ocean.
Actually, for all of my complaints, I’ve always wanted to visit New York. Crazy, I know, but I’ve never been. So, I hopped the TGV (high-speed rail – Train à Grande Vitesse) in Rennes for a two-hour journey to Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris. A few short hours later I was in Manhattan. A great city. Gritty. Filled with people from all walks of life mixing together. Lots of energy and creativity. Just the way I like it. Even though I grew up a country boy, surrounded by woods and fields and farms, I really like big cities and feel quite at home in them. New York fits me very well.
So, on the morning after my late-night arrival, I enjoyed a wander around the Bowery where I found a great little café for breakfast. And they had bacon. Bacon! How I miss american bacon. In France, honest-to-goodness bacon is a rare commodity. You will find pig meat offered to you in a thousand different ways here. All of them excellent. The french love pigs and eat a much greater variety of all they can offer a nation of gourmandes. But american style bacon is not one of them. When you do find it, it’s generally a pale reflection of the good stuff. Needless to say, I ordered a side of bacon. And relished every bite.
My business at the bank later that morning took all of an hour. And it was about as interesting as you might imagine. Enough said. The upside was that I was then presented with an entire afternoon and evening to do with as I wanted. This was my chance to combine two things close to my heart: public transit and museums. Free to geek out to my heart’s content, I hopped the subway north to the Upper East Side, fended off a couple of insistent (although surprisingly entrepreneurial) street hustlers, and climbed the steps to an institution which I had always wanted to visit: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was not disappointed.
The Met is easily one of the top five best museums I have ever encountered. The medieval and early modern collection alone is vast and comprehensive. Cherie loves museums too. But she is not ridiculous like I am. A couple of hours in any given museum and she is ready to find a café for tea and yummy cake. Quite sensible. I spent over five hours in the Met, never once stopping for scones. Who needs a pastry with milky tea when you can stare at the miracle of Dürer’s painting technique? Food for the soul, man! Food for the soul. I would have stayed longer, but they finally kicked me out of the building. Something unreasonable about closing time or some such. At any rate, it was brilliant and made the ridiculous proposition of travelling to New York from France for the sole reason of signing a paper seem not so silly after all.
After my marathon at the Met, I took the opportunity to wander through Central Park, take the subway back to Lower Manhattan and have a nice italian dinner in, where else?, Little Italy. Just enough time for me to take a rideshare to Newark airport for my red-eye flight back to Paris. By early evening I was back home in Malestroit. I had only been gone not much more than a day-and-a-half. Even though it was kind of a grind, the opportunity to visit New York was really enjoyable.
So, with the paper signed, we were in business. Right? Nope. At it turned out, a further step was required: we needed to sign a further financial form. The good news was that we would not have to make another jaunt across the Atlantic Ocean. It was only necessary for us to have our signatures notarized. Phew! That was welcome news indeed. Problem is, there is no such thing as a Notary Public in France. At least not that is recognized by U.S. financial institutions — well, not ours, anyway. After some digging, Cherie discovered that we could have documents notarized at at U.S. diplomatic station. Sweet! There is a U.S. Consulate in Rennes. That’s only an hour’s drive away. Here’s the bit where the bad news comes in: only the consulates in Paris, Strasbourg and Marseille provide notary services. Bugger!
Forced to make a trip to Paris. Oh the hardship, the cruelty of it all. How the Fates had so unkindly laid their displeasure upon us. Life can be hard. But sometimes we just have to face up to it like adults and persevere. Another whirlwind visit planned. This time together. Dropping Saxon off with our very generous and dog-adoring neighbors (thank you Jean and Adrian!), we comfortably careened our way to Paris on the TGV, and thankfully slowed to a full stop before crashing through the train station barrier at Gare Montparnasse. [Our tickets, by the way, were seriously inexpensive. €130 standard fare, round trip, for the both of us. I love this country.]
I don’t know how anybody could not love Paris. I kid you not. There is something seriously out of sorts with your soul if come away from Paris thinking “meh!”. It’s a truly wonderful city. Full of beauty and character. There is also a quiet and yet forceful confidence which pervades, a relaxed energy. Parisians seem to stroll through their city in such an assured manner regardless tasks they are engaged in; as though they are perpetually on their way to an evening concert in the park. Paradoxically, there is also a cacophony of spirit that, though often heard, is sometimes simply felt. Everyone here has things to do. People to see. And, most importantly, matters to discuss – for hours on end. Conversation in France is a professional sport. And Parisiens are the World Cup champions. If you ever want give your French language skills a challenge, strike up a conversation in Paris. Pro tip: 1.) apply extra deodorant beforehand and 2.) set your facial expression to “feign comprehension”. [Even if they know you are faking it, they don’t seem to care; they’ll happily carry on regaling you with lighting-fast monologue as long as you display even the faintest hint of interest.]
