The Colors of Pont-Aven

The Aven River Coursing Gently Past Foot-Bridges

A somewhat hastily planned outing to the Breton town of Pont-Aven was on our agenda for this weekend. Frustration with the glacial pace of progress on our house renovation in Fougères continues to build so we felt we needed a sanity break. What better way than to visit a picturesque ville and a château on a lazy summer’s day? It was also my birthday (54 years – almost equal to the number of hairs on my head) so I was keen to get out and do something. Not that I feel the Grim Reaper’s breath – surprisingly minty, by the way – on my back, but I am gaining a greater appreciation of how fleeting time can be. Best to gather ye rosebuds while ye may, n’est-ce pas? [Obscure reference to 17th century English poetry courtesy of my liberal education.]

A Breton Idyll

From Malestroit in Morbihan, we drove to the département of Finistère which encompasses the westernmost portion of Bretagne. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive through gentle hills festooned with oak, beech, and lush farmland of cow pastures, maize and grain crops. It’s pretty country, reminding me somewhat of the area where I grew up in western Oregon.

Our trusty Audi which we purchased not long after we moved to France has proven to be a great car. We bought it used but with low mileage. A plug-in hybrid, the electric battery will get us around 60 kilometers on a full charge. It doesn’t sound like much, but it actually translates in to a considerable savings in fuel consumption. Like most people, the majority of our car trips are short errands around town. We find that we complete most of these trips using only the electric battery.

Our primary intention in purchasing a hybrid electric car was to reduce our carbon emissions. Because, you know, man-made climate change is a real thing and we prefer to try to contribute to reversing it rather than sticking our heads in the sand. So, the car is good for that. It is quite satisfying to be quietly making one’s way through the cobblestone streets under electric power. Of course, we try to walk when we can. And our hybrid electric is certainly not the best solution available. But we feel it’s at least a small positive step towards a wiser, more sustainable future.

Our Audi A3 e-Tron (2015)

The Audi also saves us a bit of cash. In our present situation living in Malestroit, we don’t have a place to park the car where it is appropriate to charge it from an outlet in the house. Thanks to some very forward-thinking action on the part of the town’s leaders, Malestroit has installed, not one, but two charging stations in its main parking lot. And one of those even offers free charging. A slow, full charge of wind-turbine-generated power takes about two-and-a-half hours. Not the most convenient, given that I have to take the car out and pick it up from the charger. But still a pretty sweet deal. Once we are moved in to our house in Fougères, we can simply plug the car in from our garage at will. Can’t wait!

Waiting for the River to Rise

Pont-Aven rests cozily in a narrow valley through which the River Aven flows on its way to the sea. In fact, the tidal limit of the estuary comes up to the southern end of town. There, the river widens, accommodating a sizable fleet of pleasure boats moored either side of the main channel. Except for this channel, the river bed stands dry at low tide. The boats are modified to remain upright on their landlocked moorings by the use of legs fixed to either side of their hulls so that, in concert with their deep keels, they always have at least two points on the ground to stabilize them. It’s a pretty harbor and would be a lovely place to keep an old sailboat. I can dream, can’t I?

Calming the Current: Along the River Aven

The river Aven forms the spine of the town. As it flows through the center of the ville it is channelled into numerous mill races (the mills themselves now long disused) which are criss-crossed by a series of pedestrian bridges. The bridges are well-kept and made all the more colorful with rows of flowers in planters along their railings. The watercourse is often interrupted by patches of large boulders, strewn about as though, in the dim mists of times now long forgotten, géantes celtique were interrupted in their crude game of pétanque, leaving their pieces lay as they were thrown. Along the banks of the river, numerous lavoirs step down to the water, where once the householders of the town washed their clothes. In the rare quiet moment, we could imagine the sounds of scrubbing, beating and rinsing as it must have been for centuries. On this warm July day of sun and puffy clouds, the whole made for really pleasant scene. We soaked it in for a good long time as we meandered along the paths and bridges.

