The Sweetness of Serendipity: Langon and Grand-Fougeray

Two Towers Across the Lake – Grand-Fougeray

It was time for yet another random outing. The weather was fine. Not too hot (we’re from Seattle, remember), and we had not been out to sightsee for a couple of weeks. Determined not to neglect any of our fortunate time here in France, we decided that we needed to get out and see something new. So, late Saturday night I leafed through one of our guidebooks and found a few interesting spots located to the east of us. Not far. Perfect for a short day-trip. Having settled on two sites, we set off on Sunday morning. And, yes, technically, it was still morning (11:30). Just. Unless we’re compelled by some unreasonably early appointment, 11:30 is about as soon as Cherie and I are likely to step out of the door. It’s a well-established family policy.

La Chapelle Ste-Agathe

First on the agenda was the small town of Langon. This community sits on one side of a valley through which runs the Villaine river. The town is also fortunate to have a rail station on the line which runs from Redon to Rennes, giving it connections to Nantes in the south and Lorient to the west. After a nice 45-minute drive through undulating countryside and pleasant little villes, we arrived, winding gently down through pretty stone buildings into the center of town. The sun was shining through a tattered carpet of pillowy clouds, the temperature was just perfect for a t-shirt, jeans and cardigan – and it was quiet. Like, really quiet.

Sundays are quite lazy days in France unless you find yourself in a larger city. Very few (if any) shops are open and, if they are, only for a couple of hours in the morning. Usually one can find a café, bar or restaurant open during the lunch hours (12pm – 2pm). And boulangeries are generally open throughout the main hours of the day. Given our accustomed late starts, we nearly always end up at a boulangerie, grasping for the last sandwiches or quiches remaining in their glass cases. But, this being France, they almost without exception prove to be excellent fare. Even if the sandwiches or quiches aren’t so great, we never leave a boulangerie without patisserie (also family policy – the first item on the list, as a matter of fact); so, a mediocre meal will always be made infinitely better by finishing off with a lovely fruit tart or at least a pain au chocolat! It’s pretty hard to lose under such circumstances.

Standing the Test of Time

Apart from a couple of other visitors and some locals in the lone café to be open that day, we had the town to ourselves. Our aim was to see the Chapelle Sainte-Agathe. This chapel is one of the few surviving examples of Gallo-Roman architecture in Bretagne. It it thought to have begun life in the 4th century as either a mortuary vault or as a bath. At some point it became a temple for venerating Venus and then transitioned into a Christian church. The history seems rather unsettled, but regardless of that, this little building is a rare survivor in this part of France. Over 1,600 years old. Amazing!

Closed for Business

But, O Fortuna! The chapel was closed. Not entirely surprising. But disappointing nonetheless. The interior is supposed to contain a fresco of Venus rising from the waves and Eros astride a dolphin. Racy. It would have been great to see the inside, but that’s the chance you take when you make spontaneous sight-seeing trips on a Sunday. It’s not far from Malestroit so we will have to make a return trip to view the interior of this lovely little chapel.

Église St. Pierre, Langon

An unexpected bonus of our visit to Langon was the town’s parish church: Église St. Pierre. The church is literally steps away from the chapel and we were delighted to see a marvelous display of twelve bell-turrets arranged around the tower, each one keenly pointed and individually shod in slate tiles. It was plain to see that this church has been entirely restored – inside and out – within the past couple of years. And a fine job was done. Very impressive work. We were especially taken with the interior. The lime-render of every wall surface had been completely renewed and sensitively redecorated in a period fashion which evokes its original state when first constructed between the 11th and 12th centuries. It is magnificent. Just the kind of restoration we like to see.

Sublime Decoration: the Nave and Chancel

We had the entire church to ourselves, allowing us to appreciate undisturbed the harmony of the architecture and its decoration. The peace of our visit was only broken once, momentarily, when one of the church bells suddenly (and loudly) struck the hour somewhere directly above. At the time, I was having one of those sublime out-of-body moments that I experience whenever I am confronted by a beautiful medieval building. The bell shocked me so much I nearly let fly with a pithy selection of invective from my vast vocabulary of swear words and curses. Luckily, I managed to swallow my frothy utterance before committing an outrageous (though witty) sacrilege. I’m not in the least bit religious, but I have a great respect and admiration for these buildings, as well as for the people who maintain them and the congregations who keep them alive. The last thing I want to do is dishonor a place so precious to them. This time I had had a narrow escape!

12 Bell Towers Surrounding a Central Spire (the Apostles and Their Lord)

Admiring chapels and churches is hungry work. It was also mid-afternoon. Cherie spotted a boulangerie just up the street from the church so she just managed to squeak through their open door before they closed while I minded Saxon. Distraught, as he always is, to be separated by more than three feet from the love of his life, Cherie, the dog and I fidgeted outside while she grabbed lunch. Out of sandwiches, the boulangère sold her a couple of individual quiches, a strawberry tart (for Cherie) and a pear tart (my favorite). We quickly munched them in the car in a very un-french manner, and then set off for our second destination: Grand-Fougeray.

Crossing the Villaine river and continuing further eastward for 15 minutes brought us to Grand-Fougeray. It’s a small-ish town of around 2,500 souls with a lovely square. Even though the end of lunchtime was fast approaching the restaurants terraces were still lively with diners enjoying their meals en plein air on this relaxed summer’s day. It made for a nice atmosphere amidst the backdrop of well-maintained 18th and 19th century facades and riots of flowers blooming in the numerous planters dotted around the square. So typically French. These scenes, so common in France, make us smile every time.

But our goal in this area lay instead on the edge of town. So, this time, at least, we didn’t tarry in the centre-ville and made straight for La Tour du Guesclin. This tower, or donjon, is the only substantial remnant of a castle that had once guarded not only the town of Grand-Fougeray, but also the border of Bretagne which, for most of the Middle Ages, was an autonomous duchy, independent of the kingdom of France. Such vigilance was necessary. For several french kings had made military forays against Bretagne. The only land approach being from the east, several large fortresses were constructed on Bretagne’s borders to guard against recurring french invasions. The castle at Grand-Fougeray was one of these (our new home to the north, Fougères, was another of these guardians of the marches). This string of defenses served as a bulwark to help maintain the duchy’s independence for centuries.

A Strategically Stacked Pile of Stones – Tour du Guesclin

Our guide-book merely includes a brief mention of the Tour du Guesclin. No photos. From the description, we expected a stumpy ruin poking out of the grass, just recognizable as having once been a tower. But as we drove into the casually-marked parking lot, we were stunned to be confronted by an intact monumental stone tower 34 meters high and 13 meters wide. Wow! Although once part of a walled castle, the tower now stands alone, the last sentinel still keeping watch over this part of Bretagne’s ancient border. A beautiful and serene park and arboretum has grown up around the tower, resulting in a very pleasant setting. The tower’s neighbor next door is an eighteenth-century château-cum-convent and on this day several of the nuns had ventured out between their daily services to enjoy the park and take a jovial turn up the spiral staircase of the edifice which overlooks their garden walls.

The fortress of Grand-Fougeray was begun in 1189. In 1350 it was captured by an english pirate (seriously) and occupied by the english for four years until Betrand du Guesclin, constable of France, recaptured it. The tower has borne his name ever since. When we first arrived, the tower appeared to be closed. It looked like, if were to get a look inside, we would ourselves have to lay siege to it. But we forgot to bring our battering ram. So, after a first look around the exterior, we took a stroll through the arboretum, Saxon having great fun sniffing around and watching the many ducks in the ponds with his ever-present fascination for such things. When we returned, the door of the tower was wide open and people were casually entering. Not a battering ram in sight. What luck! It must have been closed for lunchtime. Opening (and closing) times in France are highly unpredictable, changeable and often seemingly random. Sometimes you get lucky. We were quite happy to find that this was one of those times.

Come for the Art, Stay for the History
Luxury Stairway – 14th Century Style
A Tower with Views

Sensibly, the French tend to take a dim view of allowing a large black standard poodle who is lavishly uninhibited in demonstrating his love of meeting new people to wander around inside national historic monuments. So, I entered the tower first to have a look around while Cherie waited outside with our celebrity dog. Ostensibly, the tower was open for an art exhibition. A number of local artists had their works plastered all over the interior spaces of the tower. Although the “art” was a bit distracting, it was still possible to see the beautiful architecture it was concealing.