On the day we arrived, we took the Metro from the train station to our hotel in the 8th arrondissement. There, we dropped our shared suitcase (we like to travel light if we can) and, as it was lunchtime, searched for somewhere to eat. Little did I know, but Cherie had already spied a Chinese restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. Like bacon, asian food can be difficult to come by in our neck of the woods so we are always on the lookout for it. I guess we never fully appreciated how fortunate we were to be surrounded by such a variety of really good asian food restaurants while living in Seattle. Well, we certainly appreciate it now. The Chinese restaurant near our hotel was good. Not great, but good enough to satisfy our longing. In fact, Cherie was later regretting that we hadn’t taken advantage of the dim sum offerings they had at the restaurant. So much so that we went back to the same place for dinner that evening. Lack of Chinese food addressed? Check.
After lunch we engaged Paris’ excellent Metro system again to travel to Saint-Ouen area in the north of the city. This is where the famous Paris flea market (Le Marché aux Puces) is held – the largest in the world, or so we have been told. Whether it’s true or not, it certainly is extensive. We spent a find afternoon of rummaging through posh antique shops to junk stalls and everything in between. I’m pretty sure you could find just about anything at the Marché aux Puces if you looked long enough. We were there on a Monday, so it was not crowded at all. So large is the market that, even after a few hours, we had barely scratched the surface. Of course, a good 45 minutes to an hour of that was spent chatting to an antique dealer who cheerily engaged us in conversation. Well, mostly he talked and we smiled, nodded our heads and said “Oui” a lot. In that time, we managed to discuss politics, philosophy, food, architecture, art, friends and family. He was a lovely guy, clearly a contender as a starter for the city team in conversation.
The following day we had an appointment at the the U.S. Embassy to get our signatures notarized. On our way we grabbed two of the best pains au chocolat we have ever had and ate them as we strolled through the Jardins des Champs-Élysée on a sunny August morning. We arrived outside a heavily guarded building to find a long line of people queued up outside the gates along the tree-lined street in various states of being ranging from nervous, anxious, irritated and desperate. Regardless of their varying emotional states, everyone shared in the pervading sense of confusion. Yes, we thought. This must be the place.
As with most things American, the whole affair was hopelessly disorganized. No one knew what they were supposed to do or where to go. Were we in the right line? Do we wait to be called? No one knew. Officials of any kind were conspicuously absent; when they deigned to come around at all, they would randomly shout conflicting information adding further confusion to the already-bewildered group of people in their charge. Cherie and I stood in line for a while, trying in vain to detect some pattern or form of logic as to who was allowed in, why, and in what manner. Failing that, Cherie left me to hold our place in line while she skipped up to the front to seek guidance. It turned out that, because we were American citizens and we had an appointment, we were allowed to enter directly.
I should reiterate that all of this took place outside, on the sidewalk opposite the embassy. The point of entry to the building was a detached gate area across the street, covered by a marquee where private security guards performed an initial security screening and attempted to address the concerns of frazzled patrons trying to navigate a clearly broken system run by, well, nobody, it seemed. We were feeling fortunate that the weather was pleasant. Had it been raining or if had been in the midst of one of the brutal series of heatwaves which plagued Paris this summer, I think these poor contractors would have had a riot on their hands. We would have taken photos of this interesting scene, but anyone who even briefly pointed a lens in the general direction of the embassy was met with a stern warning from gun-toting guards. Neither one of us was willing to end up in Guantanamo Bay just for the sake of a colorful photo.
With guilty consciences we skipped past the long queue, breezed through security and finally made it to an area that can only be best described as a Paris branch of your state Department of Motor Vehicles. Rows of windows faced by even more rows of chairs, several roped lanes for queueing, announcements over crackling speakers and dozens of people whose former confusion and anxiety were now replaced by frustration and boredom in equal measures. For us the path was relatively straightforward and we didn’t have to stand in any more lines. Just wait for our number to be called. It still took a couple of hours, but we finally got our signed document notarized. Emerging into the sunlight of Parisien freedom, we hot-footed it away as quickly as we could, relieved that we had, once again, managed to overcome a bureaucratic hurdle.
