About John Kocan

John & Cherie and their dog Saxon currently live in Brittany.

A History of Highnesses: Domfront

Ruins of Past Glory – the Castle of Domfront

To the northeast of Fougères stands a series of grey, stony hills through which the Varenne river carves a winding course as it rushes southward, seeking release into the sea. The flatlands surrounding these hills are broad and sparsely populated, taken up with the business of farming and dotted with the occasional small village or hamlet. Fields play host to herds of dairy cows and sheep cropping the rich grasses and herbs which thrive in this showery part of the world. It’s lambing season. Dim, tangled silhouettes of apple orchards, now long-neglected, occasionally show themselves. The chill of winter still permeates the air and the ashen sky filters a grainy tone onto the landscape. Perched atop one of the rocky promontories, commanding the scene, is Domfront.

We had been wanting to visit Domfront for some time. A few photos of castle ruins was all I needed to entice me. And we needed a break from our daily occupation of house renovation. So, it was with relief and anticipation that we downed tools, cleaned ourselves up, donned clothing suitable for mixing with the non-renovating public and tootled off through the countryside toward Normandie.


Domfront, we discovered, has a rich history. As a settlement, it goes back to the 7th century. But it properly takes off in the beginning of 11th century when a sizable wooden fort was established on top of a rocky hill with a commanding view of the surrounding territory. Later in the 1090’s, Henri, the fourth son of England’s King William (the Conqueror), replaced this with a large stone castle. Domfront became Henri’s base in Normandie and, after a family feud of epic proportions, he became King of England and Duke of Normandy. The castle and town also played host to such royal notables as Kings Henry II (infamous for encouraging the murder of St. Thomas à Beckett) and Richard I (famously lion-hearted and absent crusader), John (notable for political ineptitude and one Magna of a Carta), and Eleanor of Aquitaine (successfully queen of France, then England, and all-around legendary influencer). It was also the center of Protestant (Huguenot) uprising in Normandie in the 16th cenury, ending in a royal siege of the town in 1574.

L’Eglise Notre Dame sur L’Eau; Approaching Domfront from the West

These days, Domfront is a small regional town, situated in the department of Orne some 70 kilometers due east of Mont Saint-Michel. The outskirts on the lower slopes of the hill are a bit run-down. Signs of a perhaps more prosperous past in tourism and industry are still evident – shuttered hotels and restaurants, and unwashed billboards now covered with a green, grainy film of algae and lichen. But the area seems to be struggling now. Then again, it was a cold, damp day in the middle of the week during the in-between months of late winter in the midst of what are, hopefully, the waning days of a global pandemic. Not really a fair time to judge any town’s prosperity.

Tower of the Porte d’Alençon

After an approach which winds up the steep hillside, we found a nicely cobbled car park where we lodged the trusty Audi. Literally steps away from the car, standing proudly sentinel over the shops at its feet, is a stone tower, all that remains of the medieval gate: Porte d’Alençon. But it doesn’t stand alone. Obscured amongst the many quaint stone building along its length are the remains of the medieval wall which once protected the town from invaders or rival nobles. Despite this, the English managed to capture Domfront twice during the Hundred Years War – once occupying it for 32 years in the 15th century. The French only retook it in 1450 after a 20-year siege!


Following the Grande Rue from the gate up the hill takes you past a tantalizing wealth of medieval houses and shops. And this continues at the summit where the narrow streets multiply into warrens of of small courtyards ringed by ancient townhouses of timber and stone. There are numerous examples in Domfront of domestic architecture from the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras. History geeks like us will be happy to see such an extensive area of streetscapes that harken back to earlier eras.


For some of you, all of that dusty history can make your throat dry. Fear not! For Cherie and I found a nice little bistro in the center of the old town called the St. Julien. This might come as a surprise to you, but they sold things to drink! Cherie is not really one for beverages. Except for black tea with milk and sugar. That’s her go-to drink. This really didn’t look like a tea kind of place, so she opted for water. For my part, I noted that they offered a locally brewed beer: an Ambrée Domfrontaise. How could I refuse? And what a good choice it was. An excellent beer. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Just for appearances, we ordered lunch as well. The bistro was filled with locals and one other table of visitors. It was nice to sit amongst regulars, all of us enjoying a satisfying and relaxed lunch – French style. A small pleasure but one we never fail to appreciate as part of our lives in France.

So Happy! My Idea of a Fun Day Out.

