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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.