Business was finished. Time for some fun. We quickly made our way across the Seine from the Place de la Concorde to the Left Bank and headed east. With reluctance, we passed the Musée d’Orsay following the Rue de Lille through beautiful beaux-arts buildings the street-levels of which were filled with high-end antiques and art shops. We longed to step into the Orsay and the many shops. But we knew that, if we had, it would be the day gone. Which would normally have been just fine with us but we already had tickets for another attraction: Sainte-Chapelle.
On the way we stopped into a nice little bistro for lunch before crossing over Pont Saint Michel to the Île de la Cité. This island is where Notre Dame cathedral is located. From afar we could see this beautiful monument’s sad state after the devastating fire of earlier this year which, amongst other things, destroyed the roof over the nave and toppled the spire. Having both seen Notre Dame in its former glory, we didn’t have the heart to take a closer look.
Sobered by tragic damage to Notre Dame, we continued on to Sainte Chapelle, a 13th century royal chapel built by King Louis IX in order to house his treasured relics: a portion of the “True Cross” and the “Crown of Thorns”. It’s a beautiful chapel which suffered terribly at the hands of French Revolutionaries at the end of the 18th century as they vented centuries of built-up resentment of the Catholic Church’s vast wealth, power and political machinations. Not without a little controversy, the chapel was restored in the later 19th century with what some consider to have been a heavy hand. A good deal of the damaged or missing stonework was replaced, the designs often deriving from what is felt to have been misguided research. The attempt by these well-intentioned 19th century restorers was to reintroduce the splendor of the original chapel. Whether or not one agrees with the historical accuracy of the restoration, it’s hard to argue that they did not live up to putting the magic back into the old place. It is simply stunning.
Further pro tip: buy your tickets for Sainte Chapelle online. This allows you to avoid the long lines for purchasing tickets at the site itself. This time, instead of feeling guilty as we did at the embassy, we waltzed smugly right past scores of people directly to the entrance. No line at all. Guilt-free.
As beautiful as the chapel is, it’s somewhat diminished by the hordes of visitors filling every square inch of it. It’s a little difficult to fully appreciate the true architectural and historical glory of the edifice when you are constantly interrupted by foolish statements like “Why don’t they have an elevator here?”, or “It would be totally rad to have a bubble party in here, right?” Ugh! Americans, no less. It makes one despair.
Despite the minor irritations, we were so glad to have seen it. Sainte Chapelle is truly a special place. Just across a courtyard is the Conciergerie. In the Middle Ages it began as a royal palace. In the fourteenth century it began to be transformed into a prison and was eventually to become during the Revolution the infamous site where victims of the Reign of Terror were held, most of whom were then marched to the guillotine. Marie Antoinette was amongst them and visitors can see the cell where she was held, some of her personal items, and the prison chapel where she is memorialized. I found it a bit creepy. But it was interesting and important to see.
For most of its history during the Middle Ages, the Conciergerie was a busy palace and royal administrative center, teaming with nobility, soldiers, diplomats, administrators and petitioners. Only a small portion of the Conciergerie is open to visitors. But one of these areas is huge room called The Hall of the Soldiers, a massive, colonnaded space stretching 64 meters in length and 25 meter wide; it is located directly under the Great Hall and was used as a dining area for the over 2,000 servants required to keep the place ticking. The chill of winter was kept at bay with four monster fireplaces. Equally impressive is the adjacent kitchens. They include another four huge fireplaces which are each big enough to hold a dining table with seating for six.
Unfortunately, our time in Paris ran out and we had to get the train back home in order to break Saxon away from the greedy clutches of his adoring admirers, Adrian and Jean. It’s great that he really loves them and he’s quite happy to be in their home. But we also have to admit that it is satisfying to see him so overjoyed to welcome us back, springing up and down, snorting with happiness, and tail working so hard that we fear he will wag himself apart. It never ceases to warm our hearts. We loved our little Paris break and we hope to enjoy many, many more in that wonderful city.
Amongst all of this is grinding reality of our house project, a glacial exercise in equal parts anticipation and frustration. Over the summer we have been waiting helplessly for our project manager to find builders and get work started. We don’t mind living there while work is going on, but I hope you’ll agree that we can’t do so without a bedroom, working bathroom, and functional kitchen. To all intents and purposes, we have none of those right now. But finding artisans who are qualified to work on a 15th century monument and who have space in their schedules to fit us in has proven extremely difficult. And so we wait.