Chamber with Unusual Fire Surround

Clearly, this was once a lavish building. Still visible are the numerous carved moldings, capitals, plinths, lintels, architraves and other decorative features. It was easy to imagine the now-bare stone walls once covered with lime plaster and brightly painted with patterns, figures and/or solid panels of color, some hung with tapestries or painted cloths. Even though it is now a bit stark, it is easy to feel how comfortable and luxurious the rooms of this tower must have once been. Each floor, joined by a projecting spiral stairway, features a large central space from which smaller peripheral chambers radiate around the exterior. The floors were laid in red or buff-colored terra-cotta tiles adding a further sense of solidity to the spaces (as if it needed it). I lingered as long as I dared. After a last look, I reluctantly exited so that Cherie could take her turn. She found it no less impressive than I did. All in all, we both felt that this was a real gem and one of the better medieval buildings we have visited.

A Relic of War Now Pleasantly Serene

Our visits to Lougan and Grand-Fougeray were further proof of our theory that, more often than not, it is the unexpected things which turn out to be the most rewarding travel experiences. It is the surprise discovery or the unforeseen event which gives us the most pleasure, the most long-lasting memories.

Serendipity. We swear by it. And it almost never lets us down. We hope that it works in your favor as well.

The Magic of Rochefore-en-Terre

Sainted Stone

Cherie and I haven’t been out travelling for pleasure in the past couple of weeks. Frustrated by waiting for our new house to come together, we have been commuting back and forth to Fougères every couple of days in order to expend some anxious energy. Wallpaper has been our latest objective. There are acres of it plastered onto nearly every single wall of the living space. Three and four layers of the stuff. One of our English neighbors in Malestroit loaned us a steamer and it has been very useful for removing the papers, layer by layer.

Wallpaper Beware! Cherie Wields a Wicked Putty Knife

But, wallpaper removal is about as exciting as watching paint dry. Perhaps even less so. Despite the obvious attractions of a lecture on the fine art of dissolving wheat paste and old tobacco stains, I thought we might instead offer a few words about one of our favorite destinations: Rochefort-en-Terre.

A Vista Over the Rooftops of Rochefort-en-Terre

A short drive south from Malestroit, through rolling countryside dotted with dairy farms, lush corn fields and woods harboring red deer and wild boar, brings you to an area of high stone ridges cut through with deep ravines. Stands of oak and pine cling to these rock outcroppings where the colors of grainy grey, burnt orange, and deep mottled green predominate the landscape. Perched on top of one of these ancient ridges is the small town of Rochefort-en-Terre.

View of the Main Street, Rochefort-en-Terre
Place des Halles, the Mairie (Town Hall) at the Far End

I generally try to avoid too-often abused descriptions such as “cute”, “quaint”, or “picturesque”. But in the case of Rochefort-en-Terre, I really don’t think I have a choice. I’m not alone in this. Rochefort-en-Terre has been designated as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. And most beautiful it is. The town’s buildings, all constructed of a mottled grey stone, are closely packed in together along a central street which forms the commune’s spine.

Ancient Townhouse
Sixteenth-Century Lavoir (Laundry Shelter) in the Meadow at the Bottom of Town

Radiating from this street are numerous narrow passages which meander amongst the two and three story homes and shops. Following these passageways provides unique vistas of the valley below or glimpses of secluded cottages and alleys festooned with climbing roses scaling ancient rock walls. Several long, winding stairways join the various levels of the town as it spills down the hillsides. Long, extended back gardens enfold small orchards of apple and plum trees around which the grass is cropped closely by diminutive sheep and goats. Even the backyard livestock is cute in this town.

The Château

Crowning the town at the top of the rocky ridge is a château where once stood ramparts and a castle. Sadly, the château is not open to visit; much restoration work is being applied to it at present. In the 20th century it was purchased by the american painter, Alfred Klots [Extra points if you know of this painter’s works – he was completely unknown to us.] The guy had good taste. It’s a beautiful château and the ruins of the 12th century fortifications make for a dramatic entrance through a still-standing gateway.

A Door to Untold Stories (Okay, Four Stories, to be Precise)

The main street of Rochefort-en-Terre is packed with shops, most of which cater to the many tourists who come to enjoy the town year-round. We particularly enjoy the excellent chocolate shop – no surprise there – where you can fill your own bags from a vast variety of bins containing all kinds of sweets. Choose your own death by chocolate. There are also several nice cafés and restaurants lining the cobblestone streets and we have had a number of good meals here.

Antique Shop

Rochefort-en-Terre also hosts a nice little antique shop at which, you will not be surprised to read, we are regular visitors. The owner is a fairly elderly fellow. Quite charming and warm. When last we were there, we purchased an old lock from him. While chatting we explained that we were from the United States. At that, he began to tell us of his childhood during World War II and how american soldiers had liberated the area. He noted a particular memory that brought tears to his eyes, recalling that a G.I. gave him an orange and it was the first one he had ever tasted. Monsieur was, to this day, very grateful to the american soldiers who freed the town from Nazi occupation. It was quite touching and his emotional response to the memory made us tear up as well.

He gave us a discount for the old lock too. Just for being americans, I suppose. Although we hardly deserved it. But we felt privileged to share the moment with him. Memory of World War II still runs quite deeply through the french consciousness, we have found. Hardly surprising, given the devastation of battle and occupation which so wracked the country for the entirety of the war. While americans have a collective memory of World War II, it is quite different, I think. Here, its impact was so much more universal, visceral and conflicting. Military defeat, deprivation, resistance, betrayal and even collaboration. These sometimes conflicting themes loom large in this country, and a national reconciliation of this time in french history remains elusive to some extent. A sobering thought.

Who Needs Thomas Kinkade?

Rochefort-en-Terre really shines during the Christmas season. Last winter we met our friends Penny and Julian for a visit in the evening. The town is alight with illuminated decorations along the streets, the squares, the church and the shops too. It’s enchanting. I am not what you would call a lover of Christmas. In fact, for me, it’s one of those things that, every year, I just try to get through as quickly as possible. Like a funeral. Or any film with Leonardo DiCaprio in it. But even I can’t deny the intoxicatingly festive spirit which permeates Rochefort-en-Terre at Christmastime. The four of us took a slow stroll amongst the old stone buildings, twinkling with colorful lights in the crisp air of a winter’s evening. Threading our way through groups of cheery revelers we stopped for cups of vin chaud (mulled wine) to keep our engines warm as we continued onward, enjoying the enchanted ambiance and each others’ good company. Despite my accustomed Christmas pessimism, I couldn’t help but feel cheery myself. Resistance is futile in Rochefort-en-Terre.

Notre Dame de la Tronchaye
Good Doggie!
A Good Place to Contemplate

I should mention the lovely and unusual church in the town. It sits just off the main street, somewhat sunken on the downslope side of a small square. Eglise Notre Dame de la Tronchaye was begun in the 12th century. With later additions, it still feels quite ancient, with double aisles, a wooden ceiling and wooden tie-beams carved with fantastic beasts at their terminals. Outside, multiple gables line the length of the nave roof, overlooking several beautifully carved gargoyles in a variety of shapes and guises. It’s a unique design offering many surprising architectural elements which no doubt evolved over the many centuries of this building’s existence. I highly recommended a careful and considered wander through this church.

Cute, Quaint, Picturesque

As you can see, there are good reasons why Rochefort-en-Terre is fondly considered to be amongst the most beautiful towns in France. Yes, it can be a bit touristy, but it’s a simple matter to step off the well-trod tourist street on to quiet and often deserted passageways and alleys – even in the height of the season. We’ve done it several times now, and the town never fails to impress. We’ll be back for many more visits, I’m certain. Even after we’ve moved further away to the north in Fougères. Rochefort-en-Terre is just one of those places that sticks to your soul. For our part, we’re quite happy to have it comfortably lodged there forever.

Family Matters in Fougères

Last week we woke up to a surprise email. It was from someone named Guido. And he wondered if we would like to meet up with him.

Wait. Guido who?

It turns out that our mysterious correspondent is Cherie’s relative. Guido is the son of Wolfram and Elke, her german cousins. Cherie has an entire side her family which remained in Germany while the other half scarpered off to the United States toward the end of the 19th century.

Cherie and Guido in Fougères

Due to some good old-fashioned philandering by her industrialist great-great grandfather, two branches of the family were born. The first, German branch, was established in the traditional manner – marriage, children, building a substantial business empire manufacturing linens.

But, then, the aging industrialist had a change of heart. Enter the secretary. Smitten with his new, much younger love/employee, the linen tycoon decided that a new life in the New World was in order. He took his new wife to California, had some more children (as one does), and established a second dynasty: the American branch. Despite my lightly pointed remarks, I’ll be forever grateful that this man had a wandering eye. His mid-life crisis resulted in the family that produced the love of my life.

An Energetic Man: Cherie’s Great-Great Grandfather Friedrich

The old man’s capacity to produce not only prodigious amounts of linen but also marriages and children resulted in two groups of progeny separated by some 20 years. As a result, the same generation of the American branch of the family is much younger than their corresponding German cousins. Even though they are first cousins, Wolfram is 84 and Cherie is 48. Guido, her second cousin, is only a couple of years older (54).

