October has come and with it a visit from Cherie’s mother. Valerie has made the long trip from the west coast of the United States to spend a few weeks with us in Fougères. And we’re so happy to have her here with us. Valerie is, of course, lovely company and we simply enjoy hanging out with here, wherever it may be. But we are also excited to show her around the amazing place we now call home. As a bonus, she actually enjoys working on home improvement projects, so she has volunteered to help us hang wallpaper in our hallway. Try not to judge her.
After an introduction to Fougères, some preliminary wrestling with papier peint (wallpaper), and maybe, just maybe, a few pastries here and there, we decided to take Valerie on a day trip north to Normandy for a few hours. First up: Avranches. A town of around 10,000 souls, Avranches is situated high on an escarpment overlooking the Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel just over the regional border that separates Bretagne from Normandy. It’s only a 30 minute drive from our house but we have never really explored the center of town. It was time to redress this oversight.
Avranches has an ancient and interesting history. The town stretches back to at least the classical period when it was a Gallo-Roman settlement in the province of Lugdunensis. Its name was originally Ingena. But after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, it began a centuries-long evolution to Avranches, derived from the celtic tribe inhabiting the area: the Abrincatui. Early on, in the 6th century, Avranches became an episcopal seat, and remained so until the Revolution. The area has seen frequent conflict – from viking raids in the 10th century, to the D-day invasion in the 20th, and everything in between.
We really enjoyed our visit to Avranches. The centre-ville is quite pretty, with beautiful and interesting architecture running the gamut of styles and periods, pleasingly landscaped borders and gardens, towering churches, and lots of active shops and restaurants. All are within easy walking distance. Parking was easy with a large lot conveniently located in the center of town.
We arrived in town around noon on a cool but sunny day and found ourselves wandering toward the ruins of the old castle. There are substantial vestiges of the medieval fortifications, including ramparts and towers. They have all been well-conserved. Although only a small part of the château now remains, the town has cleverly incorporated garden areas amongst the stone ruins. It is quite well done, with small, intimate areas where one can take an outdoor lunch or simply enjoy the pretty plantings pleasingly juxtaposed against the stone structures enfolding them at various levels. Within this complex of ruins is the Scriptorial, a museum of jarringly modern concrete box form which houses a large collection of medieval manuscripts that were formerly in the libraries of the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel. Wisely, we did not attempt a visit. For I could easily have spent the remainder of the day there, engrossed in the beauty of such magnificent works of knowledge, art, and craft. I’m at least self-aware enough to realize that not everyone shares my mania for medieval books and art. Weird, huh? Still, it’s a visit for another time.
Our stomachs grumbling, we disembarked from the castle ruins and sought out a nice little place for lunch. As luck would have it, we found one close by. In fact, you could easily hit it with a rock from the castle ramparts. Not that we tried, mind you. Val enjoyed a nice slice of quiche (smoked salmon and leek) while Cherie and I both had the fish and chips. Topped off with some tasty beer, we enjoyed a lovely meal.
Refueled, we stretched our legs with a walk through the streets of the town center, ending up at the Jardin des Plantes. This 3 hectare botanical garden was formerly a monastic park but now houses a large variety of plants and trees, as well as a not-inconsiderable population of goldfish and koi. It’s a well-designed park with several distinct areas threaded together by clear pathways and meandering streams and ponds. The most striking feature is the belvedere, a broad area with an expansive view over the low countryside to the west. In the distance is a clear view of the broad tidal bay and Mont-Saint-Michel itself. Twelve kilometers away, our poor smartphone cameras could not adequately capture the dramatic majesty of the panorama laid out before us. Suffice it to say: très cool!
Avranches was nice, but our primary goal was to visit the Abbaye de Hambye. So, off we went. After a short drive north on the autoroute, it’s a pleasant roll through the Normandy countryside of lush, rolling hills and deep dells spotted with dairy farms and the occasional hamlet. It’s really beautiful scenery there, accentuated on that day with blue sky and patchy white clouds creating dramatic lighting over the scene. Many twists and turns brought us to an ancient stone bridge spanning the Sienne river. Bordering the eastern side of the river is the precinct of the old benedictine abbey which once thrived there for centuries. The abbey is situated in a flat valley, surrounded by stony slopes blanketed by oaks. It’s an idyllic setting and, frankly, our photos simply don’t do it justice. But, hopefully, you get the general idea.
Our Lady of Hambye Abbey was founded in 1145, reaching its peak of prosperity in the 13th century and then slowly declining until the last monks left the place a few years before the Revolution. In the 19th century, the many monastic outbuildings appear to have been used for farming until the whole complex was inscribed as an historic monument and protected. It’s now partly under private ownership, the abbey church and some other parts owned by the regional council. But the whole site meshes nicely and there is plenty to see.
Even though a good deal of stone was taken (vandalized, in my opinion) from the church, and the entirety of the cloister was removed, the original plan of the monastic complex is still clear. A well-written and succinct visitor guide comes with the price of a ticket provides excellent descriptions of the major areas. But I was so transfixed with the glorious medieval religious and lay architecture that I barely glanced at the guide. It’s a tremendous example of a monastic community from the Middle Ages and several of the rooms – the chapter house, sacristy and kitchens in particular – have been nicely restored/conserved and furnished. I spent a few minutes just sitting quietly in the chapter house, soaking up the atmosphere and marveling at the medieval builders and sculptors who created such beautiful and evocative spaces. A surprisingly good deal of original lime plaster and painted decoration remains on the walls of several chambers. It’s a direct glimpse of what the monks and lay brothers must have seen in their own time, and real pleasure to see in the 21st century!
People often forget that monasteries in the Middle Ages were complex corporate enterprises that required sophisticated management or resources, finances and personnel. At Hambye, it’s easy to see how much the abbey relied upon farming and management of the waters, fields and meadows that supplied the monks with all they required. Many of the farm outbuildings are still visible. One of them includes a large cidery housing a massive crushing wheel with a circular stone trough, and a huge juice press with armatures formed from entire oak (or perhaps beech) tree trunks. Super impressive!
The abbey church is the most ruined part of the site. Much of the shell of the structure remains, but it is largely open to the elements and, sadly, the flooring is no more. Nonetheless, it’s a dramatic piece of architecture. Large, soaring, but still it must have been an intimate place of worship for the lay and monastic brothers residing at Hambye. Many of the columns are heavily inscribed with graffiti from visitors who felt the need to carve their marks over the past centuries; some of it is quite beautifully done. Despite being only a ghost of what it once was, it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to form a mind’s eye view of how this church must have appeared when in use. A stroll through the forest of columns and pilastered walls, the side chapels, the nave and ambulatory is evocative. One can easily see how visiting victorians would be inspired to compose romantic poems of nearly opaque allusions to the mists of time as they trod the silent stones.
All three of us thoroughly enjoyed our long afternoon visit to L’abbaye de Hambye. It was one of those quintessential conjunctions of fascinating history, dramatic architecture, a bucolic setting, pleasant weather, and the best of company (if we do say so ourselves). It couldn’t have been better. Well, okay, a tea shop with pastry, could conceivably have been a nice bonus. But that would have been almost too perfect – if there is such a thing. Regardless, it was a truly memorable day in only the absolute best sense of the word. A visit there is highly recommended. And, unless you’re an utterly hopeless philistine, you won’t be disappointed that you made the effort.