“Finally!”, you say. “We’re tired of talk about your house and your neighborhood. Surely there’s more to France than you’ve shown us so far.” It’s a fair critique. Frankly, we’re a bit tired of it too. It feels like we’ve been shut in for months. Oh, that’s right. We HAVE been shut in. The general purpose excuse is, of course, Covid-19. The knock-on effect of this is that I haven’t had much in the way of sightseeing material for blog posts. So, admittedly, my posts have been a bit thin on the ground. Apologies if this has been a disappointment. Or, you’re welcome, if you were enjoying a reprieve from my writing. Whatever the case may be, I’m not sure how long I can keep blaming my shortcomings on global pandemics (damn miraculous vaccines!) so I’m going to have to step up my game – one way or the other.
Today, we made a relatively short drive westward to Château Ballue. This was all Cherie’s idea. She’s been wanting to visit some local gardens for some time now. And today was perfect for such an outing. The weather has been miserable for the past couple of weeks, but the forecast was good and we decided to chance it.
Thirty minutes of wheeling through pleasant countryside dotted with old farms and the occasional small village brought us to our destination: a large, lovely stone house set high on a south-facing slope overlooking the valley through which the Couesnon River flows on its way to the bay of Mont Saint-Michel. The current Château Ballue was finished in the 1620 after the owner (a tax collector) tore down the original medieval fortress in order to build his swanky new house. It has attracted the best and the brightest over the centuries. Balzac and Chateaubriand were visitors there. Victor Hugo, too, stayed at Ballue and he wrote the first lines of his novel Ninety-Three (Quatre-Vingt-Treize – yeah, don’t even get me started on French numbers) while there. And who can blame them. It’s a beautiful house in a setting. Particularly the gardens.
And the gardens are what we came for. The house itself is privately owned but run as a hotel and spa. The gardens, however, are open to the public. For a fee. The ticket price is actually a bit steep – €9.50. At least we had the consolation that the money goes toward maintaining an historic, beautiful house and grounds. Worth it.
The gardens are beautiful and varied. Set over 2 hectares (5 acres), the garden is partitioned into several “rooms”. Some feature particular species. Others, themes. While yet others are more about the function of the space. So, for example, there is a lovely fern grove, a grove of scented plants, a green theater, a labyrinth, a music grove, a temple of Diana. They are all nicely done, creative and well-kept. We enjoyed a long afternoon of strolling amongst pleasant plantings and a soundscape of trickling fountains and energetic songbirds.
The largest single space at Château Ballue is the classical garden, à la française, occupying a south-facing terrace possessing a serene panorama of the fields and woodlands of the Couesnon Valley below. The classical garden is by far the most formal, structured design. And logically so, as it forms the rear space of the château, mirroring the regular, linear orders of the 17th century architecture. Quite beautiful. To be sure, this is a country manor garden. Elegant but understated. It doesn’t attempt grandeur or intricate design such as might be found at a more grand and less provincial château or palace. To my mind, that’s as it should be. The notes are hit firmly, pleasingly, but without flourish or pretense. Just as one would expect in a moderate stately home in the provinces of France.
Below the house are a couple of ponds with several breeds of ducks, geese and chickens. Nothing exceptional, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. The garden walk brings you back up to the other side of the château and back to where we started. Full circle.
At this point, two things became urgent. Firstly, I had to pee. But a very close second was the need for tea and cake. Both of which were on offer at the tea room on the grounds – tea and cake, that is. Cherie selected a table under a large awning while I raced away to take care of that other urgent matter. Ballue offers a very nice tea room and we took full advantage. Cherie chose Ceylon and almond cake, while I went with trusty old Assam and pear cake. Excellent choices all around. The sun was out but the temperature was moderate as we whiled away a good hour over a laden table looking out to the front of the château and the garden set out before it. The bees were buzzing in the roses and potted herbs, and the birds were chittering away at each other as they went about their birdy business. And we two companions-for-life talked about everything and nothing while sipping tea and sharing each other’s cakes. Heaven.
A day out in the gardens at Château Ballue with tea and scrumptious cakes at the end. What’s not to love?
This town is old. I mean, REALLY old. Especially for Americans who grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. In Seattle, for example, you feel fortunate to step into a building constructed before the end of the 19th century; the city itself was only founded in the 1850’s. Such is the natural naïveté into which Americans are born. Cynics (like me) might simply call it willful ignorance. But, despite this disadvantage, both Cherie and I grew to develop a love of history at some point in our early lives. So, I suppose it’s no surprise that we eventually found ourselves living in a place that has a slightly longer story to tell.
Fougères was first settled in the late 10th century, a wood palisade fort erected on a low rocky promontory around which the Nançon River (more of a creek, really) makes a loop to form a natural defensive barrier. This fort was attacked and destroyed several times over the ensuing centuries, each time rebuilt (eventually in stone) larger and more strongly than before. By the 15th century it had become the vast stone fortress that remains today.