After lunch I couldn’t wait any longer. We made a bee-line to the castle ruins where Cherie, with her usual patience and good humor, indulged my long progress through the site of yet another once-great French castle. Château-fort Domfront was a formidable castle, standing as it did for centuries at the terminus of a steep-sided ridge line of solid rock. It lasted until the beginning of the 17th century when King Henry IV of France had it razed, apparently in order to prevent any more Huguenot upstarts from using it as a bastion of faith. [I should note here that a branch of my mother’s family, the Lefevres – but one of many alternate spellings – were Huguenots (Protestants) and had to flee France in the 17th century, leading them to take up a new life in that far-flung wild place called America. I wonder if they themselves had any connection with Domfront?] As a result, there are now only ruins to admire. But there is still much to see, particularly the standing remains of the central donjon, part of the original 11th century keep. It’s still an imposing sight and one can easily imagine the majesty and power such a tall structure must have projected throughout the entire demesne which it overlooked.


The area of the castle grounds is littered with massive chunks of masonry walls, laying about at odd angles as though giants had tossed them like dice. The clear outlines of the outer curtain wall are still quite evident, the bases of the encircling defenses remaining intact. We were fascinated to see that a comprehensive archeological investigation was underway throughout the site. There were several trenches in progress and were were able to get quite close to them. Cherie and I are both interested in archeology (Time Team fanatics to our cores!) so we were happy to watch the work being carried out for a time. The site also affords broad panoramas over the Varenne and the lands below. For these many reasons, the ruins of Domfront are well worth a visit.

Communal Courtyard – One of Several Accessed Through Narrow Passages

We ambled back through more impossibly old, narrow streets, stopped at a nice little boulangerie to pick up a local apple pastry for later, and descended the hill toward the car park via a picturesque alley lined with cute pocket gardens. Sadly, our dog Saxon can’t walk as far or as for long as he used to, so we generally leave him home now. He had a pretty bad few months last year when his cervical disc problems, his resulting neuritis in his front limbs, and his rear hips and knees were quite painful and limiting. But with a lot of specialized therapies and careful management of his activity, he has improved to the point where he is functioning well and with much less pain. As long as we don’t push him (or allow him to push himself) too far. Nevertheless, we were anxious to return home to him.

Sounds Familiar? Old Tower of the Medieval Town Wall Becomes a Home

We were happy to get out to visit yet another fascinating town with a rich and interesting history. There is much to see and appreciate in Domfront and we enjoyed sharing it together. What’s next on the itinerary? We have no idea. Mostly, we wing it. But wherever it is, we’ll be sure to report it here. France is magnificent. There is so much to do and see here. Not to mention the simple yet satisfying act of just … being here. We wish you could all experience it too. And, why not?

The Countryside Below

Holy Hills & High Streets: Mont Dol and Dol de Bretagne

A Machine to Harness the Wind: on top of Mont Dol

We took an interesting little trip the other day – to Dol. I suppose I should say “The Dols”, because they are actually two sites: Mont Dol and Dol de Bretagne – both of which are within a kilometer or so from one another. The area sits in a flood plain on the southern edge of Baie du Mont St. Michel, about a 45-minute drive northwest from our home in Fougères. Val was still visiting us at the time. The weather was fine so we all bundled into the trusty Audi and made our electrified way out to what was for us yet another new location in France.

19th Century Postcard View of Mont Dol

Our first stop was Mont Dol. Much like its neighbor Mont St. Michel, it’s a big lump of rock. But, in this case, it rises out of a flat flood plain. I read somewhere that, long ago, this area, too, was often flooded by the sea. But the land was later reclaimed by way of dikes and drainage ditches and has been used as farmland and pasturage for centuries. Mont Dol isn’t terribly massive, but it’s still large enough to make for an impressive sight as one approaches from the south. A small village sits around the base and clings to one side of the slope. It must be said that the village itself is not particularly noteworthy (apologies to the inhabitants), but that’s not the attraction anyway.

The mont is the point of travel here. Apparently, this place has been inhabited by humans since the paleolithic era. Archeological investigation has found signs of Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens, as well as mammoths, lions, etc. on and near the mont itself. The Romans built a temple on top of the rock and this later became a Christian chapel. And it has been inhabited continuously throughout. There are also many myths which surround Mont Dol. My favorite is that Saint Michael and Satan met on the summit whereupon they engaged in a duel. The archangel eventually cast his foe off the mountain but their mighty struggle left the many scars and unusual indentations still to be seen on the rocks where they battled. All I can say is that the rocks on the summit are indeed worn and scarred. You be the judge.


