“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.
March in Bretagne. The weather has been all over the place: from snow and freezing temperatures, to beautiful sunshine and nearly t-shirt warmth and everything in between. France remains under various forms of curfew and/or confinement. In Fougères the pandemic has been less severe (thankfully) so the town is only under a curfew. Restaurants are only permitted to sell meals to take away. Still, all of the shops are open and movement is unrestricted. That is, until 6pm. One must have a valid reason for being out after 6. Luckily for us, it is allowed to take your dog for a walk during curfew. Vaccine administration continues to be fairly slow in France. We don’t expect to be eligible for a Covid-19 inoculation until at least May, if not later. So, we remain somewhat hunkered down, keeping mostly to ourselves.
Work on the house; walk the dog; shop for groceries; grab bread (and pastries) at the boulangerie: that’s pretty much the story of our existence at La Tour Desnos over the past few months. Not that we’re complaining. I mean, we’re still retired, still living in France, still healthy, and still in love. What more could we ask? Sure, it would be a nice bonus if we could travel a bit further afield, visit museums, eat at restaurants, etc. But those opportunities will return soon enough. And we are keenly aware of how fortunate we are. For now, we’re just happy to putter around the house, tackling one project at a time.
A couple of weeks ago we enjoyed a few days of really lovely weather. Sunny, warm, spring-like weather. I had been wanting to work in our garden on the east side of the tower for months. But other projects and poor weather had forestalled me. However, with the suddenly good weather, I couldn’t resist any longer and stole a pleasant couple of days chopping things down. First on my list were the hydrangeas of elephantine proportion. Cherie will tell you that hydrangeas are not one of my favorite plants. Apologies to all of you who love hydrangeas, but I am just not a fan. Messy, woody, monstrous bushes that are always threatening to take over the garden. I’m not even particularly enamored of the blooms. But Cherie likes them very much so they are staying for now. Somewhat earlier I had discovered our gardening shears, lopers and other tools that we had taken with us from Seattle. So I set about pruning (heavily) the several hydrangeas which had grown over the paths and were about to invade the rose bed. It was a lot of work, though. In the end, I’m not sure who won. Yes, the shrubs are now only a diminutive shadow of their formerly gargantuan proportions. But, against my better judgment, they lived to taunt me for another season. Moreover, my dodgy right elbow and shoulders were made even more dodgy and were aching mightily for days. We’ll call it a draw.
After the hydrangeas, I pruned the roses quite hard as well. Unlike the hydrangeas, this was done with love. The roses we inherited from the previous owners are really pretty, but they had become gangly, sparse and top-heavy. I honestly know very little when it comes to roses, but I’ve come to admire them very much and I’m determined to help them regain some of their former vitality. My mother, Carol, was a great lover of roses and she was quite accomplished in maintaining a pretty rose garden beside our family home. So, in a way, I want to pay tribute to her by remembering her through keeping some roses in bloom.
One bit of gardening led to another and, before I knew it, I was hacking down small trees and blackberry vines at the far end of the plot alongside the medieval rampart. We knew there was a sort of buttress wall at the end, but we really couldn’t see it very well. So, upon clearing out the tangle of vegetation there, I was surprised to discover a lovely stone wall with a window opening in it. Very cool! The wall is in serious need of repair and repointing, but it’s a nice addition to our jardin that we will be sure to feature prominently.
There is much more work in the garden that needs doing. But my body was complaining. Also, there were too many other projects inside the house that had priority. Reluctantly, I downed tools, vowing to return when and as I am able. I swear I could hear the hydrangeas whispering their revenge as I trudged wearily up the rampart stairs.
The builders have been away from the tower for a couple of months. But Cherie and I have been busy with our own, smaller scale renovations. Previously (https://findingourfrance.blog/2021/01/04/minus-two/) I had noted that we were beginning to lay stone paving in what was previously the kitchen, now our buanderie (laundry room). I was pretty anxious about it. But I’m happy to report that the paving is now finished and it looks satisfyingly good. At least to our eyes. You can judge for yourselves. It’s been a good skill to add to our repertoire. Especially since we’ll have another opportunity to practice this art when we lay a new floor in Cherie’s new office. Stay tuned.
The great parquet order debacle having been resolved, we were finally able to get to grips with laying the floor in the séjour. You may remember that, last autumn, our builders had leveled the concrete floor and laid a layer of OSB on top. Getting a finished floor down was long overdue. As usual, I was very concerned about our ability to carry this out successfully. Sure, we had laid wooden plank flooring down in the master bedroom upstairs and it turned out well. But the séjour is far more complicated; the floor plan has a round end and none of the straight edges are square. Add to that the fireplace footprint jutting out from the wall at an odd angle, and I knew we were in for a complicated project.
We really wanted wood parquet flooring in this room. Something with a bit more formality and a classic french look. We went with a pattern known as Versailles. It comes in 60cm x 60cm tongue and groove panels. Since we were already familiar with gluing, we stuck (ahem) with what we knew for this time. It was a tricky business and midway through we had to make a slight adjustment in alignment which caused us to have to trim several panels in order to correct the line – something I would highly discourage, by the way. As expected, the hardest part was fitting around the fireplace. It was a pretty fiddly operation. But we managed to get it down without screwing it up entirely. In fact, we’re very happy with the overall result and the sejour finally has a finished floor that we can be proud of. Phew!
A project I had been putting off for some time was to increase the height of our kitchen table. Now that I have a semblance of a workshop (temporarily housed in the “Chapel” one floor below), I felt that I could finally make a reasonable stab at this one. When we purchased this old French farm table, we knew that we wanted to make it counter-height. This was for two reasons: first, so that we could use the two chairs we brought from Seattle and, second, so that we could use it for additional counter space for cooking, baking, etc. The table wasn’t very expensive and, although technically an antique, not even a remotely rare piece. Still, I’m the first one to cry havoc when I see someone alter anything with age or beauty to it. The current vogue for “upscaling” perfectly sound antiques makes me mental. So, to all those who share this philosophy, know that everything I did to our table is reversible; it could be entirely restored to its original state with very little effort if so desired in the future. Anyway, the surgery was successful and I hope you’ll agree that the patient came through passably well, performing its new function as a kitchen island-slash-table in admirable fashion.
Further procedures were performed on our guest bathroom vanity. I finally got around to reconfiguring the middle drawer in order to accommodate the sink drain. This former three-drawer commode has been heightened and now houses a bathroom sink, a marble top, a faucet and two functioning lower drawers. The top drawer front is now just for show due to the depth of the sink. None of this, you’ll note, is reversible. But, in my defense, and in a desperate attempt to evade cries of hypocrisy, I would add that this dresser was already a wreck when we found it. Neither was it a particularly notable nor well-made piece of furniture – even on its best day. Just one amongst the legions of relatively cheap reproduction pieces churned out between the 1920’s and 1960’s. My conscience is clear. Mostly.