One of Many Bridges Tracing the River’s Path
Now-Silent Lavoirs (Wash-Houses)
A Sluice-Gate Amongst the Bracken, the Mill it Used to Serve in the Background

Our river walk was particularly satisfying because we had just enjoyed a quiet lunch. The restaurant is situated at the very heart of this busy tourist town and we were seated at a widow above the street. Inveterate people-watchers, we engaged in one of our favorite spectator sports, amusing ourselves with the myriad of visitors marching past our view.


Pont-Aven is quite popular with tourists – it has been so since at least the 19th century. From the 1850’s to 1900 it became the frequent summer haunt of artists, the most famous of which was Paul Gaugin. [For any of you interested in art history, I recommend a quick read of the Wikipedia page for the “Pont-Aven School”. A lesser-known, nonetheless influential art movement.] It’s not hard to see why this area attracted artists and continues to do so. The light, the many colors, the juxtaposition of a myriad of textures, architecture and nature, the people, the boats and, running through it all, the water. There’s so much to dazzle the eye.

La Place de L’Hôtel de Ville

We really enjoyed our trip to Pont-Aven. A lovely town in a lovely setting. It’s definitely worth a visit for anyone and we ourselves are quite likely to return someday.

Kernault – A Modest Country Retreat

After a few hours in town, we decided to spend the remains of the afternoon at the manor.

You know. As one often does.

Unfortunately, the manor in question does not belong to us. But thanks to the kind people of Bretagne (and payment of a small entry fee) we were allowed to poke around the house and grounds of Le Manoir de Kernault. The house was begun in the 15th century and later modified successively in the 17th and 19th centuries.

The Chapel Behind a Spray of Golden Grass
Gentle Stone Steps
The Chapel Entrance for the Cheap Seats

The house itself is a beautiful example of Breton manorial architecture and there remain many elements of the original building. An unusual feature is the attached chapel. Manorial chapels were most often separate structures situated within the confines of the house and outbuildings. This one, however, is built on to the side of the house with an exterior stairway access for servants and manorial workers and a private doorway from within the house itself for use by the seigneur (lord) and his family.

Not Your Average Grain Silo

Directly opposite the house is a large grain store built in stone and half-timber. Such a rare thing to survive. It’s quite large. Far too large for storing the crops produced by the manor’s fields alone. Researchers have theorized that the manor must have been speculating on crops from other farms in the area, storing the grain over several years until a time when the selling price was advantageous enough to reap a significant profit. Sound familiar? Some things never change.

Café in a Former Workshop
The Cool Shade of an Allée on a Warm Summer’s Day

We had an interesting and pleasant wander through the manoir’s buildings and fields, pausing to have some tea at the lovely little café in one of the farm’s outbuildings. By the late afternoon we had run out of steam [Did I mention I just turned 54?]. So, even though there was much more of the farmland and animals to see, we called it a day and promised ourselves that we would return to explore further.

Blue Skies and Archangels

This post is an edited version of an email sent to friends and family in April, 2019.

Place du Théâtre, Fougères

This weekend we made another visit to our home in Fougères and took the opportunity to cross over the border to Normandy.  We’ve been lucky enough to have Jessica (Cherie’s niece) visiting us for a few weeks so we wanted to show her our new house and the town which we will be our new home.

We drove up to Fougères from Malestroit on Friday afternoon in pleasant weather, gave Jess a tour of the tower and then walked around town as dusk approached.

View of Église Saint-Léonard Looming Over the Medieval Quarter

The next morning we took advantage of the outdoor market which is held just up the street from our house on Saturdays, had some pastries and hot chocolate and headed off for Normandy with a very particular goal in mind: Mont-Saint-Michel.

The Approach to Mont Saint-Michel

MSM is only a 45 minute drive from Fougères so we fetched up to the many-acre parking lot just before lunchtime. Perfect. MSM is situated on a large rocky island which springs up out of the vast tidal flats at the mouth of the Couesnon river – the very same river which flows by Fougères much further upstream. It’s a lovely setting, surrounded by lush farms and small villages on the mainland, contrasted by the wide expanses of mud flats and the waters of the bay.