A Visit With Family in 2011: (from left to right – me, Rudolf, Wolfram, Angelika, Herbert, Cherie, Elke – missing is Herbert’s wife, Heidi, who took the photo)

Guido (pronounced “Ghee-doh”) was in the midst of his summer vacation, touring the north of France. When he emailed us he happened to be in Mayenne which is a mere 47 kilometers east of Fougères. He was planning to travel west into Bretagne on his way to visit Mont St.-Michel. We happily arranged to meet in Fougères the next day and spent several hours of the afternoon and evening walking around the town and getting to know each other. The weather was blisteringly hot. But, with Cherie’s legendary shade-seeking skills and liberal application of smoothies and ice cream, we managed to avoid heat-stroke.

Guido (middle ground, left) and I (middle ground, center) Exploring the Château

We really enjoyed meeting Guido. A lovely guy with a passion for photography and classic Citroën cars. Like his mother and father, he is kind, knowledgable and curious. He and I had a good look around the Château de Fougères while Cherie much more sensibly took refuge from the sun in the shade of an adjacent café. It might come as a surprise to those of you who know my particular obsession with all things medieval, but I had not yet been to visit the château; for some reason I was avoiding it until the time was right. Guido’s visit seemed like an appropriately special occasion. The high towers were especially impressive, although challenging – for me, the vertiginous heights; for him, the pain in his knee from the many stairs. The château is amazing and I will be back many times. Together, the three of us toured the town’s gardens, its historic streets, and (of course) our house-to-be.

Sadly, we had to say goodbye in the evening. We had to get back to Malestroit in order to tend to Saxon. Wisely, we had left him in the cool house, sparing him the misery of sweltering in the heat. Our dog is even less tolerant of hot weather than Cherie, so he was much better off sheltering alone in Malestroit. Still, it had been several hours and he needed relief. Literally. The poor guy can hold it for quite a while but even he has his limits. After repeated hugs and farewells we parted ways, wishing we had had more time to visit. Now we have yet another reason to return to Germany (as if we needed one).

It was nice to discover more of Cherie’s German relatives. The world is indeed small and our connections many. A cordial and pleasant meeting between Americans living in France and their German cousin reminds me of just how wonderful, fulfilling and peaceful the world can be. If only we all tried to get along with one another just a little bit harder. To be less prideful, less selfish, less greedy. To have more empathy for each other. To see the “other” in ourselves. What a world that would be, eh? John Lennon really had it right. Imagine that.

The Colors of Pont-Aven

The Aven River Coursing Gently Past Foot-Bridges

A somewhat hastily planned outing to the Breton town of Pont-Aven was on our agenda for this weekend. Frustration with the glacial pace of progress on our house renovation in Fougères continues to build so we felt we needed a sanity break. What better way than to visit a picturesque ville and a château on a lazy summer’s day? It was also my birthday (54 years – almost equal to the number of hairs on my head) so I was keen to get out and do something. Not that I feel the Grim Reaper’s breath – surprisingly minty, by the way – on my back, but I am gaining a greater appreciation of how fleeting time can be. Best to gather ye rosebuds while ye may, n’est-ce pas? [Obscure reference to 17th century English poetry courtesy of my liberal education.]

A Breton Idyll

From Malestroit in Morbihan, we drove to the département of Finistère which encompasses the westernmost portion of Bretagne. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive through gentle hills festooned with oak, beech, and lush farmland of cow pastures, maize and grain crops. It’s pretty country, reminding me somewhat of the area where I grew up in western Oregon.

Our trusty Audi which we purchased not long after we moved to France has proven to be a great car. We bought it used but with low mileage. A plug-in hybrid, the electric battery will get us around 60 kilometers on a full charge. It doesn’t sound like much, but it actually translates in to a considerable savings in fuel consumption. Like most people, the majority of our car trips are short errands around town. We find that we complete most of these trips using only the electric battery.

Our primary intention in purchasing a hybrid electric car was to reduce our carbon emissions. Because, you know, man-made climate change is a real thing and we prefer to try to contribute to reversing it rather than sticking our heads in the sand. So, the car is good for that. It is quite satisfying to be quietly making one’s way through the cobblestone streets under electric power. Of course, we try to walk when we can. And our hybrid electric is certainly not the best solution available. But we feel it’s at least a small positive step towards a wiser, more sustainable future.

Our Audi A3 e-Tron (2015)

The Audi also saves us a bit of cash. In our present situation living in Malestroit, we don’t have a place to park the car where it is appropriate to charge it from an outlet in the house. Thanks to some very forward-thinking action on the part of the town’s leaders, Malestroit has installed, not one, but two charging stations in its main parking lot. And one of those even offers free charging. A slow, full charge of wind-turbine-generated power takes about two-and-a-half hours. Not the most convenient, given that I have to take the car out and pick it up from the charger. But still a pretty sweet deal. Once we are moved in to our house in Fougères, we can simply plug the car in from our garage at will. Can’t wait!

Waiting for the River to Rise

Pont-Aven rests cozily in a narrow valley through which the River Aven flows on its way to the sea. In fact, the tidal limit of the estuary comes up to the southern end of town. There, the river widens, accommodating a sizable fleet of pleasure boats moored either side of the main channel. Except for this channel, the river bed stands dry at low tide. The boats are modified to remain upright on their landlocked moorings by the use of legs fixed to either side of their hulls so that, in concert with their deep keels, they always have at least two points on the ground to stabilize them. It’s a pretty harbor and would be a lovely place to keep an old sailboat. I can dream, can’t I?

Calming the Current: Along the River Aven

The river Aven forms the spine of the town. As it flows through the center of the ville it is channelled into numerous mill races (the mills themselves now long disused) which are criss-crossed by a series of pedestrian bridges. The bridges are well-kept and made all the more colorful with rows of flowers in planters along their railings. The watercourse is often interrupted by patches of large boulders, strewn about as though, in the dim mists of times now long forgotten, géantes celtique were interrupted in their crude game of pétanque, leaving their pieces lay as they were thrown. Along the banks of the river, numerous lavoirs step down to the water, where once the householders of the town washed their clothes. In the rare quiet moment, we could imagine the sounds of scrubbing, beating and rinsing as it must have been for centuries. On this warm July day of sun and puffy clouds, the whole made for really pleasant scene. We soaked it in for a good long time as we meandered along the paths and bridges.

One of Many Bridges Tracing the River’s Path
Now-Silent Lavoirs (Wash-Houses)
A Sluice-Gate Amongst the Bracken, the Mill it Used to Serve in the Background

Our river walk was particularly satisfying because we had just enjoyed a quiet lunch. The restaurant is situated at the very heart of this busy tourist town and we were seated at a widow above the street. Inveterate people-watchers, we engaged in one of our favorite spectator sports, amusing ourselves with the myriad of visitors marching past our view.

Tourist-y!

Pont-Aven is quite popular with tourists – it has been so since at least the 19th century. From the 1850’s to 1900 it became the frequent summer haunt of artists, the most famous of which was Paul Gaugin. [For any of you interested in art history, I recommend a quick read of the Wikipedia page for the “Pont-Aven School”. A lesser-known, nonetheless influential art movement.] It’s not hard to see why this area attracted artists and continues to do so. The light, the many colors, the juxtaposition of a myriad of textures, architecture and nature, the people, the boats and, running through it all, the water. There’s so much to dazzle the eye.

La Place de L’Hôtel de Ville

We really enjoyed our trip to Pont-Aven. A lovely town in a lovely setting. It’s definitely worth a visit for anyone and we ourselves are quite likely to return someday.

Kernault – A Modest Country Retreat

After a few hours in town, we decided to spend the remains of the afternoon at the manor.

You know. As one often does.

Unfortunately, the manor in question does not belong to us. But thanks to the kind people of Bretagne (and payment of a small entry fee) we were allowed to poke around the house and grounds of Le Manoir de Kernault. The house was begun in the 15th century and later modified successively in the 17th and 19th centuries.

The Chapel Behind a Spray of Golden Grass
Gentle Stone Steps
The Chapel Entrance for the Cheap Seats

The house itself is a beautiful example of Breton manorial architecture and there remain many elements of the original building. An unusual feature is the attached chapel. Manorial chapels were most often separate structures situated within the confines of the house and outbuildings. This one, however, is built on to the side of the house with an exterior stairway access for servants and manorial workers and a private doorway from within the house itself for use by the seigneur (lord) and his family.

Not Your Average Grain Silo

Directly opposite the house is a large grain store built in stone and half-timber. Such a rare thing to survive. It’s quite large. Far too large for storing the crops produced by the manor’s fields alone. Researchers have theorized that the manor must have been speculating on crops from other farms in the area, storing the grain over several years until a time when the selling price was advantageous enough to reap a significant profit. Sound familiar? Some things never change.