We found a new mirror for the petit-salon at the antique store just up the street. A big, heavy gilt frame, it’s uncharacteristically more elaborate than we normally go for. But, hey, we live in France now. This country virtually invented glitz. So why not go with the flow? At least a little bit. And, actually, we really like this mirror. It’s been a nice addition to the room and we’re happy to have stretched our decorative tastes. We have many more plans for this room, but they will have to wait until more pressing items have been addressed. For now, the petit-salon is in a reasonable state of completion and that’s good enough. I don’t know how much the mirror weighs – but it’s heavy enough. So much so that we thought it prudent to purchase special cleat hardware normally used for hanging cabinets. It might be overkill, but it’s reassuring to us and we don’t worry about a loud crash in the night.
And so, all of these relatively small projects have allowed us to feel more at home, more settled. Each completed task moves us just a little bit forward, toward the finished house we can envision so clearly in our minds. It also allows us to unpack another moving box, put away more household goods or display more of our beloved objets d’art. It’s been a long road – and we have much further to go – but we’re enjoying it immensely. And, we hope, you are finding some enjoyment in it too. For now, though, good health and happiness to you all. And enjoy this moment of zen we offer to you below. See you next post!
Sunday, Sunday. What to do? Cherie wisely suggested that we commence with a round of visits to towns around Fougères which have earned the accolade: Petites Cités de Caractère (small towns with character). Good idea! Besides, we had been working all week on the stone flooring of the laundry passage (buanderie). And we were feeling a little burned out. A little break is just what we needed. Or course, given that the pandemic is still running wild and most touristy things are closed, we held no illusions that we would be able to engage in a fully functioning visit. But, so what? For now, we can get a good look from the outside. Later, when the world has resumed some semblance of normality, we can return to see the inside stuff. It beats sitting around reading email.
Where to go? Cherie compiled a list of potential candidates and from that we chose Combourg. It’s a small town located to the west of Fougères, about a 50 minute drive from our house. After a quick breakfast [Editor’s note: breakfasts in the Kocan household are generally consumed between 11:00 and Noon. This might be part of the reason why progress on house projects is slow. A workday beginning anytime between Noon and 2:00 tends to produce rather limited results. Don’t judge us.] we piled on several layers of clothing and hit the road.
It’s a nice drive through countryside dominated by farms linked by small hamlets and villages. Hardly a soul was about, so we felt like we pretty much had the roads to ourselves. Sundays are generally very quiet in France. Especially in rural France. Very few businesses are open for even part of the day and there is a kind of solemnity that pervades the air. Sure, this Sunday silence has deep religious roots, but it feels more like a cultural tradition – just part of being French. Rolling into Combourg, we nodded to each other in recognition that tradition was well-regarded in this small town too. One older lady walking her belligerent little dog was all we saw for the first ten minutes after parking the car in the middle of town. It was like visiting a movie set a week after the last catering truck creaked off the lot.
The primary attraction in Combourg is the medieval château. Its origins go back to the 11th century, when the town was given by the bishop of Dol to his illegitimate brother. Quite a progressive family, eh? Anyway, the current appearance of the castle is thanks to the famed french architect Viollet-le-Duc who, in the last half of the 19th century mastered the restoration of this château, amongst many other icons of french architecture (Mont St. Michel, Carcassonne, Notre-Dame – you may have heard of these). The other claim to fame for the castle is that it was the boyhood home of François-René de Chateaubriand, the politician, diplomat, and father of french romantic literature. He was a rock-star of early 19th century France and beyond. Chateaubriand even traveled extensively throughout eastern North America and wrote a couple of books about these experiences. Somehow, being a royalist and staunch defender of the Catholic Church, he survived the revolution, having been wounded during a siege and spending the next eight poverty-stricken years in exile in England. Quite a guy. I have to confess that neither Cherie nor I have ever read any of his works. But we should do so. Even a biography of his life must be riveting. If any of you have any recommendations as to which of his books we should read, please leave a comment.
Despite what detractors of Viollet-le-Duc may say, the château in Combourg is beautiful. At least the exterior is. This being the hell-year of Covid and many other catastrophic events, the castle is closed to visits right now. We will definitely return for an inside look once the pandemic situation has been reversed. But, for this visit, we were content gaze in wonder at her beautiful parapets, turrets, embrasures, chimneys and pepperpot roofs. Even after all of the magnificent ruins, châteaux, stately homes, chapels, cathedrals, and neolithic monuments, we are still astonished each time we see another. The sheer historical weight of human experience encapsulated in these buildings is breathtaking. I tell you, time travel is a real thing. Just squint your eyes at one of these amazing witnesses to history, block out the modern world, and employ a bit of educated imagination and, voila!, you can step back in time.
The town grew up around the castle. The old center is quite pretty and includes some lovely architecture. The old Relais des Princes still stands and serves weary travelers just as it has done since the 16th century; it stood at the crossing of two royal roads (Fougères-Dinan and St. Malo-Renne) and therefore also served as an important inn for officials. Just around the corner there is another 16th century building (now with extra kitsch) which once belonged to the Order of the Knights Templar – given that the Order of the Temple was suppressed in the 14th century, one assumes there was an earlier structure on this site. For medieval architecture geeks like us, it was a pleasure to see so many ancient buildings still standing and functioning in the 21st century. A surprising number of hotels in the old town would seem to signal a fairly robust tourist trade under normal circumstances. Two large old hotels stand between the château and a lake. When we visited, things were very quiet indeed. But one can see just how beautiful and lively it could be during the high season.
Did I mention that it was a very cold and breezy day in Combourg? Well, it was. And by the time we had explored the area, we were quite chilled. And hungry. Normally, as I’ve mentioned, finding anything open after the 12 to 2 lunch hour(s) – on a Sunday – is impossible. But this town kindly offered the services of both a kebab restaurant and a boulangerie. Thank you François-René! – I’m sure the old romantic traveler’s spirit had some kind of influence on this exceptional surfeit of dining choices. In order not to play favorites, we purchased two kebabs (with sauce blanche et frites, for those interested) and then desert at the boulangerie. In very un-french manner, we ate our kebabs in the car. They were tasty but massive, as were the portions of fries. With a bravura worthy of James Beard, we charged our meals and took no prisoners. No, we’re not proud of it, but we’ll just a likely do it again some time. Soon, if I’m honest.
The visit was short. And it was really just a bit of a walk around the town. But it was a nice break. A validation of why we came to live here. With all of our energy being poured into the house, it’s good to be reminded that there is so much we want to see and experience in France. And Europe too. We’re eager to go everywhere and see as much as we can. Sometimes we get so caught up in our house that we forget. So, here’s to more travel, be it near or far. We will endeavor to do more of it in the coming months. When we do, you’ll see it reported here on: Finding our France (how’s that for marketing?).
