Our move to France was not without an agenda. At least a rough outline. First, to base ourselves somewhere in Bretagne, renting a house. Then, we wanted to begin searching for a house to purchase.
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.
So, we were hoping to find a property with some history, some age. A home, as they say in the real estate biz, with character.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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)
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)