At the top of the 65-meter tall outcrop is a nicely restored stone windmill. It can be toured, but it was closed when we were there. Still, it’s worth a look to get a sense of how the landscape of the past must have been dotted with these all-important machines. At the very summit is a small chapel, the current iteration constructed in the 19th century. Next to it is a signal tower from the Napoleonic era. It was one of a long string of towers sited on high points in the landscape, each one in sight of the other so that messages could be transmitted with great speed across the landscape. Mostly they were meant to alert the French military that the British were coming – again! The view from the top of the tower is magnificent. You can even see Mont Saint Michel!


From Mont Dol we made the very short drive south to Dol de Bretagne. In the past, this town was an archepiscopal see, founded in the 9th century. Though it no longer holds this august ecclesiastical status, the town still benefits from this legacy. There are only around 5,000 people living there, but the commercial, sports and civic opportunities to be found are much greater than you would expect. The high street is broad, extensive and a real delight to stroll along. We really enjoyed spending an afternoon window shopping, pleasantly surprised by the variety this small town affords. For me, it’s the many half-timbered buildings lining the street. The architecture throughout Dol de Bretagne is a real treat.


Speaking of architecture, there’s a little church I’d like to mention: the Cathedral of St. Samson. Sam, as I like to call him, came to Dol in the 6th century. Amongst other achievements like subduing a winged dragon and founding a church, he established a fruit orchard with his Welsh buddy Teilo (also a saint) which remains to this day. The church is big and bold and a bit different from others we’ve seen in Bretagne. It’s quite grandiose for a town of this size, full of ancient carving and chapels. We found it to be a very rewarding visit.

A Heavenly Lunch (photo from their Facebook page – our staff photographer, me, forgot to snap a picture)

Also top on this trip was our lunch. Directly across the street from St. Samson’s massive south porch we came upon a humble little restaurant entrance. Restaurant l’Évêché. The posted menu looked okay so we thought we would give it a try. Inside we discovered a startlingly contemporary bistrot with a chill atmosphere, a comfortable dining area and lots of conservatory and outdoor tables as well. The food was excellent. It was just one of times when the meal selections perfectly suit your mood and appetite for the moment. Even more magical was that it hit all three of us in equally satisfying measure. Now THAT’S a real rarity! We gushed about that meal for days afterward. Isn’t food just the best thing ever?

Valerie and Cherie in front of St. Samson: A Last Photo-Op Before Leaving Town

So, that was our visit to the Dols. We had a great time, we ate well (obviously), and we saw some amazing things. France never ceases to surprise and amaze us. We’re so thankful to be here and have the privilege of soaking up the magic of this wonderful place. And we are so happy to share it with you.

Since I’m finishing this up for a quick Christmas Eve posting, I thought I would leave you with a little Noël celebrating – Fougères style. Enjoy. And happy holidays to all!

Just Press Play (in the center of the image). Do it!

Delightful Dinan


Outdoor Café on the Rue de l’Horloge

Some places are just worth coming back to again and again. For some people, it’s Disneyland. For others, it’s Mount Everest. Or prison. To each their own. Since we’ve moved to France, we find that the list of places we want to visit repeatedly keeps growing. The city of Dinan definitely ranks high on that list. Cherie and I first visited during our initial trip to Bretagne in 2018 and we fell in love with it. Charming, beautiful, interesting, rich with history, full of good flavors, dramatic vistas, shops galore. It’s got it all. So, when we were thinking of places to show Valerie during her recent visit, we knew that Dinan had to be one of them.

View from the Tour Ducale

Val gave it the thumbs-up, so we checked the weather forecast, picked an upcoming sunny day, and launched into the countryside for the 65-minute drive to our destination. Dinan is a moderate-sized town which sits atop a plateau and spills down the slope to the Rance river. In the Middle Ages, the town began as a port on the river where it was still navigable to larger boats coming in from St. Malo and the English Channel to the north. But there is little room for expansion along this constricted section of the Rance. So Dinan expanded up-hill to the plateau where it’s historic prosperity is still on full display.


The old center of town is thick with architecture from the medieval and later periods. We have never seen such a collection of medieval porches. Formed by the upper stories of the buildings projecting over the sidewalks, these structures are beautiful. Walking through them is so evocative of how it must have been to pass through the town during the Middle Ages. Most of them still enclose shops at the ground level and serve as private residences above. There are supposedly some 130 half-timbered houses in Dinan. We didn’t count them ourselves. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there are that many or more. They are so beautiful and the brilliance of the craftsmanship which they display never ceases to be a wonderment to me.