To keep ourselves from going mad we have been doing as much preparatory work as we think would be useful. An earlier post showed us removing wallpaper and chiseling out plaster moulding. But there’s only so much of that kind of thing we can do. There are other tasks, though. Such as finding the right flooring we need. As those of you who know us might already have noticed, we are fairly determined and particular about the way we decorate. This house being so much more special than all of the rest, we have struggled to find just the right floor covering we want.
We only needed to find two types of flooring: clay tiles for the kitchen, chapel and master suite bathroom; and stone slabs for the entry, rampart passageway and guest bathroom. After months of searching, we finally found a company that appeared to have what we wanted. A quick check indicated that their closest showroom was in the département of Loire-et-Maine – a two hour drive east from Malestroit. What with working on the house in Fougères every week, interspersed with the many administrative errands we had been having to run throughout the spring and summer, our enthusiasm for making the drive to this showroom in the Pays de la Loire in the hope that they would actually have what we wanted was somewhat dampened. Nevertheless, the areas of the house so critical to finish so that we could move in had to have flooring installed before they could be completed.
Fortifying ourselves with tea and fresh pastry, we trundled into the car and tottered through the lovely rural countryside of eastern Bretagne on our way to the flatter, more open lands of the western Loire region. As is usual, it was a pleasant drive past countless picturesque farms and hamlets interspersed with the winding roadways threaded through quiet country villes sporting their ubiquitous stone parish churches, bar/tabacs, boulangeries, boucheries and mairies [combination bar/tobacco shops, bakeries, butchers, and town halls].
At length we found our way to the stone yard. Filled with clay tiles, stone slabs, paving, curbstones, and cobblestones, this place is a floor designer’s dream, especially for traditional and historic properties. Despite our novice language skills, we managed to discuss our needs with a salesman quite handily and we came away with samples of a terre cuite (fired clay) tile and a smaller stone paving that we felt might work. After months of deliberating and struggling to find flooring on which we could both agree, we were convinced we had finally made a real breakthrough.
Filled with a sense of accomplishment we stopped off at the nearby town of Segré for a quick bite to eat. It’s a pretty town perched above and upon the confluence of two rivers (Oudon and Verzée). The sacred lunch hour had long passed so we grabbed something from a boulangerie and found a nice spot at little marina along the river where we munched contentedly and enjoyed the sleepy sights and sounds of an August day under the shade of a towering oak tree standing nearby. Honorable mention goes to the amazingly good crumble that Cherie chose for our dessert. Miam, miam! [Editor’s note: “miam, miam” is the french equivalent of “yum, yum”, something really tasty. For drinks, it is “glou, glou” – not quite as catchy to our english-speaking ears, but it gets the idea across.]
We victoriously brought the tile samples back home. And almost immediately we realized that, while we liked the clay tiles, we both preferred stone with a more aged appearance and in much larger slabs. As often happens with us, we had both been too concerned with hurting each other’s feelings and so ended up choosing a stone that we each thought would make the other one happy. We need to stop doing that. So, more research and a week later we found ourselves back at the same stone yard again, invigorated with fresh perspective. This time we found what we both truly wanted. Phew! Stone yards are hard (pun intended). But we got there in the end. Now we have all of our flooring settled. If only we can find someone to install it …
Lastly, while all of this was going on, the both of us made separate appointments to the Préfecture in Rennes in order to apply for our Cartes de Séjour. This would allow us to extend our visas to stay in France for another year. So, no big woop. We’ve only bet the rest of our lives on living in France. Not to mention having bought a house here. No pressure. To say that we were a little anxious about it would be a massive understatement. Thankfully, our respective interviews went well and we seemed to have prepared all of the required paperwork correctly (thanks to Cherie’s meticulous research). We each left with an approved temporary visa. The official Carte is supposed to arrive in a couple of months. Talk about relief! We both shed a couple pounds of worry over that one. So, we’re happy to report that we are good for yet another year in France. We’re not entirely certain, but we think that we can apply for permanent residency after three years of this. We can’t wait!
So, that very long account is the tale of the many travels and errands we found ourselves engaged in over the summer. It’s been interesting, frustrating, energizing, exasperating, encouraging, exhausting and rewarding – all at the same time. As the autumn approaches, we look forward to more wonderful surprises as our new life in France continues. We hope you keep following and we love to read your comments. Keep them coming!