Hyper-Tourism Along the Beautiful Grande Rue

As a UNESCO world heritage site, MSM is a massively popular tourist destination. Even during the off-off-season in March, there were substantial numbers of visitors eager to see what all the hype is about. The site is extremely well organized to handle large crowds of people. One must park in the lot on the mainland and either take a free shuttle bus to the mound or walk and nicely groomed, broad pathway (about a 35 minute walk). Dogs are allowed in the village at the bottom of the mound, but cannot enter the abbey on top and not on the shuttle bus. But they have kindly (and wisely) included a kennel service at the welcoming center. We had Saxon with us and he is still not able walk for long distances because of a back problem, so we took advantage of the kennels for a mere 8 euros. He wasn’t very happy about it, but I think the trauma was greater for Cherie.

Wood and Stone: A Beautiful Scene on the Grande Rue

To say that MSM is amazing is an understatement.  Take every wonderful thing you’ve heard about Mont-Saint-Michel and double it!  Photographs of it are quite impressive, but it’s even more magnificent in person.  Yes, it’s very touristy with an abundance of opportunities to purchase souvenirs.  But that’s only evident in the lower village area which is nevertheless beautiful and charming. 

The Iconic Spire of L’Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel

But, to my mind, the star attraction is the abbey at the top of the mount. It’s really beautiful and visitors are allowed to tour a good deal of it. One can either take a guided tour or simply view the abbey precincts on their own. Only 10 euros and you’re allowed to walk in the footsteps of monks who have lived on the top of this rock since the 8th century. We all enjoyed it immensely!

A few more photos to give you a taste of MSM. But, truly, they do not do this incredible monument justice. You will just have to see it in person to appreciate its rich history, and unequalled beauty. Enjoy!

The Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel as Viewed from the Abbaye
The Abbaye Church
Garth and Cloister
A Forest of Pillars – Epitomé of the Stonemason’s Art
Monks’ Refectory

Tower and Town – Our Search for a New Home

In the Jardin du Nançon, Our New Home in the Background

Where? Well, one of the benefits of being quite new to France was that we held no preconceived ideas about which area would be the best for us. So, pretty much all of France was in our sights. Of course, many of you are familiar with our preference for cooler climes. Thus we did have some bias against southern France. Apart from that, we were keeping an open mind.

We also knew that we preferred to live in an urban setting if possible. Having lived – and loved – our lives in the heart of Capitol Hill in Seattle, we didn’t think that we could trade away the liveliness and convenience of having services, entertainment and restaurants within easy walking distance of our doorstep. Not that it had to be a large city like Paris or Lyon. But we hoped we could find at least a medium-sized town which offered an urban ambiance. Malestroit is a lovely, lovely town. And, compared to most American towns of similar size, it packs quite a punch in terms of services, commerce and events. Even so, it’s a little too quiet, a little too insular to suit our taste.

By far the most important criteria for finding a place to live was the house itself. Cherie and I are both massive enthusiasts for architecture – as long as that architecture was built before 1940. Apologies to all of you lovers of mid-century modern and later styles, but we find nearly all of that to be appallingly cold, unimaginative, without soul. It’s lucky that we both tend to gravitate toward the same types of buildings. Generally, the older the better. Although I suppose we would both draw the line at stone-age cave dwellings. Give us a medieval or renaissance abode any day. A neo-gothic or Palladian pile? Sign us up. For us, a minimalist concrete box with “clean lines” doesn’t hold any appeal. To put it another way, we prefer Glen Close to Kim Kardashian; Rembrandt to Rothko; Bach to Satie.

NOT on the Agenda!

Looking for properties here in France is a bit more of a random affair. One does not enlist an agent who will help you search for you dream home, arrange viewings and accompany you to the property. Nope, that’s all up to you. Here, each agent holds a certain inventory of homes for sale and they will only show you those properties. So, if you see a property you like, you must contact the particular agent who represents the owner of that property; they generally seem to accompany you to view the house – which is a bonus when compared to the U.K. where they only set up the viewing but you are on your own with the property owner or renter (as the case may be) to view the house.