Ringing in Your Ears for 600 Years – L’Horloge

Civic and religious sites are also on full display in Dinan. As in Fougères, the town élites had erected their own beffroi (bell tower), La Tour de l’Horloge. It was constructed in the 15th century, with a clock installed in the 16th century at the behest of the Duchesse Anne de Bretagne. The beffroi stands on the highest point in town and is reputed to have a magnificent view. None of us are particularly fond of heights, so we didn’t make the climb. But if you’re keen on hanging out in high places, I’m sure it’s worth a look.


The Basilica Saint Sauveur was built in the early 12th century and greatly expanded in the 15th. It’s a lovely church with some particularly fascinating sculptural details both inside and out. There are fantastic, wild and exotic beasts galore to be found on the walls of the basilica. My favorite is the relief of a camel on the capital of the column just to the right on the inside of the entrance to the nave. The area around the church is a bit more tranquil than the heart of the centre-ville, with a chestnut-lined square and the adjacent Jardin Anglais adding to more sedate ambiance which surrounds you as you admire the romanesque and gothic architecture of the edifice.

Enjoying My Stroll Down Rue du Jerzual
The Tower Gate

Rue du Jerzual is a beautiful cobblestone street leading steeply down from the center of town to the old port on the river. It’s been there for 10 centuries and is not to be missed. Flanked on both sides with ancient stone and timber houses, this pedestrian way gently winds down the slope, leading you to the delights of a pasty or a drink on the stone-lined quays along the River Rance. Along the way, there are many opportunities to stop into several art galleries, restaurants and cafés, all of which are housed in the charming buildings lining the way. At mid-point, the rue passes through the midst of a 14th century gate tower, Porte du Jerzual. It’s a beautiful example of a single-tower gate and it’s in such a picturesque setting you won’t believe you’re not in a fairytale. Walking down the street is also a great opportunity to see several former medieval merchant houses, many of which served simultaneously as warehouses and workshops. A word of warning: he who wanders happily down must eventually climb back up. Unless you’re planning on hiring a cab for the drive the long way around, or just giving up and slinking away on a boat downriver to St. Malo. The street is not especially steep, but it’s worth consideration if you have difficulty with long, steady climbs, you are using crutches or a wheelchair, or if you’re trundling along with a baby stroller. In our two visits to this street, we have passed a fair number of out-of-breath visitors – still smiling, but looking a bit worse for wear.


Dinan boasts the longest surviving stretch of still-standing defenses in Bretagne: 2.65 kilometers (1.64 miles). They encircle an area of roughly 30 hectares (74 acres). The city walls include 15 towers and gates which are still visible. One can walk atop a good portion of the ramparts and there are many points which offer beautiful views of the town and its surroundings. The prospect from Tour St. Catherine is particularly awe-inspiring, as it overlooks the Rance, the old port, and the towering viaduct linking the city to the east side of the river valley. Probably the principal attraction of the medieval defenses is the Tour Ducale, a large fortified tower used as a residence for the the Dukes of Bretagne. It was built in the latter 14th century and stands quite close to the tourist information office. Probably not just a happy accident.

La Tour Ducale

For some reason, the three of us actually debated as to whether or not we should visit the Tour Ducale. Cherie and I had gone inside in 2018. And it was great. But I think we undersold the experience to Valerie, which is why she was initially on the fence about it. Wisely, we eventually decided to give it a look and we were quite happy we did. Especially because the number of areas open to visit have greatly expanded since Cherie and I were last there. Now, in addition to the tower itself, there are chambers within the walls and gate (which include some interesting interpretive displays), as well as a long subterranean corridor that connects them. The cost of an entry ticket is definitely worth it. A tour of the ducal residence provides a good insight into the lives of the people who lived and worked there – from the kitchen in the bottom, through the ducal chambers above, and up to the soldiers’ barracks at the top. There are also some spectacular views from the rooftop of the tower. If you don’t mind heights, that is!

Down on the Port

There is so much in Dinan to delight. In addition to all of the amazing sights and history, we enjoyed a great lunch and even a bit of shopping along the way. It’s a brilliant town and well deserves all of the praise it receives. We had a great time. Cherie and I will be visiting regularly and we were so pleased that we could share this wonderful place with Val. You should see it too. Do it! You’ll be glad you did.

Getting Lost in the Charming Side Streets
View of the Viaduct from the Port
A Devilish Font (Église St. Malo)