The New Year has begun at a low point. On the thermometer. In fact, two degrees below 0 (celsius). We awoke [Well, to be precise, only Saxon and I awoke; Cherie tends to sleep through such inconveniences as breakfasts and, umnn … mornings in general.] on the first day of 2021 to a very frosty but sunlit morning in Fougères. It was beautiful. Serene. Saxon and I took a bracing walk in the park below the tower, crunching through the crystalline grass. This weather made Saxon frisky and he was bounding around with the kind of pure joy only displayed by dogs, children, and a certain demographic of nerdy adults who have just found out that there will be a new season of Downton Abbey coming soon. I was just cold. Like, really cold. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but smile. It was that familiar “I can’t believe we’re actually living in France” feeling that continues to grip us on a regular basis. Pretty great. I don’t think we’ll ever truly get used to the fact that we live here.
On New Year’s Eve we were treated to our next-door neighbors’ outdoor celebrations, consisting of very loud and frenetic music, combined with a barbecue (as one does in freezing weather) and fireworks. One of these light-filled celebrations – a large chinese lantern – caught my eye as it descended from their terrace above, wafting downward into our garden. But just as it was touching down, it began to gather heat and floated upward, lofting directly toward the roof of our upstairs neighbor’s apartment where it snagged onto her TV antenna and burst into flame. The Montgolfier brothers would have hung their heads in shame, but I was panicking as I watched what amounted to a large tube of paper with flames leaping out of it threaten to burn down our neighbor’s house. Since hers is directly on top – ours would likely be next. I stared helplessly at the conflagration lighting up the sky, praying that it wouldn’t spread to the roof while at the same time cursing our careless neighbors. Neighbors whom, incidentally, I could hear, whooping it up on the other side of the garden wall, apparently unknowing or uncaring that they may have started a house fire next door. Thankfully, the paper lantern burned out as quickly as it had started and the roof was none the worse for its close encounter with a firebomb.
This brief episode rattled me, though. How easily things can take a turn for the worse. How fragile are our lives and all that we depend upon. It seemed to me to be the disturbing but apt exclamation point on a year that has been so difficult for so many around the globe. My family had experienced several unfortunate events in 2020 – forest fires, impacts to business, illness (Covid-19 and others), injury, and even, most heartbreaking of all, death. Not to be too morose about it, but it’s been a pretty awful year on planet Earth. I hope you’ll all join us in resolving to make this year a better year for our neighbors, our countrymen, our fellow human beings everywhere, and our planet.
So, what have we been up to? Why, working on our house, of course. What else would we be doing in the age of Covid? To be fair, even without a global pandemic, we would still be spending most of our energies (and money) working on the tower. But we would hopefully have engaged in more travel and sightseeing. Admittedly, the blog posts would be more varied and interesting too. At least with the beginning of the New Year, we can proudly say that the first phase of our major works has now been completed. All of the primary demolition, plumbing, electrics, build-outs, and plastering has been done. Which is not to say that our main living areas are looking nearly finished. There is still a lot of finish work to do – by us. Cherie and I are the finishing crew. And we are methodical. Deliberate? Careful? Perfectionists? Okay, we’re slow. But, in our defense, we don’t really know what we are doing. So each little project come with its own, rather precipitous learning curve. At least we have positivity on our side. That’s all Cherie’s doing. She firmly believes we can do almost anything. I, on the other hand, am the voice of doom. I have no confidence in my ability to do anything well and I feel like most things are beyond my skill. Nevertheless, we soldier on. Between the two of us, we manage to get most tasks done. Eventually.
We replaced the stairs leading from the main floor to our master bedroom and we’re really happy with the results. A local menuisière (carpenter) and his team completed it in their shop over the summer and installed it in two days. Pretty impressive. When we first started this whole renovation thing we were hoping to continue the stairway down to the “Chapel” (the tower chamber below the main floor). But that will be another several thousand euros, so we’ll have to put that project on the back burner for now. Seriously, I may have to sell a few organs before we can get the chapel done.
For now, the chapel will serve as my temporary workshop. When we bought the tower, the floor of this chamber had quite a large trap door of wood in the center. We surmise that it was put in during the time the tower was part of a large shoe factory in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For what purpose, we have no idea. Somewhat ominously, the former owners had placed a sandwich of three large sheets of particle board on top of it. Something told us that we probably shouldn’t walk on it, lest we fall through to the room at the bottom of the tower. It turns out that we were right to be concerned. Our trusty builders, Kelson and Stuart, poked around a bit and found that the trap door was entirely rotten. They merely tapped it and the whole thing collapsed and crashed to the floor below. Needless to say, we spent the money to have them span the opening with concrete. A fine job they did, and now the floor is whole. Our electrician, Mark, routed some temporary power outlets as well, so now I am in the process of rearranging our many storage boxes (the majority of which contain books – Oh! How I miss my books!) so I can cobble together a functioning workshop.
Back up in the main floor, the guys finished all of the electrics, plumbing and plastering for the entry, the petit salon, the laundry passage, the hallway, stairwell, and Cherie’s office. It was a long sequence of messes that kept us constantly cleaning. When we purchased the house, there was a door separating the séjour (living room) from the rest of main floor. Unlike American houses, it’s very typical in French houses to have a door closing off a living room. I wanted to get rid of it right away. Wisely, Cherie thought we should keep it until the main construction was finished. She was right. It has sure helped to keep out the worst of the mess. Also the noise. We would seek refuge from the construction zone, all three of us huddling in our séjour and kitchen throughout the day. I’d say that we’ll look back on that time fondly some day. But I doubt it.
There are still a couple of projects that we’ve attempted to get completed, but have been thwarted by some circumstances that we’ll just say are, different, here than we were accustomed to in the U.S. As you saw in an earlier post, we chiseled out all of the old tile and concrete screed underlaying it this summer. The builders then poured some self-leveling concrete and topped that with ABS chip board. Excitedly, we ordered new parquet flooring from a company near Lille in the north of France. Cherie and I plan to lay it ourselves. It took some time, but the pallet was finally delivered in September. We hauled it in, box by box, and then opened one up. Only to find that they sent the right parquet, but in the wrong finish. Ugh!
That’s when the Machiavellian maneuvering really began. The company offers two finishes: natural, and a darker tone they call “cognac”. Before we ordered we had confirmed with them that we wanted cognac. They of course assured us that they would send the cognac. What we got was natural. Well, we thought, a simple mistake. We’ll just email them and they will make it right. Not so. It took a couple of emails to even establish that we had actually ordered cognac. Once that was ironed out by sending them copies of our original order (surely, they must have their own copy, right?), they then tried to claim that there is virtually no difference between the natural and cognac finishes. Classic. We actually had to send them photos from their own website to prove that there is clearly quite an obvious difference between the two. After several more phone calls – a couple of which they simply abandoned because we do not speak perfect French, they agreed that they had made a mistake.