In essence, there is no one on your side. No one to represent your interests when searching for properties. If you are lucky, the home owner’s agent will be reasonably objective and help you out, but they are under no obligation to act in your best interests. I suppose that when buying properties in the U.S. we had been a bit coddled with the real estate structure in place there. And because of that, we had come to expect that same form of adult supervision in property searches everywhere. But it’s just not so. In France, you must be more actively involved. Once you accept that, the process is really not too difficult.

Fougères in the Distance

We began our search right away – just a couple of weeks after we settled in to our rental house in Malestroit. Online, we searched through thousands of properties. No joke. Thousands. There is a website here called Le Bon Coin. It’s the basic equivalent to Craig’s List in the U.S. This site has both private and professional home sales on it and ended up being the best resource for our initial search.

After finding a few likely candidates, we would call the agents or owners to arrange a viewing. Even though we considered properties throughout France, we ended up looking almost exclusively in Bretagne. To a significant extent, it was just easier to travel back and forth in the space of one day. We had no one to watch Saxon so he would have to come along on overnight forays. Was it practicality or laziness? Maybe a little of both. But in our defense, Saxon doesn’t like to ride in the car – it’s uncomfortable for him and makes him a little carsick as well. So it’s best for everybody if we avoid long drives anyway.

The Widely-Traveled Valerie Living it Up in South Africa

In the midst of our search, Cherie’s mother, Valerie (“Val”), came to visit us. She is an ardent house junkie. So she quite happily joined us on several property viewings throughout Bretagne and the Loire Valley. We all had a fun time crawling, climbing, snaking through ancient houses that were sometimes barely standing.

Just before Val arrived, we happened upon a property in the northeast corner of Bretagne in the medium-sized town of Fougères. Both of us liked it and we thought it would be worth a second look while Val was here to give us the benefit of her opinion. She has a keen eye and we wanted her take on it. At second look, we liked it even more. Val was convinced it was the place for us. Cherie loved it so much that it brought tears of joy to her eyes. Nevertheless, we tried to remain pragmatic; we looked at a few more properties. But, in the end, nothing matched the house in Fougères.

La Tour Desnos from the Northeast

And so it happened that we found our new home. After a bit of negotiation we agreed on a price. By March, the house was ours. La Tour Desnos. Our medieval tower house.

L’Usine Pacory: 19th Century View of the Pacory Shoe Factory Enshrouding the Tower

The main structure is, in fact, a stone tower reputed to have been built in the 15th century. The story thus far is that it was originally built to serve as one of several defensive towers in the walls surrounding the upper town – the haute-ville. In the 17th or 18th centuries it was repurposed as a prison. Having fallen into disuse by the early 19th century, it was transformed once more: this time into a shoe factory. By the latter half of the 19th century, two large structures were raised on either side of the tower in order to accommodate the needs of the expanding factory. Following the two world wars, the shoe industry began to flag. At some point in the 1950’s or 1960’s, the factory closed and the tower, perhaps for the first time in its long life, became a residence. By this time most of the 19th century industrial additions had been demolished, leaving the original tower to once again stand alone. The upper floors were renovated to create a living space, while the lower floors were left raw, stripped to the stone.

This is the state in which the tower remains today. There is a single, main floor, finished for living, with two bedrooms, a kitchen, shower room, separate toilet, laundry area, and a living room. And the top floor under the semi-conical roof, was used by the former owners as a third bedroom. The two levels below the main floor remain unfinished. There is also a small remaining portion of industrial building attached to one side of the tower containing two levels, each of which are also unfinished.

The Entry Hall with a View Toward the Front Door

Former Bed Chamber. To Be Transformed into a Kitchen

Living Room with Views Over the Park

Attic Space to Become a Master Suite

The “Chapel” (So-Called) Constituting the Second Level of the Tower. A Future Sitting Room

The tower stands against a slope. As a consequence, the main floor is on the third level of the structure. The entry into this main floor is level with a small courtyard and short drive which leads to the main street: Rue de la Pinterie. The base of the tower opens on to a pathway and looks out over a park, Le Jardin du Nançon. There is a bit of outside space, broken up into four areas. Two of these are paved terraces (the Upper Terrace and the Sun Terrace), while two others are small garden spaces (the Jardin and the Potager).