Café in a Former Workshop
The Cool Shade of an Allée on a Warm Summer’s Day

We had an interesting and pleasant wander through the manoir’s buildings and fields, pausing to have some tea at the lovely little café in one of the farm’s outbuildings. By the late afternoon we had run out of steam [Did I mention I just turned 54?]. So, even though there was much more of the farmland and animals to see, we called it a day and promised ourselves that we would return to explore further.

Blue Skies and Archangels

This post is an edited version of an email sent to friends and family in April, 2019.

Place du Théâtre, Fougères

This weekend we made another visit to our home in Fougères and took the opportunity to cross over the border to Normandy.  We’ve been lucky enough to have Jessica (Cherie’s niece) visiting us for a few weeks so we wanted to show her our new house and the town which we will be our new home.

We drove up to Fougères from Malestroit on Friday afternoon in pleasant weather, gave Jess a tour of the tower and then walked around town as dusk approached.

View of Église Saint-Léonard Looming Over the Medieval Quarter

The next morning we took advantage of the outdoor market which is held just up the street from our house on Saturdays, had some pastries and hot chocolate and headed off for Normandy with a very particular goal in mind: Mont-Saint-Michel.

The Approach to Mont Saint-Michel

MSM is only a 45 minute drive from Fougères so we fetched up to the many-acre parking lot just before lunchtime. Perfect. MSM is situated on a large rocky island which springs up out of the vast tidal flats at the mouth of the Couesnon river – the very same river which flows by Fougères much further upstream. It’s a lovely setting, surrounded by lush farms and small villages on the mainland, contrasted by the wide expanses of mud flats and the waters of the bay.

Hyper-Tourism Along the Beautiful Grande Rue

As a UNESCO world heritage site, MSM is a massively popular tourist destination. Even during the off-off-season in March, there were substantial numbers of visitors eager to see what all the hype is about. The site is extremely well organized to handle large crowds of people. One must park in the lot on the mainland and either take a free shuttle bus to the mound or walk and nicely groomed, broad pathway (about a 35 minute walk). Dogs are allowed in the village at the bottom of the mound, but cannot enter the abbey on top and not on the shuttle bus. But they have kindly (and wisely) included a kennel service at the welcoming center. We had Saxon with us and he is still not able walk for long distances because of a back problem, so we took advantage of the kennels for a mere 8 euros. He wasn’t very happy about it, but I think the trauma was greater for Cherie.

Wood and Stone: A Beautiful Scene on the Grande Rue

To say that MSM is amazing is an understatement.  Take every wonderful thing you’ve heard about Mont-Saint-Michel and double it!  Photographs of it are quite impressive, but it’s even more magnificent in person.  Yes, it’s very touristy with an abundance of opportunities to purchase souvenirs.  But that’s only evident in the lower village area which is nevertheless beautiful and charming. 

The Iconic Spire of L’Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel

But, to my mind, the star attraction is the abbey at the top of the mount. It’s really beautiful and visitors are allowed to tour a good deal of it. One can either take a guided tour or simply view the abbey precincts on their own. Only 10 euros and you’re allowed to walk in the footsteps of monks who have lived on the top of this rock since the 8th century. We all enjoyed it immensely!

A few more photos to give you a taste of MSM. But, truly, they do not do this incredible monument justice. You will just have to see it in person to appreciate its rich history, and unequalled beauty. Enjoy!

The Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel as Viewed from the Abbaye
The Abbaye Church
Garth and Cloister
A Forest of Pillars – Epitomé of the Stonemason’s Art
Monks’ Refectory
Impressionnant!

Tower and Town – Our Search for a New Home

In the Jardin du Nançon, Our New Home in the Background

Our move to France was not without an agenda. At least a rough outline. First, to base ourselves somewhere in Bretagne, renting a house. Then, we wanted to begin searching for a house to purchase.

Where? Well, one of the benefits of being quite new to France was that we held no preconceived ideas about which area would be the best for us. So, pretty much all of France was in our sights. Of course, many of you are familiar with our preference for cooler climes. Thus we did have some bias against southern France. Apart from that, we were keeping an open mind.

We also knew that we preferred to live in an urban setting if possible. Having lived – and loved – our lives in the heart of Capitol Hill in Seattle, we didn’t think that we could trade away the liveliness and convenience of having services, entertainment and restaurants within easy walking distance of our doorstep. Not that it had to be a large city like Paris or Lyon. But we hoped we could find at least a medium-sized town which offered an urban ambiance. Malestroit is a lovely, lovely town. And, compared to most American towns of similar size, it packs quite a punch in terms of services, commerce and events. Even so, it’s a little too quiet, a little too insular to suit our taste.

By far the most important criteria for finding a place to live was the house itself. Cherie and I are both massive enthusiasts for architecture – as long as that architecture was built before 1940. Apologies to all of you lovers of mid-century modern and later styles, but we find nearly all of that to be appallingly cold, unimaginative, without soul. It’s lucky that we both tend to gravitate toward the same types of buildings. Generally, the older the better. Although I suppose we would both draw the line at stone-age cave dwellings. Give us a medieval or renaissance abode any day. A neo-gothic or Palladian pile? Sign us up. For us, a minimalist concrete box with “clean lines” doesn’t hold any appeal. To put it another way, we prefer Glen Close to Kim Kardashian; Rembrandt to Rothko; Bach to Satie.

NOT on the Agenda!

So, we were hoping to find a property with some history, some age. A home, as they say in the real estate biz, with character.

Looking for properties here in France is a bit more of a random affair. One does not enlist an agent who will help you search for you dream home, arrange viewings and accompany you to the property. Nope, that’s all up to you. Here, each agent holds a certain inventory of homes for sale and they will only show you those properties. So, if you see a property you like, you must contact the particular agent who represents the owner of that property; they generally seem to accompany you to view the house – which is a bonus when compared to the U.K. where they only set up the viewing but you are on your own with the property owner or renter (as the case may be) to view the house.

In essence, there is no one on your side. No one to represent your interests when searching for properties. If you are lucky, the home owner’s agent will be reasonably objective and help you out, but they are under no obligation to act in your best interests. I suppose that when buying properties in the U.S. we had been a bit coddled with the real estate structure in place there. And because of that, we had come to expect that same form of adult supervision in property searches everywhere. But it’s just not so. In France, you must be more actively involved. Once you accept that, the process is really not too difficult.

Fougères in the Distance

We began our search right away – just a couple of weeks after we settled in to our rental house in Malestroit. Online, we searched through thousands of properties. No joke. Thousands. There is a website here called Le Bon Coin. It’s the basic equivalent to Craig’s List in the U.S. This site has both private and professional home sales on it and ended up being the best resource for our initial search.

After finding a few likely candidates, we would call the agents or owners to arrange a viewing. Even though we considered properties throughout France, we ended up looking almost exclusively in Bretagne. To a significant extent, it was just easier to travel back and forth in the space of one day. We had no one to watch Saxon so he would have to come along on overnight forays. Was it practicality or laziness? Maybe a little of both. But in our defense, Saxon doesn’t like to ride in the car – it’s uncomfortable for him and makes him a little carsick as well. So it’s best for everybody if we avoid long drives anyway.

The Widely-Traveled Valerie Living it Up in South Africa

In the midst of our search, Cherie’s mother, Valerie (“Val”), came to visit us. She is an ardent house junkie. So she quite happily joined us on several property viewings throughout Bretagne and the Loire Valley. We all had a fun time crawling, climbing, snaking through ancient houses that were sometimes barely standing.

Just before Val arrived, we happened upon a property in the northeast corner of Bretagne in the medium-sized town of Fougères. Both of us liked it and we thought it would be worth a second look while Val was here to give us the benefit of her opinion. She has a keen eye and we wanted her take on it. At second look, we liked it even more. Val was convinced it was the place for us. Cherie loved it so much that it brought tears of joy to her eyes. Nevertheless, we tried to remain pragmatic; we looked at a few more properties. But, in the end, nothing matched the house in Fougères.

La Tour Desnos from the Northeast

And so it happened that we found our new home. After a bit of negotiation we agreed on a price. By March, the house was ours. La Tour Desnos. Our medieval tower house.

L’Usine Pacory: 19th Century View of the Pacory Shoe Factory Enshrouding the Tower

The main structure is, in fact, a stone tower reputed to have been built in the 15th century. The story thus far is that it was originally built to serve as one of several defensive towers in the walls surrounding the upper town – the haute-ville. In the 17th or 18th centuries it was repurposed as a prison. Having fallen into disuse by the early 19th century, it was transformed once more: this time into a shoe factory. By the latter half of the 19th century, two large structures were raised on either side of the tower in order to accommodate the needs of the expanding factory. Following the two world wars, the shoe industry began to flag. At some point in the 1950’s or 1960’s, the factory closed and the tower, perhaps for the first time in its long life, became a residence. By this time most of the 19th century industrial additions had been demolished, leaving the original tower to once again stand alone. The upper floors were renovated to create a living space, while the lower floors were left raw, stripped to the stone.

