The Sweetness of Serendipity: Langon and Grand-Fougeray

Two Towers Across the Lake – Grand-Fougeray

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.

La Chapelle Ste-Agathe

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.

Standing the Test of Time

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!

Closed for Business

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.

Église St. Pierre, Langon

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.

Sublime Decoration: the Nave and Chancel

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!

12 Bell Towers Surrounding a Central Spire (the Apostles and Their Lord)

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.

A Strategically Stacked Pile of Stones – Tour du Guesclin

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.

Come for the Art, Stay for the History
Luxury Stairway – 14th Century Style
A Tower with Views

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.

Chamber with Unusual Fire Surround

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.

A Relic of War Now Pleasantly Serene

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.

The Magic of Rochefore-en-Terre

Sainted Stone

Cherie and I haven’t been out travelling for pleasure in the past couple of weeks. Frustrated by waiting for our new house to come together, we have been commuting back and forth to Fougères every couple of days in order to expend some anxious energy. Wallpaper has been our latest objective. There are acres of it plastered onto nearly every single wall of the living space. Three and four layers of the stuff. One of our English neighbors in Malestroit loaned us a steamer and it has been very useful for removing the papers, layer by layer.

Wallpaper Beware! Cherie Wields a Wicked Putty Knife

But, wallpaper removal is about as exciting as watching paint dry. Perhaps even less so. Despite the obvious attractions of a lecture on the fine art of dissolving wheat paste and old tobacco stains, I thought we might instead offer a few words about one of our favorite destinations: Rochefort-en-Terre.

A Vista Over the Rooftops of Rochefort-en-Terre

A short drive south from Malestroit, through rolling countryside dotted with dairy farms, lush corn fields and woods harboring red deer and wild boar, brings you to an area of high stone ridges cut through with deep ravines. Stands of oak and pine cling to these rock outcroppings where the colors of grainy grey, burnt orange, and deep mottled green predominate the landscape. Perched on top of one of these ancient ridges is the small town of Rochefort-en-Terre.

View of the Main Street, Rochefort-en-Terre
Place des Halles, the Mairie (Town Hall) at the Far End

I generally try to avoid too-often abused descriptions such as “cute”, “quaint”, or “picturesque”. But in the case of Rochefort-en-Terre, I really don’t think I have a choice. I’m not alone in this. Rochefort-en-Terre has been designated as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. And most beautiful it is. The town’s buildings, all constructed of a mottled grey stone, are closely packed in together along a central street which forms the commune’s spine.

Ancient Townhouse
Sixteenth-Century Lavoir (Laundry Shelter) in the Meadow at the Bottom of Town

Radiating from this street are numerous narrow passages which meander amongst the two and three story homes and shops. Following these passageways provides unique vistas of the valley below or glimpses of secluded cottages and alleys festooned with climbing roses scaling ancient rock walls. Several long, winding stairways join the various levels of the town as it spills down the hillsides. Long, extended back gardens enfold small orchards of apple and plum trees around which the grass is cropped closely by diminutive sheep and goats. Even the backyard livestock is cute in this town.

The Château

Crowning the town at the top of the rocky ridge is a château where once stood ramparts and a castle. Sadly, the château is not open to visit; much restoration work is being applied to it at present. In the 20th century it was purchased by the american painter, Alfred Klots [Extra points if you know of this painter’s works – he was completely unknown to us.] The guy had good taste. It’s a beautiful château and the ruins of the 12th century fortifications make for a dramatic entrance through a still-standing gateway.

A Door to Untold Stories (Okay, Four Stories, to be Precise)

The main street of Rochefort-en-Terre is packed with shops, most of which cater to the many tourists who come to enjoy the town year-round. We particularly enjoy the excellent chocolate shop – no surprise there – where you can fill your own bags from a vast variety of bins containing all kinds of sweets. Choose your own death by chocolate. There are also several nice cafés and restaurants lining the cobblestone streets and we have had a number of good meals here.

Antique Shop

Rochefort-en-Terre also hosts a nice little antique shop at which, you will not be surprised to read, we are regular visitors. The owner is a fairly elderly fellow. Quite charming and warm. When last we were there, we purchased an old lock from him. While chatting we explained that we were from the United States. At that, he began to tell us of his childhood during World War II and how american soldiers had liberated the area. He noted a particular memory that brought tears to his eyes, recalling that a G.I. gave him an orange and it was the first one he had ever tasted. Monsieur was, to this day, very grateful to the american soldiers who freed the town from Nazi occupation. It was quite touching and his emotional response to the memory made us tear up as well.

He gave us a discount for the old lock too. Just for being americans, I suppose. Although we hardly deserved it. But we felt privileged to share the moment with him. Memory of World War II still runs quite deeply through the french consciousness, we have found. Hardly surprising, given the devastation of battle and occupation which so wracked the country for the entirety of the war. While americans have a collective memory of World War II, it is quite different, I think. Here, its impact was so much more universal, visceral and conflicting. Military defeat, deprivation, resistance, betrayal and even collaboration. These sometimes conflicting themes loom large in this country, and a national reconciliation of this time in french history remains elusive to some extent. A sobering thought.

Who Needs Thomas Kinkade?