Then the negotiations as to how to get them to pick up the wrong flooring and deliver the correct order began. They simply could not conceive of completing both transactions at the same time. Pick up AND deliver? You mean, with the same truck? Bah non! Right. Reluctantly, we turned to our guardian angel, Kelson’s wife Patricia. She is French. She is a force of nature. And she is on a personal crusade to see justice done. Patricia is very kind and generous with her time. She also speaks English very well. We knew that, with her on the case, these guys from Lille would rue the day they messed with us. We’d seen her in action before. She’s frankly terrifying. Predictably, after a couple of phone calls, the company agreed to swap the merchandise and they set a date for the exchange. Amateurs. The arrangement was so carefully choreographed, you’d think we were exchanging spies with the Soviets on a lonely bridge in Budapest. Actually, it turns out that Patricia told the company representative that Cherie and I were attorneys and suggested that we were preparing a very expensive lawsuit. See? I told you. Terrifying. She’s the best. As far as we’re concerned, she has a lifetime of chocolates coming her way. We are happy to report that we finally received delivery of the correct flooring just before Christmas. Now all we have to do is install it.
But before we tackle that, we needed to get the stone flooring laid in our laundry passage. Just before Christmas, Mark laid the underfloor heating mat (electric) and secured it with a thin layer of latex. We wanted to protect the wires of the mat as soon as possible, so we’ve already begun to lay down the stone flooring. It’s the same stone we used in our guest and master bathrooms, but we paid another builder to do that. With funds getting low, we decided to save some cash and do this one ourselves. Armed with Cherie’s confidence, a grinder with a diamond wheel, a long level, some string, and copious amounts of tea, we embarked on our first attempt to lay stone flooring. Thus far, we’ve cut and dry-fitted the entire floor, and bedded in the first few stones. To us, it looks like a pretty good start. My habitual pessimism won’t allow me to claim victory yet. So I’m reserving judgment until the job is completed. We’ll let you know how it turns out.
Cherie had a special birthday this year. In December, she turned 50. Annoyingly, she doesn’t look anywhere near that age. We had been hoping to have a nice party to celebrate. But Covid laughed and said “no!”. So we baked her favorite cake (Germans’ chocolate cake) and ate it all. Don’t judge us.
A couple of weeks ago we had an interesting brush with a neighbor. We had just come in from our last dog-walk of the day. It was evening. Cherie was putting away Saxon’s leash and taking her coat off while I strode into the kitchen by way of the séjour. Suddenly, a large shadow momentarily dimmed the lights. I looked up just as a monstrous bat strafed over my head. I’m pretty sure I didn’t squeal like a little girl. Well, at least as far as you know. But I did raise my voice to a higher register as I loudly warned Cherie that a dragon was loose in the house. With immediate presence of mind, Cherie bravely closed the door to the séjour – locking me in with the beast. Right. It was just me and the shadowy monster now. Mano a guano. I donned some protective gear and grabbed the time-tested weapon beloved of husbands for time immemorial: a broom. The bat and I locked horns in a grim battle that seemed to last for hours [Editor’s note: It was ten minutes – tops.]. To be fair, the thing was huge. I’m not kidding. It’s wingspan was easily two feet (60 cm) wide. I don’t know how it got in. Probably the fireplace, but we also had an open vent hole in our pantry off the kitchen (which was duly closed up the next day). The bat was actually rather handsome. Cute, even, It would fly slowly around the room for a bit and then alight on a beam, looking down at me, the clueless idiot ineffectually holding a broom while assuring my wife that I had everything under control. I had opened all of the windows, thinking that the bat would be happy to escape into the night, away from the stupid human maniacally swinging a broom about the place. But he seemed to like it in our house, preferring to fly by the open windows and toy with my emotions. After a while, he tired of his amusement and let me off the hook, lazily flying out the window. No doubt he had other husbands to humiliate that night.
Last, but not least, I should mention that we also spent our first Christmas in Fougères. To be sure, the pandemic had a significant effect on holiday celebrations and events in the old town this year. Nevertheless, the ville put on a brave face and decked the halls with all kinds of sparkly things. We found it to be quite pretty and we’ve been enjoying our evening walks with Saxon through the lighted streets. Like so many other places in the world, the shop and café owners were desperately trying to make up for lost trade. Despite the necessary restrictions and safeguards, there seemed to us to be quite a bit of shopping. The streets were fairly busy, especially on the weekends. And there was a definite air of good cheer and hope throughout the town. As for myself, I managed to consume at least one cup of vin chaud (hot mulled wine). Since moving to France, it has become a personal goal to drink vin chaud whenever I can get it. I’ll have to do much better next year. We enjoyed a quiet Christmas in our new home. Just the three of us, cozy in our half-finished 15th century tower, stuffing ourselves with Cherie’s legendary turkey, and trying to to think about the hundreds of tasks we’ve yet to finish. But, hey! We’re in France, right? Not a bad way to spend the holidays. We feel very fortunate indeed.
My love for alliteration knows no bounds. Hence, the title of this post.
Greetings from France once again. Apologies for the extended space between my posts lately. I plead mercy on two counts. Firstly, we have been rather preoccupied with our ongoing house renovations. We are so desperate to reach a point of relative normalcy with our house, that we haven’t really allowed ourselves any time to explore our surroundings.
And, second: Covid-19. Need I say more? We have seen a new surge of coronavirus in France. Accordingly, many restrictions have come into force. And rightly so, say we. Fortunately, our region of Bretagne has been, so far, less affected than other regions of France, so things are not quite as strict here as in, say, Paris or Marseille. Nevertheless, the pandemic has kept us close to home. Fougères has been our universe for the past several months.
Speaking of being holed up in a half-finished house, the renovations are progressing. Some more walls have been demolished, a floor has been broken up, insulation has been blown in, lots and lots of wallboard and plaster has been put up, kilometers of electrical wire and radiator piping have been snaked, and mega-liters of paint have been splashed around – some of it even occasionally landing on a wall or ceiling. How convenient. We try to be disciplined and not rush things. But if you took a look around our séjour (living room) right now you would be able to tell that our discipline is in a precariously fragile state; we have hung paintings and placed furniture in the room, despite the fact that we still only have a subfloor down. Probably not the most pragmatic thing to do, but we desperately needed to feel at least a small sense of completion. Only one of the rooms in this house is currently not serving duty as a storage room: our master bathroom. And even that room still has work to be done on it. Oh well. I guess I can’t say we didn’t ask for it. All in all, we’re happy with the way the renovations have gone. Someday. Some day, we will have it finished and we can focus on travel a bit more.
For now, our travels will have to be occasional and local. But, this being France, one never has to go far to see something extraordinary. Last weekend, we decided to visit a town in the nearby département of Mayenne (formerly the province of Maine). Laval, a mid-size town of about 49,000 people, is the capital of its département and straddles the Mayenne river running southward through its center. [see also, Mayenne in the Afternoon]. It’s just under an hour to drive from our house southeast to Laval, a picturesque jaunt through low, rolling hills with the smaller town of Ernée at midpoint in the journey. The city rises on either side of the river, a pleasing mix of townhomes, apartment buildings and businesses ranging from the 18th to late 20th century. The river itself is broad and calm as it runs under a tall rail viaduct, old bridges and a lock, lending a serene pace to the overcast Saturday afternoon of our visit.