This is the state in which the tower remains today. There is a single, main floor, finished for living, with two bedrooms, a kitchen, shower room, separate toilet, laundry area, and a living room. And the top floor under the semi-conical roof, was used by the former owners as a third bedroom. The two levels below the main floor remain unfinished. There is also a small remaining portion of industrial building attached to one side of the tower containing two levels, each of which are also unfinished.

The Entry Hall with a View Toward the Front Door

Former Bed Chamber. To Be Transformed into a Kitchen

Living Room with Views Over the Park

Attic Space to Become a Master Suite

The “Chapel” (So-Called) Constituting the Second Level of the Tower. A Future Sitting Room

The tower stands against a slope. As a consequence, the main floor is on the third level of the structure. The entry into this main floor is level with a small courtyard and short drive which leads to the main street: Rue de la Pinterie. The base of the tower opens on to a pathway and looks out over a park, Le Jardin du Nançon. There is a bit of outside space, broken up into four areas. Two of these are paved terraces (the Upper Terrace and the Sun Terrace), while two others are small garden spaces (the Jardin and the Potager).

Saxon Posing on the Upper Terrace

The Sun Terrace (in the Shade)

We couldn’t have found a better location for our house. It is situated directly in the heart of Fougères. This allows us to walk to restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies, the theater, post office, the mairie (town hall) and, most importantly: the boulangerie. We are just steps away from Fougères’ large Saturday market. Moreover, I am able to trot down our street directly to the Château – one of the largest surviving medieval fortifications in Europe.

Little Courtyard, Drive and Gate to the Street (View from Our Front Door)

And yet with all of this convenience, the house itself is well off the street, isolated in its little courtyard. The other side of the property overlooks a large park through which meanders the Nançon river (really little more than a creek). The park is pretty and quiet. And the best part is, we have a lovely park as our back yard without having to maintain it ourselves. Sweet! So, for us, La Tour Desnos (we think it’s pronounced “day-know”) is pretty much perfectly situated.

Rue de la Pinterie: View from Just Outside Our Driveway Gate

Fougères (pronounced “foo-jehr”) itself is a town of about 21,000 citizens. It’s a 30 minute drive southwest to Rennes, the largest city in Bretagne. The town has a theater, multiplex cinema, numerous restaurants, cafes and bars, shops and services of all kinds – pretty much everything one normally needs in daily life. The only amenity our new town lacks is a train connection. There used to be one. But, as with countless other towns and villages throughout France, its rail line was shut down decades ago. Luckily we can at least catch the high speed rail (in France it’s called the TGV) in nearby Vitré 20 minutes to the south, or at the main station in Rennes. So it won’t be too much effort to conveniently explore the country by France’s excellent rail system.

Place Aristide Briand (a Two-Minute Walk from Our Home)

Rue Nationale

Église Saint-Léonard

Beffroi: A 14th c. Bell Tower We Can Hear from Our House (Don’t Worry – It’s a Good Thing!)

You may have noticed that we haven’t moved into our new home yet. That’s because we decided to make some changes to the layout on both the main and top floors. We’re also removing an external staircase, installing a new internal staircase, creating two bedroom suites, installing new electrics and plumbing, making minor repairs to the roof and sun terrace, building a covered passage between the tower and industrial building and fitting out a couple of workshop areas.

Terminus of Rue de la Pinterie (Our Street) at Château de Fougères

La Ville Basse: The Medieval Quarter of the Lower Town

Since the tower is registered as an historic building, some of the alterations require planning approval by Architectes des Bâtiments de France (ABF), the body which protects the integrity of all historic monuments in France. This, in combination with the securing of contractors and artisans, has been an achingly slow process. As a result, only the most minor of preliminary work has been done on the house. We are hoping to have the first stage completed by the end of September. If that happens, we’ll have a functioning kitchen and one bedroom suite; we can then move in and live there while all of the other work continues. At this point, hope is all we have. It’s now nearly the middle of July. In August, almost the entire population of France goes on vacation. Nothing gets done in August. Nothing. So, you can see that we’re running on optimism right now. We have no fear that all of the work will get done. We just don’t know quite WHEN it will happen. C’est la vie!

As things progress on the house, I will provide additional Renovation Updates. In the meantime, we continue to pinch ourselves, feeling incredibly fortunate to own such an ancient piece of France’s historical patrimony. We feel terribly privileged to be the custodians of La Tour Desnos for this chapter in its long story. And I hope to be able to dig more deeply into the tower’s past history. Once I have compiled a more detailed story, I’ll share it with you all.

I’ll leave you with just a few more photos of some highlights from our new home town:

Le Jardin Publique Overlooking the Lower Town and Château

Victor Hugo Theater (a One-Minute Walk from Our House)

Chateau de Fougères at Dusk

Languedoc-Roussillon in Spring

[This post was originally an email sent in April, 2019 to friends and family before this blog was started.]


Last week I, Cherie and Jessica [Cherie’s niece] spent a few days in the south of France. This region is historically known as Languedoc and is culturally a very distinct region of the country. It’s an area influenced by several successive waves of peoples, including Gauls, Romans, Visigoths, and Ummayads (Narbonne was, for a time, the muslim capital of this part of their kingdom); it was later part of several northern Spanish kingdoms. Languedoc was also the scene of a devastating crusade (the Albigensian Crusade). It’s a fascinating place and so different from what we have seen in Brittany.

The Mediterranean Coast at Canet-en-Rousssillon


It’s about a 9 hour drive to the area of Rousillon where we were based. Some of you may know this area for the excellent wine they produce. As you ply the many tollways southward through Nantes, Bordeaux, and Toulouse, the landscape becomes drier but remains verdant. Finally one arrives at the Mediterranean Sea. It was the first time for any of us to see the Mediterranean; I even convinced Cherie to at least dip her toes in the water. In her defense, it was surprisingly cold. But at least we can now declare that we have touched its waters.


We stayed in a bit of a dodgy resort called the Malibu situated on the coast in Canet, between Narbonne and Pepignan. It was not the greatest accommodation we have ever had, but it was passable. From there, we were able to visit lots of really interesting and beautiful places.

Keep Out! Porte Narbonnaise, Carcassonne

Amongst the extraordinary sites we visited was the medieval city of Carcassone. The first visible fortifications go back to at least Visigothic occupation and much of what remains is from the 12th and 13th century. The old town is surrounded by a double ring of defensive walls within which is a fortified castle. One can walk the ramparts of the inner curtain walls with its many towers and tour the castle itself. Even though it’s very touristy, the entire old town is a medievalist’s dream and we’re so glad we got to see it.

Jessica Pondering the View from the Ramparts, Carcassonne
Approaching Dusk in the Cité, the Streets of Carcassonne
Carcassonne Fortifications

Far up in the hills of the Pyrenees lies the village of Castelnou. Perched on a rocky spur, the village’s houses cling to the steep slopes, huddled together around narrow cobbled streets below the medieval keep which still stands a sentinel watch over the rugged landscape. Almost on a whim we decided to visit Castelnou and we were richly rewarded. It was beautiful and we had the village almost to ourselves. A kind woman in her open-air café just before the fortified village gate chatted with us as we stopped for a brief rest and glasses of Moroccan tea. We were the first Americans she had ever met in Castelnou. Hopefully, we left her with a good impression! For our part, Castelnou left us with a lovely, lasting impression.

A Hill-Town in the Valley, Castelnou
No Cars Allowed
Wisteria in Bloom

In the bustling city of Perpignan we saw many interesting sites, including the Palace of the Kings of Majorca. In the center of a large military fortification, the palace was built in the 13th century when Perpignan was part of the Kingdom of Majorca. It was so different from what any of us have ever seen. We spent a lovely afternoon investigating its many spaces, including a somewhat harrowing climb up an open spiral staircase in order to get this spectacular view of the palace’s courtyard from high above:


It’s Good to be the King: Palace in Perpignan

On a different note in Perpepignan was the Hotel Pams, the lovely Art Nouveau home of the Job cigarette rolling paper magnates. Jessica is very fond of this style of architecture and decorative arts so she particularly enjoyed our visit to this house.

