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.