Rochefort-en-Terre really shines during the Christmas season. Last winter we met our friends Penny and Julian for a visit in the evening. The town is alight with illuminated decorations along the streets, the squares, the church and the shops too. It’s enchanting. I am not what you would call a lover of Christmas. In fact, for me, it’s one of those things that, every year, I just try to get through as quickly as possible. Like a funeral. Or any film with Leonardo DiCaprio in it. But even I can’t deny the intoxicatingly festive spirit which permeates Rochefort-en-Terre at Christmastime. The four of us took a slow stroll amongst the old stone buildings, twinkling with colorful lights in the crisp air of a winter’s evening. Threading our way through groups of cheery revelers we stopped for cups of vin chaud (mulled wine) to keep our engines warm as we continued onward, enjoying the enchanted ambiance and each others’ good company. Despite my accustomed Christmas pessimism, I couldn’t help but feel cheery myself. Resistance is futile in Rochefort-en-Terre.

Notre Dame de la Tronchaye
Good Doggie!
A Good Place to Contemplate

I should mention the lovely and unusual church in the town. It sits just off the main street, somewhat sunken on the downslope side of a small square. Eglise Notre Dame de la Tronchaye was begun in the 12th century. With later additions, it still feels quite ancient, with double aisles, a wooden ceiling and wooden tie-beams carved with fantastic beasts at their terminals. Outside, multiple gables line the length of the nave roof, overlooking several beautifully carved gargoyles in a variety of shapes and guises. It’s a unique design offering many surprising architectural elements which no doubt evolved over the many centuries of this building’s existence. I highly recommended a careful and considered wander through this church.

Cute, Quaint, Picturesque

As you can see, there are good reasons why Rochefort-en-Terre is fondly considered to be amongst the most beautiful towns in France. Yes, it can be a bit touristy, but it’s a simple matter to step off the well-trod tourist street on to quiet and often deserted passageways and alleys – even in the height of the season. We’ve done it several times now, and the town never fails to impress. We’ll be back for many more visits, I’m certain. Even after we’ve moved further away to the north in Fougères. Rochefort-en-Terre is just one of those places that sticks to your soul. For our part, we’re quite happy to have it comfortably lodged there forever.

Family Matters in Fougères

Last week we woke up to a surprise email. It was from someone named Guido. And he wondered if we would like to meet up with him.

Wait. Guido who?

It turns out that our mysterious correspondent is Cherie’s relative. Guido is the son of Wolfram and Elke, her german cousins. Cherie has an entire side her family which remained in Germany while the other half scarpered off to the United States toward the end of the 19th century.

Cherie and Guido in Fougères

Due to some good old-fashioned philandering by her industrialist great-great grandfather, two branches of the family were born. The first, German branch, was established in the traditional manner – marriage, children, building a substantial business empire manufacturing linens.

But, then, the aging industrialist had a change of heart. Enter the secretary. Smitten with his new, much younger love/employee, the linen tycoon decided that a new life in the New World was in order. He took his new wife to California, had some more children (as one does), and established a second dynasty: the American branch. Despite my lightly pointed remarks, I’ll be forever grateful that this man had a wandering eye. His mid-life crisis resulted in the family that produced the love of my life.

An Energetic Man: Cherie’s Great-Great Grandfather Friedrich

The old man’s capacity to produce not only prodigious amounts of linen but also marriages and children resulted in two groups of progeny separated by some 20 years. As a result, the same generation of the American branch of the family is much younger than their corresponding German cousins. Even though they are first cousins, Wolfram is 84 and Cherie is 48. Guido, her second cousin, is only a couple of years older (54).

A Visit With Family in 2011: (from left to right – me, Rudolf, Wolfram, Angelika, Herbert, Cherie, Elke – missing is Herbert’s wife, Heidi, who took the photo)

Guido (pronounced “Ghee-doh”) was in the midst of his summer vacation, touring the north of France. When he emailed us he happened to be in Mayenne which is a mere 47 kilometers east of Fougères. He was planning to travel west into Bretagne on his way to visit Mont St.-Michel. We happily arranged to meet in Fougères the next day and spent several hours of the afternoon and evening walking around the town and getting to know each other. The weather was blisteringly hot. But, with Cherie’s legendary shade-seeking skills and liberal application of smoothies and ice cream, we managed to avoid heat-stroke.

Guido (middle ground, left) and I (middle ground, center) Exploring the Château

We really enjoyed meeting Guido. A lovely guy with a passion for photography and classic Citroën cars. Like his mother and father, he is kind, knowledgable and curious. He and I had a good look around the Château de Fougères while Cherie much more sensibly took refuge from the sun in the shade of an adjacent café. It might come as a surprise to those of you who know my particular obsession with all things medieval, but I had not yet been to visit the château; for some reason I was avoiding it until the time was right. Guido’s visit seemed like an appropriately special occasion. The high towers were especially impressive, although challenging – for me, the vertiginous heights; for him, the pain in his knee from the many stairs. The château is amazing and I will be back many times. Together, the three of us toured the town’s gardens, its historic streets, and (of course) our house-to-be.

Sadly, we had to say goodbye in the evening. We had to get back to Malestroit in order to tend to Saxon. Wisely, we had left him in the cool house, sparing him the misery of sweltering in the heat. Our dog is even less tolerant of hot weather than Cherie, so he was much better off sheltering alone in Malestroit. Still, it had been several hours and he needed relief. Literally. The poor guy can hold it for quite a while but even he has his limits. After repeated hugs and farewells we parted ways, wishing we had had more time to visit. Now we have yet another reason to return to Germany (as if we needed one).

It was nice to discover more of Cherie’s German relatives. The world is indeed small and our connections many. A cordial and pleasant meeting between Americans living in France and their German cousin reminds me of just how wonderful, fulfilling and peaceful the world can be. If only we all tried to get along with one another just a little bit harder. To be less prideful, less selfish, less greedy. To have more empathy for each other. To see the “other” in ourselves. What a world that would be, eh? John Lennon really had it right. Imagine that.