Rain-washed Courtyard, Hôtel Pams


Narbonne: the Market Hall at Lunchtime

Lastly, I will just mention the Abbaye de Fontfroide, a Cistercian abbey in the isolated Corbières hills west of Narbonne. It’s a beautiful monastery in a lovely setting, nestled in a narrow valley amongst forested hills festooned with pine and olive trees. Expecting some unattended ruins, we were surprised to discover a well-maintained monument, to include a lovely restaurant where we enjoyed an excellent lunch before we set about exploring this historic edifice. It’s privately owned and the owners are also one of the many producers of Corbières wine in the area. They also appear to rent out the abbey as a film location; we arrived to find that several rooms of the abbey were temporarily off limits as a film crew was beginning to dismantle set decoration, lighting, sound and catering equipment that had been set up in many areas. A bit disappointing, but we were still able to see a great deal and we had a rewarding experience.

Abbey Garden: Fontefroide
Cloister
Abbey Court
Old Chair/New Chair: Abbaye de Fontefroide

There was much more but I won’t burden you with an even longer account. We had a lovely time. Thanks for letting us share a little bit of it with all of you.

Scarcely Containing Her Joy – Jessica in Narbonne

Between the Seine and the Sea: Le Havre and Honfleur

The Old Harbor, Honfleur

In yet another hastily planned exploration, last week we found ourselves in Normandy (Normandie) in two cities either side of the mouth of the Seine. Most of our destinations these days seem to be chosen for us. Fate, it seems, decided that this time we should visit the area around the mouth of the Seine River. Actually, it was equal parts fate and a cruise ship line that governed our destiny on this particular occasion.

Allow me to explain.

We ended up in this area of France because two of Cherie’s family relations had been taking a cruise around the British Isles, the Channel and the North Sea. After visiting England, Scotland, Ireland and Norway, their one port of call in France was to be Le Havre for one day. One day. In Le Havre. Why? I don’t know. Of all the ports in western France, Le Havre is perhaps not one which immediately springs to mind for tourism. Particularly if you have only one day to spend in France.

Being a major port, the city suffered horribly during World War II. Thousands of citizens were killed and a large part (80%) of the city was destroyed by Allied bombing in September, 1944. Following the war the city was rebuilt by the modernist architect Auguste Perret. If you are a lover of post-war reinforced concrete structures, then Perret is your man and Le Havre is the destination for you. It is chock full of brutal, heavy, conformist buildings. Massive industrial, commercial and residential blocks dominate the huge harbor. Granted, Le Havre is the second largest port in France. So some of that naturally accrues to a port’s requirements.

Full disclosure: Cherie and I share a nearly universal distaste for post-war architectural design. Our assessment of Le Havre is therefore not without the influence of our strong opinions on the subject.

Granted, further in from the enormous quays, the city becomes somewhat less concrete-y and the architecture reduces in mass and form to a more human scale. Unfortunately, this exchange also comes with a more gritty atmosphere. Our impression was that Le Havre is simply down on its luck. On the whole, it’s struggling a bit, despite the obviously vibrant industrial and maritime trade activity on display.

Honorable mention goes to Le Havre for a bright, modern tram system which threads through the city and links up with the central train station. And we found the population of the city to be encouragingly diverse and energetic. So, who knows? Maybe Le Havre has a bright future in store.

Rod and Kathy Sizing Up a Painting

So, Cherie and I hastily booked a hotel and did the four-hour drive up to Normandie on the afternoon before we were to hook up with Rod and Kathy Gish. Our dog Saxon accompanied us because our friends in Malestroit who usually watch him for us were out of town. It was a pleasant drive through beautiful countryside. This was our first time exploring Normandie. Although it was quite a brief and focused visit, we saw enough to know that we will return many more times. Our impending move to Fougères will bring us to within less than an hour’s drive from Normandie’s southern border.

Rod is a second cousin to Cherie on her mother’s side of the family. He and his wife Kathy are now both retired and decided to make what is perhaps their once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe together this year. Cherie had been in communication with them and we were happy to find that we could meet up on their one day in France. We were to be their tour guides in a place that we had never been to. Tricky.

Pietà, Notre Dame Cathedral, Le Havre

The morning of their visit, Cherie left me to hang out with Saxon while she met Rod & Kathy for some morning sightseeing. First, a visit to one of the few old buildings of La Havre to have survived the destruction of the war: the cathedral of Notre Dame du Havre. Reporting on the ground indicates that this is a lovely 16th and 17th century church with an attractive Baroque façade.

Well of Light, Maison de l’Armateur
Fancy-Schmancy, Maison de l’Armateur

Next on the tour of Le Havre was La Maison de l’Armateur, an 18th century residence built overlooking the harbor. The primary feature of this home is a remarkable octagonal light well. As you can see from the photo above, it runs vertically for several floors, providing illumination into the center of the structure. The rooms are arranged around the well, accessed by open galleries on each level. It’s a beautiful and very practical arrangement. And the technique is, in various forms, frequently mimicked today. The house has been restored and is now a museum, decorated in 18th and 19th century furnishings and décor. A lovely example of the domestic architecture of this region.

Abbaye de Graville, Le Havre

Sitting higher up the slopes of the white stone hills is the Abbaye de Graville. Although this monastery dates back to the 10th century, the current buildings which comprise the complex range from the 11th through 19th centuries. A strong specimen of Norman romanesque architecture, the abbey also houses a good collection of medieval sculpture and hosts concerts and temporary expositions throughout the year.

Rose-laden Passage, Honfleur

Before we left for Normandie, we had done a bit of reconnaissance on Le Havre. Hmnnn … what to do? We did not want to leave Rod & Kathy with gritty, industrial Le Havre as their only impression of France. To be sure, it’s never good to whitewash a place either. Not all of France (or any other country, for that matter) is all quaint cottages, castles, sunshine and baguettes. It’s a real place with real people and all that that entails. So it was appropriate that they should see a representation of France unwashed, as it were. But, being rather proud of France, we wanted to balance that reality with another aspect of the country. Conveniently, we found it in Honfleur.

So, the place that Cherie and I had booked was in the center of Honfleur and we conspired to kidnap Rod & Kathy so that they could catch a glimpse of a different side of France.

The Inseparable Pair; A Beauty Shot on the Streets of Honfleur

The port town of Honfleur stands on the southern side of the Seine estuary, opposite of Le Havre to the north. Honfleur is an old and beautiful town, its half-timbered blocks of homes and shops linked by cobbled streets meandering gently around the harbor. It seems to have largely retained its old architecture. The picture it presents is therefore more harmonious, the mix of building styles more natural, organic.

Le Havre is very popular with tourists who are injected by the boatload (literally) from cruise ships. Because of that, it can be fairly hectic around the inner harbor area where it is aggressively geared toward catering to day-trippers who are short on time and who are generally disinclined to stray very far from the reassuring comfort of menus printed in their own language. I get that. But it is not our kind of scene. Cherie and I typically avoid highly touristy attractions. Sometimes, though, sights are so special that we go anyway. And, despite ourselves, we generally enjoy the spectacle. It’s like watching an ant colony at work – if ants filled their tunnels with little ant-stands selling cheap tchotchkes and outdoor ant-cafés offering bad service and even worse food at double the prices the local ants pay for some of the best ant-cuisine to be found two tunnels away at Aunty-Ant’s Colony Kitchen.

On top of it all, we happened to be in Normandie during the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Even though Honfleur is a fair jog from the Cotentin Peninsula and the beaches where the principal landing took place, the crowds in town were boosted with numbers of reenactors in various uniforms and civilian dress from the 1940’s. [I hesitate to call them celebrants because it doesn’t seem quite appropriate to celebrate such an important, dreadful and devastating event. Perhaps commemorants is a more fitting term.] As a result, we ran into countless American, Canadian and German visitors – most of whom stopped us to have a cuddle with Saxon and take his photograph. When you are walking with a standard poodle, you become invisible. The dog sucks up all the attention. It’s like hanging out with George Clooney; you might as well strip naked and sing the hallelujah chorus – no will notice you anyway.

After having been in our more isolated corner of France for several months now, we found the frequent sound of Americans somewhat jarring. We’re just not used to hearing it anymore. British accents, yes. But we hardly ever hear American accents in Bretagne. Particularly in Malestroit. In Fougères we’ve been told by several locals that we are the first Americans they’ve talked to. And that’s just fine with us.

Disturbing the Peace for 600 Years: Sainte-Catherine’s Bell Tower

But in spite of, or perhaps as a consequence of this, one can wander the back streets of Honfleur and enjoy a remarkably serene, tranquil atmosphere. The town is quaint, but in a more urban way. The oldest houses are medieval and renaissance, with stone foundations and half-timber (French: colombage, or, pan de bois) upper stories. There are many surviving examples in Honfleur and, mixed with the later 18th and 19th century buildings, they leave a very pleasing impression of a bygone era.