Perched halfway up the slope of the rive doite (right, western, bank) is the château. Begun in the 11th century, it was much modified over later periods, most notably in the 15th and 16th centuries. An impressive stone tower (constructed 1219-1220) stands at the southern end, its wooden hoardings on the top still in their original form. Renaissance window embrasures decorate its exterior, hinting at more to come in the courtyard.
Passing through a well-restored gatehouse, one comes to an assemblage of buildings forming a courtyard of beautiful renaissance harmony. The restoration of this area is visibly a work in progress, but the decorative medieval and renaissance features are on full display. Much of the original carving has deteriorated considerably, but portions have been restored handsomely. Such a great example of french renaissance architecture elegantly integrated into its gothic predecessor. We thoroughly enjoyed seeing this one.
Surrounding the castle is a pleasantly extensive old town, filled with medieval and renaissance houses. It’s a feast for the eyes – especially for historic architecture fanatics like us. We spent a mesmerizing couple of hours just wandering around the quaint, narrow medieval lanes basking in the magic of the atmosphere and soaking up the inspiration we always feel in such places. Photos never really do these scenes justice. At least not the ones we take. But we hope you can get a small sense of what it is like. Honestly, you just have to visit to fully appreciate how special these places are. So unique, so evocative. It’s time travel that can’t be beat.
A huge cobbled square lies just to the west of the château complex, framed by beautifully restored façades containing well turned out shops, bars and cafés. By now it was after lunchtime and we realized that we had not eaten for a few hours. Still, we were determined to march onward and see more of the town. So Cherie ducked into La Maison du Pain (boulangerie) and picked up some tasty bites to go while Saxon and I waited outside.
This is how our visits go when we bring Saxon with us. We view the sights from outside. Yes, you can often take your dog inside bars and restaurants (not boulangeries!), but our little guy still sometimes struggles to settle down when we try it. It’s not that he misbehaves. He just finds it difficult to sit or lay down at our feet. He’s far too curious for that. Also, he has a hard time finding a comfortable spot to sit or lay down in cramped areas. Those long legs come with a price. Poor guy. The situation doesn’t bother Cherie, but I confess that it makes me anxious and I myself can never get comfortable because of it. Thus, we get a lot of meals to go when we have the dog with us. To be fair, Saxon has gotten better about relaxing in restaurants as he’s matured. Maybe by the time he is 35 years old he will have perfected the art of chill. Of course, we know he won’t live that long, but we like to delude ourselves in to thinking he will. It’s the tragic curse of the dog owner, but totally worth it.
Food for later in hand, we continued westward to the Cathédrale de la Trinité. This church was begun in the 11th century, but it has been much altered throughout its history. In fact, they say it did not attain its current appearance until the beginning of the 20th century. I believe it. Although the cathedral is beautiful, it’s disparate elements never quite seem to blend harmoniously. Despite not being high on the list of churches we have visited, it’s still very interesting and well worth seeing. We both found the exterior to be a pleasing sight, its many gables and discordant rooflines offering an ever-interesting skyline to the viewer.
Just across from the cathedral are the remains of the town’s western gate, Porte Beucheresse. It’s a beautiful but lonely gate, having long ago lost its connection to the town walls. The two adjoined towers appear to be private residences. And they have been for quite a long time; a local artist of some repute (Rousseau – the 19th century post-impressionist naïve artist, not the philosopher) grew up in one of them. Impressive even now, they must have been very imposing when the town defenses were complete. At some point, some enterprising householder inserted a grand banque of renaissance windows in the left tower. Very posh.
More wandering around the center of Laval brought us to more narrow lanes and quirky buildings, then down the slope to broad boulevards tastefully lined with rows of pretty shops offering everything from luxury goods to a coiffure à la mode. The quaint and tranquille medieval lanes had rapidly given way to a bustling and energetic commercial center. This area had a good vibe, too, and we enjoyed some pleasant window shopping. In fact, we decided that, along with Rennes and Vitré, Laval will be a good place to come shop for things we can’t find in Fougères.
Our stomachs started grumbling, reminding us that we had yet to fill them with something. Continuing onward, we stumbled upon a sunken plaza area with a coffee shop and lots of outdoor seating. Perfect! It was quite busy, but we managed to find an outlying table and settled in. It was not cold, exactly. But cool. Hot chocolate seemed just the thing. So we ordered a couple of cups and tucked in to the filled breads (salmon and crème fraîche) we picked up earlier. While we were waiting for the chocolate goodness to appear, a small manifestation (protest) marched into one end of the plaza and speakers with bullhorns began to lead chants and make speeches. The crowd was earnest but civil. It made me reminisce fondly about our former home of Seattle. But it is also quintessentially French. They are born agitators and will protest anything, anytime, with great verve. For some reason, it makes me happy to see. They exercise their right to disagree freely, en masse, as seriously as Americans take shopping. It’s right up there with the daily baguette and sneering at the English.
Our hot chocolate arrived in two small cups on saucers and, as always, with a small cookie on the side. Picking up my cup, I noticed that the luscious brown liquid inside didn’t move. Not a ripple. I put my small spoon in to stir and realized that the drink was thick, viscous. Cherie and I debated as to whether it was chocolate pudding or a chocolate bar, freshly melted from the microwave oven. Technically, it was liquid, although my spoon probably would have stood up in it if it had been plastic. To our surprise, the thick gloop in our cups was delicious. Velvety, smooth and creamy. But not overly rich and just the right touch of sweetness without being overpowering. In fact, it was really excellent. We settled in to happily sip our chocolate goo and munch away at our lunch while the pleasing sounds of other chatting tables and the protest filled the air. So French, and so soul-satisfying.
We had satisfied our stomachs, so they were no longer complaining. [See? Protesting works!] A few meters away was a long stretch of medieval wall remaining from the town’s defenses so we took some time to check it out, trying to imagine how it must have looked in its heyday.
By the time we explored a bit further, the afternoon was waning and Saxon was ready for a rest. Laval has much more to offer. In particular, several romanesque churches and abbeys. But they would have to be for another day. It’s not far away from home, after all. We thoroughly enjoyed our few hours in this interesting historical town on the Mayenne. If you are ever in the area, we highly recommend a visit. You won’t be disappointed.
By the way, we enjoy reading your comments. Let us know what you think – good or bad. We can take it. Or, if you have any stories of France you would like to share, we would love to read them.
We live within spitting distance of a castle. Well, okay, you would have to be an Olympic-level expectorator in order to fling a globule far enough to hit the château from our house. But it’s literally just down the street, about a three-minute walk. And we have the privilege of seeing it pretty much every single day. Given that we are so fortunate to be in such an enviable position, I thought it was high-time to dedicate a post to the spectacular medieval monument in our backyard.