Saxon Posing on the Upper Terrace

The Sun Terrace (in the Shade)

We couldn’t have found a better location for our house. It is situated directly in the heart of Fougères. This allows us to walk to restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies, the theater, post office, the mairie (town hall) and, most importantly: the boulangerie. We are just steps away from Fougères’ large Saturday market. Moreover, I am able to trot down our street directly to the Château – one of the largest surviving medieval fortifications in Europe.

Little Courtyard, Drive and Gate to the Street (View from Our Front Door)

And yet with all of this convenience, the house itself is well off the street, isolated in its little courtyard. The other side of the property overlooks a large park through which meanders the Nançon river (really little more than a creek). The park is pretty and quiet. And the best part is, we have a lovely park as our back yard without having to maintain it ourselves. Sweet! So, for us, La Tour Desnos (we think it’s pronounced “day-know”) is pretty much perfectly situated.

Rue de la Pinterie: View from Just Outside Our Driveway Gate

Fougères (pronounced “foo-jehr”) itself is a town of about 21,000 citizens. It’s a 30 minute drive southwest to Rennes, the largest city in Bretagne. The town has a theater, multiplex cinema, numerous restaurants, cafes and bars, shops and services of all kinds – pretty much everything one normally needs in daily life. The only amenity our new town lacks is a train connection. There used to be one. But, as with countless other towns and villages throughout France, its rail line was shut down decades ago. Luckily we can at least catch the high speed rail (in France it’s called the TGV) in nearby Vitré 20 minutes to the south, or at the main station in Rennes. So it won’t be too much effort to conveniently explore the country by France’s excellent rail system.

Place Aristide Briand (a Two-Minute Walk from Our Home)

Rue Nationale

Église Saint-Léonard

Beffroi: A 14th c. Bell Tower We Can Hear from Our House (Don’t Worry – It’s a Good Thing!)

You may have noticed that we haven’t moved into our new home yet. That’s because we decided to make some changes to the layout on both the main and top floors. We’re also removing an external staircase, installing a new internal staircase, creating two bedroom suites, installing new electrics and plumbing, making minor repairs to the roof and sun terrace, building a covered passage between the tower and industrial building and fitting out a couple of workshop areas.

Terminus of Rue de la Pinterie (Our Street) at Château de Fougères

La Ville Basse: The Medieval Quarter of the Lower Town

Since the tower is registered as an historic building, some of the alterations require planning approval by Architectes des Bâtiments de France (ABF), the body which protects the integrity of all historic monuments in France. This, in combination with the securing of contractors and artisans, has been an achingly slow process. As a result, only the most minor of preliminary work has been done on the house. We are hoping to have the first stage completed by the end of September. If that happens, we’ll have a functioning kitchen and one bedroom suite; we can then move in and live there while all of the other work continues. At this point, hope is all we have. It’s now nearly the middle of July. In August, almost the entire population of France goes on vacation. Nothing gets done in August. Nothing. So, you can see that we’re running on optimism right now. We have no fear that all of the work will get done. We just don’t know quite WHEN it will happen. C’est la vie!

As things progress on the house, I will provide additional Renovation Updates. In the meantime, we continue to pinch ourselves, feeling incredibly fortunate to own such an ancient piece of France’s historical patrimony. We feel terribly privileged to be the custodians of La Tour Desnos for this chapter in its long story. And I hope to be able to dig more deeply into the tower’s past history. Once I have compiled a more detailed story, I’ll share it with you all.

I’ll leave you with just a few more photos of some highlights from our new home town:

Le Jardin Publique Overlooking the Lower Town and Château

Victor Hugo Theater (a One-Minute Walk from Our House)

Chateau de Fougères at Dusk