A Masterpiece in Wood: the Church of Sainte-Catherine

Our kidnapping plan in full swing, Saxon and I joined the party and we all walked around the old harbor area. We looked at some shops and had lunch at a rather touristy café. We feel a little guilty about the café because the food was really not up to normal french standards. My fault because I chose it, thinking that Rod and Kathy would enjoy eating with a view of the harbor. Surely now their lasting impression is: “What’s all the fuss about french food?” Big fail. Worse yet, they very kindly bought that lunch for us. Mea maxima culpa.

After our lunch, we strolled over to the Église Sainte-Catherine, a 15th century church constructed entirely of wood. It is, in fact, the largest wooden church in France, the town harnessing the considerable boat-building skills of the local craftsmen after the previous stone church had been destroyed during the Hundred Years’ War. It’s a beautiful accomplishment, the main structure being a double-aisle hall with side-aisles to north and south. The double-vault ceiling is like two upside down ships’ hulls and there is a clerestory at the top of the walls through which light fills the space, filtering through finely-carved wooden tracery spanning the entire length of the nave and apse. It was really special to see and I think Rod and Kathy found it inspiring.

Interior, Sainte-Catherine’s

Equally notable is the church’s bell tower, also constructed of wood. It stands separately from the church, just across the square. Apparently, the stone house upon which the wooden tower is situated was the bell-ringer’s residence. I wonder if the house came with earmuffs? The bell tower is so venerable and evocative of how the daily rounds of life must have turned for the inhabitants of Honfleur over so many centuries.

View of the Harbor Entrance, Honfleur

Sadly, we had to say goodbye to Rod & Kathy as the afternoon drew to a close. They had to return to their cruise ship by the early evening. Their vessel was sailing off to Southampton, England in order to fly out the next day to their next destination: Iceland. We had a nice visit and really enjoyed exploring Le Havre and Honfleur with them. One day in France is a heartbreakingly short time. We hope that we helped to make their few hours here an enjoyable and enriching experience.

For our part, we really enjoyed our own short visit to the area. Honfleur, in particular, is yet another place we hope to return to someday. It was such a pleasant place to visit and the people so friendly and welcoming. Highly recommended!

A Comfy Cafe, Honfleur

A Decade in the Making… More or Less (Part II)

[Part I of this post was published on 30 April, 2019.]

Not Epcot Center

Plans to retire to the U.K. now scuttled, we were feeling a bit adrift. After our initial disappointment, we began to think about France. We had always loved the idea of France as a nation, its people and culture(s). And the thought of living here was attractive. But – and I’m ashamed to admit it – the thought of learning French was daunting and probably what had put us off the idea earlier on. How lazy is that?

Languages can be difficult. But it’s not as though we were being asked to consider the study of quantum mechanics – a subject which is, I am entirely unashamed to admit, entirely beyond me. Cherie studied French in high school and she later learned a bit of Spanish and Italian. I, being the uber-liberal arts nerd that I am, have studied Latin, Old English (Anglo-Saxon), German, Italian and a smattering of French.* How hard could it be to properly learn French? So, we decided were were up for it and therefore, with unwarranted confidence, crossed that perceived barrier off the list.

Having tamed our fear of learning a new language, we began to look into France’s immigration rules. We were surprised to discover that they are straightforward and liberal. Relative to those of most other european countries, that is. Even better, they allow for non-European Union citizens to take up residence as retirees. Of course, a few conditions apply, but they are not considerable. There are three principal requirements:

1.) Idle hands. If one retires to France, they must promise not to work. In practical terms, this means they do not want people flocking to France to take jobs away from French citizens. Our entire raison d’être for this move was to retire an never have to work again. So, yeah. Perfect. Next?

2.) Show me the money. France requires that prospective retirees living in the country demonstrate they will have sufficient income to support themselves. This is to prevent them from becoming a financial burden on the state. Fair enough, we thought. We had never paid any taxes in France. Why should the citizens of France have to bail us out if we foolishly moved here with minimal bank accounts and then ran out of cash? Luckily for us – and, yes, we are fully conscious of the fact that we are very fortunate indeed – we had gathered enough funds to show that we could sustain a reasonable economy for ourselves.

3.) In sickness and in health. France’s healthcare system always ranks amongst the best in the world. It’s primarily funded through salary deductions (similar to Medicare or Social Security in the U.S.). The government therefore asks that retirees immigrating from other countries outside the European Union provide their own private health insurance. At least for the first three months of your residence. After that, it’s possible to join their national health system. Given that we have never contributed a cent to France’s health insurance system, it seems like an incredibly generous requirement. As it happens, we still found that we could get better private full-coverage global health insurance for less cost than we had been paying while working. The United States does many things very well; its system of health care coverage is inarguably NOT one of them. Accordingly, we were overjoyed to comply with this immigration requirement.

Place de l‘Hôtel de Ville, Narbonne

The universe was telling us to move to France. Who were we to argue? Willing supplicants to universal order, we finally had a new plan. Or, at least the beginnings of one. France is a large country. If we had any hope of succeeding in our move, we would have to narrow down the geographic area.

The southern regions of France were definitely out; neither one of us is partial to hot weather. It must seem crazy to many, if not most of you. Isn’t the south of France where EVERYBODY dreams of living? Such romance: Provence. Côte d’Azur. Midi-Pyrenees. The light. The colors. 435 days of sunshine a year. Nope. Not for us. We’re more the cool weather, drizzle, fog and occasional sunny day types. Like Seattle.

Well, what about beautiful Paris, you say? Probably the most dreamt-of place to live in the entire world. Yes, much better weather. And I much prefer big cities. Cherie not so much. Nevertheless, we could certainly have afforded to buy a famously expensive shoe-box apartment in the City of Lights. But then having spent nearly all of our retirement savings on it, we would be forced to eat Top Ramen and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for the rest of our lives. No so great.

Picturesque Lavoirs (laundry houses) of Pontrieux, Bretagne

After the climate and cost distinctions were made, our selection process became considerably more arbitrary. Frankly, we’re fairly certain that pretty much anywhere north of Lyon would have been fantastic for us. But we had to choose somewhere to start.

I think it was Cherie who first suggested Brittany (hereafter, Bretagne). A whole host of reasons recommended this part area of France to us. Firstly, the region’s weather is exactly as we like it. A little rain, a little sun, partial clouds, a dash of fog, cool but not cold, and rarely hot. Yessss. Bring it! The environment is also lovely, with many woodlands, rivers and hills; and 2,860 km (1780 mi) of breathtaking coastline. Add to this an interesting mix of french and celtic culture and generally good transportation links to the wider country and the rest of Europe and we were convinced. We would start our french lives in Bretagne.

Pioneer Square, Seattle

Throughout this decision process, time was marching onward. We were both working steadily and generally living and enjoying our lives in Seattle. But our jobs were becoming increasingly less tolerable for us. The stress was more and more pronounced while, inversely, we were deriving less and less satisfaction from our work. Because of this, we were even more excited than ever about our plan to retire to France.

But the environment at our place of work was such that we had to keep our scheme a secret. Sadly, past experience there had demonstrated to us that employees could find themselves at the losing end of malign administrative maneuvers. Promised advancements conveniently forgotten; statutory wage rises ignored; retirement bonuses whisked away. We were not taking any chances. So we felt we had to leave even our closest and most respected work colleagues in the dark about our plans. Such deception was not comfortable for either of us. But our future entirely depended upon the deferred retirement funds we would receive later on in life. So, at work, we maintained secrecy with the kind of absolute rigor not seen since Operation Overlord. Our two-person invasion of France was about to begin …

John at the Helm of the Arlo James on Portage Bay, Seattle

*Full disclosure: I won’t speak for Cherie, but I have mastered none of these languages and would never claim that I am fluent or proficient in any of them. By the way, beware the American who confidently claims to be fluent in several languages. They usually aren’t. On the other hand, when a European begrudgingly admits to speaking two or more languages, it is most often true. How annoying! And humbling. If I had my life to live over again, I would have begun learning a foreign language from age 5. [I also would have given up playing baseball at a much earlier age. I was hopeless.]

Our Little Corner of France: Malestroit and the Val d’Oust

The River Oust, Malestroit

It was somewhat a random choice for Cherie and I to end up in this part of France. As regions of the country go, Brittany is not as well-known (particularly for geographically-challenged Americans) as, say, Provence or Normandy. The mention of Brittany generally leads to a reaction of embarrassed confusion or a knowing nod of the head in the mistaken belief that I am referring to Great Britain. Being smug, Europe-loving nerds, we both already knew the region’s geographic location. But that was about all we knew.

Ignorance has never – ever – stopped Americans from doing a thing that might seem (and probably is) crazy, if not entirely ill-advised. I offer you the deep-fried Hostess Twinkie as just one example. So it has been with great joy that the two of us are discovering the richness of Brittany. At the time of this writing, we have only been here for about nine months. Consequently, there are huge swathes of the region which we have yet to visit. But, the little pocket which we have called home since leaving Seattle is certainly itself worth exploring.