It was time for yet another random outing. The weather was fine. Not too hot (we’re from Seattle, remember), and we had not been out to sightsee for a couple of weeks. Determined not to neglect any of our fortunate time here in France, we decided that we needed to get out and see something new. So, late Saturday night I leafed through one of our guidebooks and found a few interesting spots located to the east of us. Not far. Perfect for a short day-trip. Having settled on two sites, we set off on Sunday morning. And, yes, technically, it was still morning (11:30). Just. Unless we’re compelled by some unreasonably early appointment, 11:30 is about as soon as Cherie and I are likely to step out of the door. It’s a well-established family policy.
First on the agenda was the small town of Langon. This community sits on one side of a valley through which runs the Villaine river. The town is also fortunate to have a rail station on the line which runs from Redon to Rennes, giving it connections to Nantes in the south and Lorient to the west. After a nice 45-minute drive through undulating countryside and pleasant little villes, we arrived, winding gently down through pretty stone buildings into the center of town. The sun was shining through a tattered carpet of pillowy clouds, the temperature was just perfect for a t-shirt, jeans and cardigan – and it was quiet. Like, really quiet.
Sundays are quite lazy days in France unless you find yourself in a larger city. Very few (if any) shops are open and, if they are, only for a couple of hours in the morning. Usually one can find a café, bar or restaurant open during the lunch hours (12pm – 2pm). And boulangeries are generally open throughout the main hours of the day. Given our accustomed late starts, we nearly always end up at a boulangerie, grasping for the last sandwiches or quiches remaining in their glass cases. But, this being France, they almost without exception prove to be excellent fare. Even if the sandwiches or quiches aren’t so great, we never leave a boulangerie without patisserie (also family policy – the first item on the list, as a matter of fact); so, a mediocre meal will always be made infinitely better by finishing off with a lovely fruit tart or at least a pain au chocolat! It’s pretty hard to lose under such circumstances.
Apart from a couple of other visitors and some locals in the lone café to be open that day, we had the town to ourselves. Our aim was to see the Chapelle Sainte-Agathe. This chapel is one of the few surviving examples of Gallo-Roman architecture in Bretagne. It it thought to have begun life in the 4th century as either a mortuary vault or as a bath. At some point it became a temple for venerating Venus and then transitioned into a Christian church. The history seems rather unsettled, but regardless of that, this little building is a rare survivor in this part of France. Over 1,600 years old. Amazing!
But, O Fortuna! The chapel was closed. Not entirely surprising. But disappointing nonetheless. The interior is supposed to contain a fresco of Venus rising from the waves and Eros astride a dolphin. Racy. It would have been great to see the inside, but that’s the chance you take when you make spontaneous sight-seeing trips on a Sunday. It’s not far from Malestroit so we will have to make a return trip to view the interior of this lovely little chapel.
An unexpected bonus of our visit to Langon was the town’s parish church: Église St. Pierre. The church is literally steps away from the chapel and we were delighted to see a marvelous display of twelve bell-turrets arranged around the tower, each one keenly pointed and individually shod in slate tiles. It was plain to see that this church has been entirely restored – inside and out – within the past couple of years. And a fine job was done. Very impressive work. We were especially taken with the interior. The lime-render of every wall surface had been completely renewed and sensitively redecorated in a period fashion which evokes its original state when first constructed between the 11th and 12th centuries. It is magnificent. Just the kind of restoration we like to see.
We had the entire church to ourselves, allowing us to appreciate undisturbed the harmony of the architecture and its decoration. The peace of our visit was only broken once, momentarily, when one of the church bells suddenly (and loudly) struck the hour somewhere directly above. At the time, I was having one of those sublime out-of-body moments that I experience whenever I am confronted by a beautiful medieval building. The bell shocked me so much I nearly let fly with a pithy selection of invective from my vast vocabulary of swear words and curses. Luckily, I managed to swallow my frothy utterance before committing an outrageous (though witty) sacrilege. I’m not in the least bit religious, but I have a great respect and admiration for these buildings, as well as for the people who maintain them and the congregations who keep them alive. The last thing I want to do is dishonor a place so precious to them. This time I had had a narrow escape!
Admiring chapels and churches is hungry work. It was also mid-afternoon. Cherie spotted a boulangerie just up the street from the church so she just managed to squeak through their open door before they closed while I minded Saxon. Distraught, as he always is, to be separated by more than three feet from the love of his life, Cherie, the dog and I fidgeted outside while she grabbed lunch. Out of sandwiches, the boulangère sold her a couple of individual quiches, a strawberry tart (for Cherie) and a pear tart (my favorite). We quickly munched them in the car in a very un-french manner, and then set off for our second destination: Grand-Fougeray.