Why is it called Fougères? I’m not entirely certain. The literal meaning of Fougères is: ferns. Ferntown. Fernville. There be ferns here. Ferns ‘r’ Us. That’s the simplest explanation. Occam’s Razor and all that. But it makes sense. This area is thick with beautiful ferns of every description. We have a fair few of them in our garden. Another theory is that the name is a corruption of fous, or fossé – indicative of a gap or terraced border. Perhaps. Fougères is situated where two Roman roads had intersected, one running north/south from Nantes to Avranches, and the other east/west from Chartes to Carhaix. Moreover, it was ideally placed to guard the traditional eastern border of Bretagne, one of a string of fortifications established for that purpose in the Middle Ages.
The town began as a small settlement, established in the low marshy area adjacent to the south side of the fort. This area is now known as the Quartier Médiéval (medieval quarter), or the Ville Basse (lower town), the original core of what was to become Fougères. The convenient supply of flowing water attracted tanners, dyers and drapers and these became the predominant industries in this area of the medieval town. There are still many signs of how the river was manipulated to feed the many mills and other workshops that were here. It’s also the only part of town where you can still see timber-framed buildings still standing. We often take strolls through the lower town. It has a completely different vibe: slow, quiet, relaxed. Watery. The river weaves its way through, pleasantly burbling via separate channels before they join up again as they exit the neighborhood.
Many of the houses in the Medieval Quarter still possess their own lavoirs in their back gardens. Set low on the river channels, with paved platforms invariably roofed and open to the water, these little houses were used for doing the household laundry – many of them up to the early part of the 20th century. It’s difficult to imagine just how polluted the river must have been with all of the tanning, fulling, dyeing and washing feeding into it. You would never know it now, though. The water is now clear and home to a good number of fish and other wildlife. I am continually astounded at how resilient the natural world can be – despite our best efforts to destroy it.
Dominating the Ville Basse is the Église Saint-Sulpice, the parish church. A beautiful edifice built from stone taken from the quarry which looms over it, this church was probably founded in the 11th century. But the current building was begun in the 1400’s with periodic alterations and additions continuing through to the 18th century. It’s a very pretty, primarily gothic structure with dozens of imaginative gargoyles and intricately carved stone decorations. And the interior is no less impressive, with both stone and wood ceilings, painted embellishments, and a pleasing array of figural and architectural carvings. With all of that, St. Sulpice has always been a workaday house of worship, serving the laborers, artisans and merchants who populated the Medieval Quarter. Now, the lower town is primarily residential. All of its former industrial activity has long since moved elsewhere. But the church remains, facing the stark ramparts of the château, its bells ringing the hours of the day as it has for centuries. As it should be. Long may it continue.
As time went on, Fougères was beginning to outgrow the fairly limited lowland space around the Nançon. By the 12th century the more prosperous inhabitants began to seek higher, less soggy ground for their homes. And so was born the Haute Ville, a rocky plateau which overlooks the meandering river and the narrow valley below. This upper town grew to become the civic focus of the settlement. Although close to, and protected by the castle below, it was to a large extent independent. Beginning in the 13th century, a defensive wall of stone was constructed to encircle the Haute Ville. Further towers (like ours!) were added in the early part of the 15th century. Unfortunately, only one of the three (or four, depending on the source) original town gates remains, but there are many sections of the wall and several towers still stand. It must have been quite impressive in the Middle Ages.
Eager to show their prosperity, the town’s leaders financed the construction of a beffroi (bell tower) at the end of the 14th century. Many towns did this in the Middle Ages, but only two now remain in all of Bretagne; the other one is in Dinan. The beffroi is a really interesting structure, designed solely for the purpose of showing off. Oh, and also for tolling the time of day for the populace, which it’s done continually for over five hundred years. Not only is it charming, but it’s still really useful. You always know the time of day within 15 minutes just by the sound of the bells and the number of times they chime.
Further down Rue National from the beffroi is L’Église Saint-Léonard. This parish church is perched atop the highest point of the Haute Ville, overlooking its sister St. Sulpice and the lower town below. It was founded in the 12th century and “modernized” in the 15th and 17th centuries. In the late 18th century revolutionary zeal contributed to significant damage of St. Léonard. This later led to a major redesign and additions to the church in the following century. Today, it’s still the hub of religious worship in the center of town. Somewhat disappointingly, the interior is not particularly interesting. Probably thanks to the anti-clerical anger of the sans-culottes at the height of the Revolution.