Administrative Regions of Metropolitan France

If you’re still a little fuzzy on the geography, Brittany (Bretagne in French) is the westernmost point in France. On the map above, it is on the far left, with Normandy to the north and the Pays de la Loire to the east and south. Bretagne is one of 13 (including Corsica) régions in mainland France. These are the rough equivalent to states in the U.S. or provinces in Canada.

There are 96 départements (similar to U.S. counties) in France. Bretagne itself is divided into four départements: Finistère in the west, Côtes d’Armor to the north, Ille et Villaine in the east, and Morbihan to the south. Each department is codified by a two-digit number and every postal code in the départements begins with these two digits. Morbihan’s is 56; Ille et Villaine 35.

Since living here, we’ve begun to realize that these two numbers show up on nearly everything even remotely administrative in nature; from your car’s license plate, to your electric bill, to food packaging to demonstrate it is locally produced. I’ve been asked for these numbers by my doctor, by cashiers at the home improvement store, and by random people we meet on walks. At first, we thought it a bit strange. But we’ve come to admire it. These departmental codes are a useful shorthand for quickly identifying any part of France. Moreso than people do with their state in the U.S. (with the possible exception of Texans), Bretons tend to link their identity with the département in which they live. It’s just a feature of the culture here and we find ourselves adopting the practice as well. At this moment we are 56’s, but when we make our final move to Fougères, we will be 35’s. Like all 35’s, we will be secure in the knowledge that ours is the best code in all of France.

Bretagne

Our first home in France has been Malestroit, a lovely town in the department of Morbihan. Malestroit is small enough that it often does not show up on the less-detailed maps of the area. On the map above I have penciled it in and circled its location. [Look for it just below the end of “Bretagne”. While we’re on the topic of geography, I have also circled Fougères, the town where we have purchased our home-to-be to the northeast of Rennes.] A community of some 2,400 souls, Malestroit is, like nearly all French towns we have visited thus far, a compact town with nearly all of its dwellings, shops and services within walking distance.

Cafés, Shops and the City Hall (in the distance) on the Place du Bouffay, Malestroit

We were amazed that such a small town would contain so much. There are three large grocery stores with another medium-sized convenience grocer, two more specialized food shops, a large multi-discipline health center, a hospice hospital, several individual health specialists, at least eleven restaurants and cafes, four bars, two news agent shops, two boucheries (butchers), two pharmacies, a post office, florists, car repair garages, garden centers, a veterinarian center, and more banks and insurance offices than I can count. It is, like most french towns, self-sufficient so that not often does one find it necessary to travel to a regional city for things.

Most important to us is that there are two boulangeries; both are lovely and we make daily pilgrimages to them for our required diet of fresh bread and pastries. Always pragmatic when it comes to their food, these two bakeries have arranged their hours so that one of them is always open when the other is closed for the day. And, apart from the grocery stores and cafes, they are the only shops which do not close for the sacred lunch hour(s). Very convenient, but bad for what has become our regular diet of bread, butter, pastries and tea. I tell you, though, it’s impossible to deny yourself a freshly-baked, warm pain au chocolat in the morning – or for lunch; or tea time; or in the evening. It’s a good thing they’re not open at midnight!

On the Towpath, the Nantes-Brest Canal on the Edge of Malestroit

Malestroit lies at the heart of the Val d’Oust, the Oust river valley. The Oust runs southeasterly for many kilometers through the interior hills and vales of Morbihan until it joins up with the larger Villaine in Redon on the eastern border of Bretagne. This waterway forms part of the canal network which spans 385 kilometers (239 miles) from the city of Nantes in the Pays de la Loire in the south to the city of Brest at the far western tip of Bretagne.

Cherie and Saxon in Lovely Josselin
Renaissance Doorway, Josselin

Along the Oust are several other beautiful towns, each with their unique character. Such a one is Josselin. Only a 25 minute drive to the northeast of Malestroit, this lovely town on the Oust boasts a magnificent castle (pictured above) and a picturesque medieval center connected by cobblestone streets. It’s a joy to visit, as we frequently do to take long walks along the towpath there. They also have a pretty good boulangerie!

A Sunday Afternoon Jaunt Along the Canal
Cormorants Admiring the Reflection, the River Oust at Saint-Congard

For walkers, runners and bicyclists, the towpath along the tranquil Oust and the canal which intertwines with it is a real godsend. We walk along it every day at one point or another along the many kilometers up and down the valley. Everywhere we have plied it the path is flat, paved and very well maintained by the canal authority. The towpaths are very popular and they see a lot of traffic by locals and visitors of all ages. Sunday afternoons following Holy Lunch Hour(s) seem to be the most busy times, the paths abuzz with men, women, children, dogs, bicycles and horses (sometimes pulling a carriage as shown above). Add to that the many canal boats which ply the waters, bearing their relaxed and content passengers slowly along, and the atmosphere can’t be beat. It’s a beautiful thing.

Gone Fishin’, Montertelot

A little closer to home, between Josselin and Malestroit, are the villages of Le Roc-St.-André and Montertelot. These two smaller towns are a little quieter but no less enjoyable to visit. Le Roc stands on a bluff overlooking the Oust as it wends its way from Montertelot. The stone church there sports an interestingly openwork bell steeple served by a separate stair tower joined to it by flying bridges. Lovely and very cleverly designed.

Montertelot is quite petite, with one bar/cafe, a little church and a few houses. It also sports a lock for the canal and we had the pleasure of getting to know the lock-keeper’s husband, Michael, a musician who plays and sings traditional Breton and British music throughout France. He’s a great guy who helped translate for us when we made our official offer for the house in Fougères. The towpath between these two towns offers a very nice walk through mostly woodland. At the midway point is a surprise view of a large château through the trees. These are the kinds of things we encounter all of the time in France and we love it so much!

A Humble House in Trédion

Honorable mention goes to Trédion. Although I do not believe it is technically in the Val d’Oust, this little town is located just to the west of Malestroit. Even though the town itself is rather unremarkable, it happens to stand adjacent to a lovely château. We just happened to come across this breathtaking house on a random afternoon drive a few months ago. Such a typical structure, it’s often the picture that comes into people’s minds when one mentions “France” and “château”.

Cherie, Her Mother Valerie, and Saxon Amongst the Megaliths of Monteneuf

It’s not only quaint towns, grand châteaux, and serene countryside to be found in the Val d’Oust. There is a great deal of history here as well. Some of it factual, some of it fanciful. Just a short drive to the northeast are the woods near Monteneuf which conceal an impressive group of prehistoric megaliths. These huge stones were erected during Bronze Age by the inhabitants who had switched from hunting and gathering to an agricultural society. This settled existence allowed them the time to develop more sophisticated culture and even erect monumental structures such as these stones. Later, during the Middle Ages, many of the stones were pulled down, being feared as diabolical or beacons of dark magic. Today, this area has been protected as an historical site. Free to the public, it’s a very nice park where much research and experimental archeology occurs.

Cherie, Niece Jessica and, of course, Saxon Viewing the “House of Vivianne”

Further northeast is the forest of Brocéliande, a place filled with the magic of Arthurian legends. Bretagne has its own Arthurian history which is quite ancient. According to these stories, many of the events surrounding Arthur and his knights occurred in this craggy woodland, the only remaining remnant of a once vast forest which stretched across the entire spine of the peninsula. The area is beautiful and very enigmatic with lots of lovely hiking trails. Once such place is the Val Sans Retour, the Valley of No Return. Reputed to have been the magical haunt of Morgan le Fay this valley was enchanted by the sorceress to entrap knights. Cherie and I, along with her niece Jessica, spent an invigorating (if not but a little soggy) afternoon hiking our way through this dread valley of craggy outcrops, oaks and beeches, faerie lakes and and ensorcelled streams. Making our way to the top of a lofty hill we came upon a circle of rocks that is said to have been the house of Vivianne, the Lady of the Lake who, in one telling, bestowed Excalibur upon Arthur. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail she is referred to as a “watery tart” with the acute observation that:

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, no some farcical aquatic ceremony.”

In the current political climate, I’m beginning to wonder if forming a government in a large puddle in a forest in Brittany couldn’t be more ridiculous than what we see in many countries right now. But I digress…

Regardless of how seriously one takes these legends, the journey is worth it and just one more example of how rich and varied Malestroit and its environs is. And the people here are just as lovely. So welcoming and friendly. We’ve made many friendships which we know will endure long after our move to Fougères. We love it here and we’re so glad we have had the good fortune to immerse ourselves in this wonderful, magical place over the past several months. A perfect place to begin our lives in France!

Thursday Market, Malestroit