Not surprisingly, our neighborhood castle is locally known as Le Château de Fougères, usually accompanied by the subtitle: la plus grande forteresse d’Europe (the largest fortress in Europe). Now, I have to say that I’m a bit skeptical as to whether the claim to be the largest fortress in Europe is true. The walls of the castle encompass an area of two hectares. [For the people living in the three remaining countries still desperately clinging on to imperial measurements – United States, Liberia and Myanmar – this is essentially the equivalent of five acres.] The massive fortifications of Carcassonne springs to mind. But the boast might just be true. By a technicality. In carefully specifying that the Château de Fougères is the largest fortress (i.e., only the area within the walls of the castle itself), they are excluding any fortifications which include any part of a village, city or town. While Carcassonne’s town walls encompass a much larger area, the castle (fortress) itself is much smaller than Fougères. Clever, eh? A crafty bit of marketing worthy of P.T. Barnum himself.
The château sits upon a rocky promontory which was almost completely encircled by the Nançon river. It’s an unusual site for a castle. Medieval fortresses were generally placed on high ground or a position which afforded broad vistas in all directions, the theory being that it was better to see and be seen for long distances. The Château de Fougères is sited in a place which has none of those characteristics. It huddles down in a cramped little river valley which is almost totally surrounded by tall hills on nearly all sides. Indeed, the upper town which it guards sits loftily on a much higher plateau overlooking its protector. One would normally expect to two positions to be reversed.
Notwithstanding its low position, the fortress presents a grand and imposing edifice on all sides. As you drive toward town from the west, crest the hill and descend into the Nançon valley, the vast walls and towers suddenly reveal themselves. Wow!” Was all we could manage to utter when we first laid eyes on it. To be honest, I think I actually said something like “Holy shit!” (Cherie managed to keep it clean – I’m definitely the potty-mouth in the family). As if it needed it, the deep grey local stone lends a somber and forbidding aspect to the structure; the ultimate in local sourcing, the stone for the castle was quarried just a few meters away in the surrounding hillsides. In fact, the largest of these quarries was still in use until the beginning of this century.
A huge postern gateway stands elevated at the highest point of the rocky promontory on the west end of the rectangular fortress, but the main entrance is situated on the eastern end, looking out on a lovely cobbled square with stone and timber-framed buildings home to souvenirs shops, bars and restaurants. Inside the first gate is an outer bailey, completely surrounded by fortified walls and towers. This leads through to another gateway and the larger, main bailey where the lord’s hall and various other buildings were located. Tragically, the once grand hall was destroyed in the early 19th century; only the foundations and a few other elements of this structure now remain. The main bailey gradually slopes upward to a small inner bailey in the east end. This is where the first defensive structure is thought to have been erected.
There has been some form of fortified enclosure at the current site of the castle since at least the 11th century. It likely began as a timber tower or hall surrounded by a wooden palisade. In the Middle Ages it was a strategically important site, standing on the eastern marches of Bretagne as a bulwark against all-comers, usually the English or the French Crown. Fougères was one of a string of several fortresses sited all along the border between what had been an independent duchy and France. Over a period of some 700 years, the château was beseiged on numerous occasions. As far as I can tell, it was taken at least five times – once by a spanish mercenary. The last storming of the gates was done by the Chouans and Vendéans in 1793 during the counter-revolutionary struggle gripping France at the time. This castle has seen a lot of action. It’s a miracle that it still stands.
But its life wasn’t over after the 18th century. Oh no. In the 19th century the château became a private prison and, following that, housed a shoe factory. Just like our tower. The town purchased the entire site in 1892 for the current equivalent of €280,000 and restoration began over the ensuing decades. It has always been a major tourist attraction; even in the 19th century it was visited by the likes of Balzac and Victor Hugo. But now it’s more popular than ever. Particularly in the summer, the castle is heaving with visitors. We buy a season pass for a ridiculously low price (something like €17) so we can walk in whenever the mood strikes us. It’s nice and quiet in the off-season so sometimes we virtually have the place to ourselves.
The substantial walls are strengthened by formidable towers, most of which you can tour. They have been beautifully restored and contain interesting sound and light shows illustrating the history of the castle and marches of Bretagne. One can also walk a good portion of the ramparts and the views of the surrounding town are exceptional.
Also of note is the adjacent mill house (just inside the lovely 15th century town gate of Notre Dame) featuring four waterwheels; there has been a mill attached to the castle since the 12th century. And the beautiful 14th century Eglise St. Sulpice, just across the street from the château is well worth a visit in its own right.
We feel so fortunate to have such an important, impressive and beautiful castle virtually on our doorstep. So far, it never fails to cause us to gasp in awe. And I doubt it ever will. Shame on us if we should ever come to take it for granted. We love taking Saxon for a walk around the château in the quiet of the evening as the fading light heightens the mysterious ambiance of the walls and towers looming overhead. It’s a terribly overused cliché, but I can think of nothing better than to describe these walks as “magical”. I hope you all have the opportunity to experience it as we do.
Cabin fever had finally gotten the best of us last weekend. Trying our utmost to stay at home, isolate as much as possible, wear our masks, and do our part to keep ourselves, our neighbors and the country safe from Covid-19, we had not really traveled anywhere to sight-see since the pandemic began. But working on the house non-stop had been getting monotonous. Our retirement plan had always been to intersperse home projects with travel. So, finally, we forced ourselves to put down the tools and hit the road.
We only had an afternoon and we didn’t want to go far. Somewhat at random, we spotted a town named Mayenne on the map. It’s a medium-sized town to the east, about 44 kilometers from Fougères. Google told us that there is a château in the center of the ville which was all either of us needed to know. Mayenne it was!
The day was lovely. Sunny. Blue skies. Winding country roads. Very french-y and just what the doctor ordered. We knew that we would be visiting a museum at the château so we left Saxon at home to guard our little tower. Besides, he doesn’t do well in warm weather so it was better for him to remain inside the cool of the stone walls.
Mayenne, the town, is situated alongside Mayenne, the river, which runs through Mayenne, the departement. They really like the way Mayenne sounds.
We maneuvered our way into the old town and found a shady spot to park the car. After getting our bearings, we made directly for the château. The château sits on a bluff running alongside the waterway which bisects the town as it makes its way south to eventually flow into the Maine and then Loire rivers. There has been a castle in this spot in Mayenne since at least the beginning of the 10th century. And before that there had been a Roman fort controlling the area. Remarkably, one can see elements from all of these periods in the remnants of the edifice which still stands today. The building houses a very good museum with a small but well-curated collection of artifacts on display representing the history of the local area. The architecture is varied and in good repair following recent restoration/preservation work. And we had the place virtually all to ourselves. Which is a shame, really. These museums rely heavily on the income they receive from tourist admissions in order to maintain the sites and carry out research. Like all museums and historical attractions, they will undoubtedly suffer a dramatic deficit in their funding due to the effects of the pandemic.