Adjacent to Saint-Léonard is the Hôtel de Ville (the town hall) and the Jardin Publique. The former was constructed in the 15th century and a nice example of administrative architecture of the time. I have personally never set foot in it, but Cherie once had to go in to arrange a street parking permit for a moving truck. The Jardin Publique is, as the name suggests, the public garden. This formal garden was established in 1766, following the removal of the town defenses in this area. It’s broad terraces trail down the southwestern slope of the promontory to the Ville-Basse and the river below. The upper levels provide for beautiful panoramic views of the lower town, the verdant countryside beyond, St. Sulpice, and the château. This garden is a lovely place to take a stroll and enjoy the views; unfortunately, we hardly ever go there because it’s one of the few places in France where dogs are inexplicably not allowed.
After the end of the Middle Ages and the incorporation of the Duchy of Bretagne into the kingdom of France, Fougères’ strategic importance disappeared. The château fell into disuse, then became a prison; it even housed German prisoners of war during World War I. Following centuries of numerous battles and sieges, the town enjoyed relative calm. Until the Revolution sparked the local Chouannerie counter-revolution in the 1790’s. Following their success in the Battle of Fougères in 1793, the Chouans continued to revolt against Republican forces in the area. One of their leaders was a local boy, Armand Tuffin, Marquis de la Rouërie. Before becoming embroiled in French conflicts, Tuffin had spent several years serving as an officer with American revolutionaries during the War of Independence and had become a friend of George Washington. His former home in Fougères is just up the street from our tower, now serving as a courthouse.
By 1800 a more peaceful existence had returned to Fougères. And the town spent the following century getting down to business. Primarily, the business of manufacturing shoes. The craft of shoe-making had a long tradition in the area, particularly the making of clogs. Indeed, the street on which we live had several clog makers (sabotiers) up to 1900. But large factories making leather shoes had become the industrial focus, dominating the local economy in the 19th and 20th centuries. At one point Fougères counted more than 60 shoe factories. Our tower was home to one of the largest: the Pacory shoe manufacturing company. Although the shoe-making industry is now almost entirely gone from the town, numerous remnants of its factory buildings are dotted throughout the area. Some of them reveal glimpses of art nouveau and art deco mosaic decoration and architecture.
The 19th century seems to have been a good time for the town. Several literary, political and military luminaries of the time gilded the ville’s image. Victor Hugo visited his long-time mistress (Juliette Drouet) who lived in Fougères. Hugo’s fellow novelist, Honoré de Balzac, took up residence just outside of town for a time and wrote a novel (Les Chouans, 1829) which established his standing as a significant writer. The towering writer/politician/historian/diplomat, François-René de Chateau-Briand had a sister (Julie, la Comtesse de Farçy) who lived here, so he visited often; apparently, he held a low opinion of the town, finding it rather provincial and dull. The post-impressionist, Emmanuel de la Villéon, was born in Fougères. Primarily a painter of landscapes, there is a small museum dedicated to his life and works just a couple of blocks away from our house. General Baston de Lariboisière, also from Fougères, rose to prominence during the Napoleonic era, brilliantly commanding forces in the Spanish and Russian campaigns. It’s surprising how much celebrity such a small town could produce and attract. That’s all in the past, though. There are no paparazzi haunting the lanes of Fougères nowadays.
By far the lowest points in the history of Fougères the two World Wars. The town lost over 600 men to fighting during the first war. And Fougères suffered under Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1944 and a devastating Allied bombing during the D-Day invasion. There was quite an active Resistance movement here; for that reason, the town itself received the Croix de Guerre from the French government. However, perhaps most enduring communal memory of WWII here are the Allied bombings of June, 1944. As part of the Allied invasion of France, Fougères’ railroad station and factories were targeted for destruction in order to impede the ability of German forces to move and sustain themselves. An initial bombing run on June 6th failed to destroy the rail station. And so, a further attack fell upon the town on June 9th. Nearly 300 people were killed, over 400 homes destroyed, and the ville’s industry was decimated. And, yes, they finally got the rail station as well. Our own street suffered significant devastation; several of the houses to either side of our were leveled in the bombing raids. Fougères was liberated by American forces in early August, the nightmare of four years of occupation finally over.
The post-war years were a period of boom and bust for Fougères. The town prospered for a time. But the French economy slipped in the 1970’s, coinciding with a rapid fading of the local shoe manufacturing industry. In recent years things have brightened once again. No longer dependent upon a single sector, the local economy is diversifying. And, with the opening of a major motorway in 2003, connecting Fougères with the large cities of Rennes and Caen, the town is within commuting distance to a much wider catchment area of employment.
And that’s the long story of our town. A community that has witnessed, and withstood, over one thousand years of everything history can throw at it. Despite that, it’s still standing proudly and with a grace that I’m struggling to maintain at the tender age of 55. Perhaps that’s why people here are a bit more relaxed, more philosophical about life. They tend to take the long view. Not something that comes naturally to most Americans. But I’m trying to get with the program. The day that I can effortlessly shrug and patiently wait in line at the grocery checkout while the cashier and her customer take five minutes to catch each other upon on current events, I will have arrived. I’ll let you know when that happens.