Crossing the Villaine river and continuing further eastward for 15 minutes brought us to Grand-Fougeray. It’s a small-ish town of around 2,500 souls with a lovely square. Even though the end of lunchtime was fast approaching the restaurants terraces were still lively with diners enjoying their meals en plein air on this relaxed summer’s day. It made for a nice atmosphere amidst the backdrop of well-maintained 18th and 19th century facades and riots of flowers blooming in the numerous planters dotted around the square. So typically French. These scenes, so common in France, make us smile every time.
But our goal in this area lay instead on the edge of town. So, this time, at least, we didn’t tarry in the centre-ville and made straight for La Tour du Guesclin. This tower, or donjon, is the only substantial remnant of a castle that had once guarded not only the town of Grand-Fougeray, but also the border of Bretagne which, for most of the Middle Ages, was an autonomous duchy, independent of the kingdom of France. Such vigilance was necessary. For several french kings had made military forays against Bretagne. The only land approach being from the east, several large fortresses were constructed on Bretagne’s borders to guard against recurring french invasions. The castle at Grand-Fougeray was one of these (our new home to the north, Fougères, was another of these guardians of the marches). This string of defenses served as a bulwark to help maintain the duchy’s independence for centuries.
Our guide-book merely includes a brief mention of the Tour du Guesclin. No photos. From the description, we expected a stumpy ruin poking out of the grass, just recognizable as having once been a tower. But as we drove into the casually-marked parking lot, we were stunned to be confronted by an intact monumental stone tower 34 meters high and 13 meters wide. Wow! Although once part of a walled castle, the tower now stands alone, the last sentinel still keeping watch over this part of Bretagne’s ancient border. A beautiful and serene park and arboretum has grown up around the tower, resulting in a very pleasant setting. The tower’s neighbor next door is an eighteenth-century château-cum-convent and on this day several of the nuns had ventured out between their daily services to enjoy the park and take a jovial turn up the spiral staircase of the edifice which overlooks their garden walls.
The fortress of Grand-Fougeray was begun in 1189. In 1350 it was captured by an english pirate (seriously) and occupied by the english for four years until Betrand du Guesclin, constable of France, recaptured it. The tower has borne his name ever since. When we first arrived, the tower appeared to be closed. It looked like, if were to get a look inside, we would ourselves have to lay siege to it. But we forgot to bring our battering ram. So, after a first look around the exterior, we took a stroll through the arboretum, Saxon having great fun sniffing around and watching the many ducks in the ponds with his ever-present fascination for such things. When we returned, the door of the tower was wide open and people were casually entering. Not a battering ram in sight. What luck! It must have been closed for lunchtime. Opening (and closing) times in France are highly unpredictable, changeable and often seemingly random. Sometimes you get lucky. We were quite happy to find that this was one of those times.
Sensibly, the French tend to take a dim view of allowing a large black standard poodle who is lavishly uninhibited in demonstrating his love of meeting new people to wander around inside national historic monuments. So, I entered the tower first to have a look around while Cherie waited outside with our celebrity dog. Ostensibly, the tower was open for an art exhibition. A number of local artists had their works plastered all over the interior spaces of the tower. Although the “art” was a bit distracting, it was still possible to see the beautiful architecture it was concealing.
Clearly, this was once a lavish building. Still visible are the numerous carved moldings, capitals, plinths, lintels, architraves and other decorative features. It was easy to imagine the now-bare stone walls once covered with lime plaster and brightly painted with patterns, figures and/or solid panels of color, some hung with tapestries or painted cloths. Even though it is now a bit stark, it is easy to feel how comfortable and luxurious the rooms of this tower must have once been. Each floor, joined by a projecting spiral stairway, features a large central space from which smaller peripheral chambers radiate around the exterior. The floors were laid in red or buff-colored terra-cotta tiles adding a further sense of solidity to the spaces (as if it needed it). I lingered as long as I dared. After a last look, I reluctantly exited so that Cherie could take her turn. She found it no less impressive than I did. All in all, we both felt that this was a real gem and one of the better medieval buildings we have visited.
Our visits to Lougan and Grand-Fougeray were further proof of our theory that, more often than not, it is the unexpected things which turn out to be the most rewarding travel experiences. It is the surprise discovery or the unforeseen event which gives us the most pleasure, the most long-lasting memories.
Serendipity. We swear by it. And it almost never lets us down. We hope that it works in your favor as well.