After the museum, we wandered around the streets of the old town. Then our stomachs reminded us that we hadn’t eaten lunch and demanded attention. We never argue with our appetites. So, we found a nice boulangerie, grabbed some quiches, drinks and dessert (duh!), and spend some quality french time in the square just watching the world go by. I highly recommend it.
Our stomachs satiated, we strolled around a bit more, happening upon a church. The Basilica of Notre-Dame yields an impressive appearance on the exterior, boasting flying buttresses enfolding a large apsidal eastern end and an impressive stairway. However, we found the interior to be somewhat wanting. Only elements of the nave piers and some scant carving remain of the original 12th century building. The majority of the church appears to be a 19th century reconstruction. Still nice, but a little disappointing. Are we getting too picky now that we’ve been in Europe for almost two years? Perhaps. But I would say that it is rather a case of becoming more discriminating.
Although we only allowed ourselves three or four hours in Mayenne, our visit was rewarding and relaxing. Just the thing we needed. It’s a pretty town with lots of shops and some lovely-looking restaurants that we will have to sample the next time we find ourselves in the area. It felt good to stretch our legs a bit and indulge in our craving for the history and beauty of France. This country never disappoints.
Not much to report, really. But an update on our tower renovation is in order. And I thought I would end with an observation on a mundane aspect of daily life here in France that we found to be, well, a little different.
The Covid-19 solitude continues unabated although we ourselves have enjoyed the company of the two builders who have been working away in the upper level of the tower. Despite delays in obtaining materials, a situation completely beyond their control, Stuart and Kelson have managed to beat what was once an ill-conceived attic space from the 90’s into a much more functional and beautiful master suite. Gone is the raised stage-like platform that beat like a drum every time someone took a step on it. Our two british ex-pats have been able to lower the floor, transforming an awkward lean-to into much more useable floor space and head height around the perimeter. The “open concept” bathtub and washbasin in the orchestra pit has been, thankfully, wiped from memory too. Now, there is a definable bedroom, closet and bathroom – all on the same level.
It’s Beginning to Look Like a Bedroom
As you can see, there is still much to do. Flooring, for a start. But Cherie and I plan to lay it down ourselves. We hope to have that done in a month or two. Our other british ex-pat, Mark, handles the plumbing and electrics. He will be coming in the next few days to complete all of the electrical and plumbing tasks that remain to be done. Still, we are excited to finally see so much progress. The once-tired and neglected top floor will soon be our most private inner-sanctum. A warm and inviting place where we can – and will – sleep in until the crack of noon. And when I say “we”, I really mean Cherie. She is truly a world-class sleeper. Our new master suite will be a perfect place for her to get lots of practice.
Speaking of Covid, France will be slowly easing its lockdown measures on the 11th of May. We will now be able to travel up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from home and many more businesses will begin to resume trade. This is exciting for two reasons. First, and most importantly, the easing is confirmation that the death rate from this horrid disease has been steadily declining in France. So, too, have the rates of new infections and patients requiring intensive care treatment. At long last!
For us, the easing is also exciting because for the past couple of months, we have only been able to obtain building supplies by delivery. The irony of having all of this time on our hands but no way to get the things we need to work on the house has been a little frustrating.
Which brings me to the subject of deliveries in France. Having purchased an embarrassing number of items online from a comprehensive array of sources (from large online-only retailers all the way down to private individuals), we now feel that we have earned some authority on the subject.
At its core, there is an inherent contradiction at play in France when it comes to delivering packages. On the one hand, french delivery services display an almost fanatic concern to inform you about the status of your package. Ordered a pair of tweezers? Prepare to receive an almost daily onslaught of emails, voicemails and text messages (SMS) updating you on the progress (or not) of your precious purchase. On the face of it, this might sound like extraordinary customer service. And I suppose it would be if the were providing information that actually matters. But 90 percent of the time, they are just getting in touch to inform you that the thing they told you yesterday hasn’t changed. Great. Thanks for that. I mean, we’re not expecting a life-saving kidney in the mail. Relax, guys.
And, like the boy who cried wolf, this surfeit of useless correspondence lulls you into a state of complacency, bordering on apathy. After a while you no longer read or listen – straight to the delete button. But the annoying thing is that, occasionally, they will slip a crucial nugget of information into one of these messages that changes everything. “Thank you once again [for the sixth time] for your purchase of the tweezers. We are pleased you chose to shop with us. As a welcome gift, we are offering you 10% off your next purchase.” and then “Unfortunately our delivery service informs us that they are unable deliver packages to your area. We have canceled your purchase and will refund your money [which may take weeks].” Wait, what? Why didn’t you know this three weeks ago when we ordered the tweezers and provided you with our address? Did things like this happen before we had the Internet? I don’t remember. But it makes one question whether or not we are actually better off now than we were before the ubiquity of online services.
As the expected time for delivery approaches, the second phase of concern kicks in. You begin to receive anxious messages from the couriers, requesting that you assure them you will be home on the day of delivery. This might be just once, but can be several times. You know, in case you’ve had any sudden change in plans that might inconvenience them and disrupt the entire chain of delivery across France. Couriers here become distraught at the mere possibility that there may be an unexpected hitch. And, if you’re not home to receive delivery, forget about it. They will almost never leave the package on your doorstep. It’s just not a thing here. The only time they will leave a package is if it is small enough to fit through your mail slot, or if you have a lockable package box (which, to be fair, many french people do). On the up-side, this practice eliminates the porch-pirate industry. But it makes receiving a package delivery another one of those all-day affairs – like having cable installed, or waiting for an electrician to show up.
Here’s where the contradiction comes in. In spite of all the confirmations and reconfirmations, during which you have nearly sworn on a stack of holy relics that you will be available to receive delivery of your package, they may, or may not actually show up. And this, ironically, does not seem to cause them any concern at all. All of the carefully scheduled, confirmed, reconfirmed, earnest affirmations and reassurances in the world will not (and often won’t) guarantee that your package will show up on the appointed day, let alone within the appointed delivery window. You may even receive a call from the driver on the day of the scheduled delivery, informing you that he or she will be there in an hour. But then, nothing. They might show up the next day or two, or later reschedule for delivery the next week (after which comes another series of emails, calls and texts).
This all holds true, whether it be private couriers or the national post system. So far, we cannot find any pattern in this delivery chaos. It’s a mystery to us. So much so that we now call it: French Roulette. You just never know if your package will show up when expected, or even at all. I acknowledge that this is definitely a first-world problem. In the scheme of things – especially in this time of pandemic – it’s a rather trivial annoyance. But it does tie up a surprisingly considerable amount of time and effort. And we are retired. I can’t imagine how people manage it when they have busy lives with work and children.
This is why many tend to make use of points relais. A point relais is often a retail business which maintains a side hustle in acting as a depot to receive package deliveries. We’ve chosen this option many times and it’s generally quite reliable. A point relais can be found anyplace from a large supermarket down to a mom and pop tabac shop. We have picked up packages from florist shops, tailors, home decor stores, and grocery stores. It’s not a huge deal, I suppose. Just different. And that’s one reason we moved to France: something different.
Take care. Be Safe. Peace, and good health to you all.
If you feel the need for a moment of zen, I recommend tapping on the video below:
The house is quiet these days. No builders. No jackhammers. No appointments. Just Cherie, me and our dog Saxon. Waiting out the Covid-19 pandemic in our tower of solitude. Like many, if not most of you, the steady rumble of activity which once marked the passing of each day has come to a rather abrupt halt.
France has been in lockdown since the 17th of March. And it’s been a considerable change. Fougères is not normally a town that’s frantic with activity, but the streets are now nearly deserted throughout the day. We’re allowed to go out to buy groceries, go to the pharmacy, take one hour of exercise per day (providing it’s solitary and no further than one kilometer from home), or to take our dog for a walk to use one of his many favorite toilette spots around town. Spoiled for choice, really. We’re fortunate in that we have a small grocery store and two boulangeries within a couple of blocks walk from our house, along with a boucherie (butcher) and a poissonnerie (fishmonger). They are allowed to remain open so that everyone can still obtain food, wine, cheese, toilet paper, medicine, and – of paramount importance – their daily baguette. Even in the face of a national crisis, the French keep their priorities straight.
The deadly seriousness of current events has ironically been belied by the absolutely glorious weather we’ve been having during this period. It just goes to show that nature couldn’t give a damn about whatever ills humans are suffering. And rightly so. Since when have we, as a species, ever really given a damn about nature? At least nature isn’t intentionally hostile to us. I wish I could say the same about humanity. From our windows in the tower, we can watch the park’s resident team of goats, bees and chickens go about their business. I haven’t actually asked them, but I get the feeling that they are quite enjoying the respite from human activity. Like most of the other parks, the Parc du Nançon below us has been closed as part of the lockdown. As a consequence, the park’s domestic animals and wildlife have had the space to themselves. It’s probably just the intensified quiet, but we swear that the birds are singing more spiritedly and more often. And the squirrels are much more visible. No humans. No dogs. Air pollution levels have dropped considerable since the lockdown too. What a blissful vacation the park’s flora and fauna are having!
If all you watch is YouTube, you get the feeling that everyone who has been under lockdown is already beginning to go a little stir crazy. People are bored and resorting to watching a steadily degrading selection of Netflix series or performing increasingly stupid human tricks. But we still have a huge amount of work to do on our new house. So boredom hasn’t yet taken hold. Except, perhaps, for Saxon. He is pining for the parks and greenways and he doesn’t understand why we can’t take him for long walks. So, yeah, the dog’s a little bored.
Construction work on our house has ground to a complete halt. Technically, the lockdown rules allow builders to continue to work if they are able to maintain social distancing. However, they can’t really obtain the materials they need to keep busy. Most of their suppliers have shut down operations. So, in effect, the lockdown has halted nearly all building activity. But the list of small projects which Cherie and I can accomplish is long and we’ve continued to steadily tick them off. Our guest bedroom is now 95% complete after we posed the last wallpaper panel and finished the trim and paint for the en suite bathroom door. The radiator is still a hideous green banana color and there is a small section of baseboard which I need to make; but other than that, we have our first nearly-complete room.
Our beautiful new door handles have been fitted to our bathroom doors. I know it doesn’t sound like much. How hard can that be? Bloody difficult, I can tell you. But only because I very unwisely chose to purchase british door handles and locks. You see, the hostility which the British and French have felt for each other for hundreds of years has been at a low ebb over the last century. But it still exists. And this cultural antipathy manifests itself in thousands of little ways. Frustratingly, one of these ways it makes itself felt is in door hardware. To my dismay, I discovered that british handles and locks do not match up with french doors and frames. Which is to say, the english male bits don’t fit in to the french female bits. While this metaphor has been overcome thousands of times in cross-Channel conjugal relations (as the many resulting french/english children attest), it remains an insurmountable obstacle when it comes to door hardware. As a result, I spent a ridiculous amount of time reconfiguring our french doors and doorframes so that they would accept our new british door handles. What a pain! But they are now both in place and looking rather spiffy. Brass on the outside and polished nickel on the inside. Now we can enter the closed borders of our guest bathroom without hindrance and Brexit when we’re done.
Mind you, the house is still a disaster area. Boxes, furniture, construction materials and dust everywhere. But our kitchen is in a working state. Even though there is still a considerable amount of decorative finishing which needs doing. Our evenings are spent in this room watching Netflix or YourTube, with dinner plates in our laps and tea served on our little terrace table-to-be. We’ve managed to cobble together two dining chairs into a sort of loveseat with a sheet over it to protect from all of the dust. Reasonably comfortable, but a pale comparison to a proper couch. A few months ago we bought a big, beautiful new television. It’s still in the box. Sigh! But, PERSPECTIVE, as I always say. Tragically, there are millions of human beings living in terrible, horrible conditions around the globe. And this pandemic has thrown many millions into economic distress, not to mention the thousands of deaths resulting from Covid-19. How’s that for a little perspective? Our petty complaints are nothing in comparison. Cherie is quite good at remembering that. Thankfully, she is also persistent in reminding her all-too-fallible husband that we are very fortunate indeed.
Currently, we’re engaged in a standoff with a stone wall. We’re determined to reveal the stone wall in the place which we have dubbed the Rampart Passage, an area which will serve as a laundry room/way out to our terrace on top of the old town rampart to the east of the tower. To our advantage, there is two of us and only one – stone wall. And we have tools. Apart from being, well, stone, the wall also has the advantage of being covered with multiple layers of concrete and paint. Lots of paint. Hmnn … I can see what you’re thinking: the odds don’t look good for a happy outcome in this scenario. At least not one in the immediate future. And you’d be correct if it weren’t for two secret weapons at our disposal. The first weapon is an over-sized vat of paint stripper. While we’re generally loathe to use chemicals when we can avoid it, this is war. And we intend to win it. The Geneva Convention doesn’t apply in this case. So chemicals it is. The second weapon at our disposal is our stubbornness. Yes, forget your cleverness, your intelligence, your ingenuity, your hordes of skilled workers with years of specialized training. There’s nothing that sheer, ignorant obstinacy can’t accomplish. And we have plenty of that. So, look out, stone wall! An idiot armed with an oversized brush, a bucket of hazardous chemicals, and the utter inability to comprehend when he’s beaten is coming your way. Let the games begin!
As always, we’ll keep you updated on developments. We hope that when the the worst of this crisis is over and things begin to return to some kind of normalcy, the builders will return and we’ll have more dramatic changes to report. And we’re also hoping to get out to do more sightseeing. We really enjoy it and we’re happy to share our travels with you. To all of you reading this – hang in there, stay safe and healthy, and stay occupied in whatever way makes you happy. Cherie and I wish good health to you and your loved ones. We’ll all get through this Covid-19 crisis together. As always, stay in touch and please share your comments. We really enjoy reading them. See you soon!