About John Kocan

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

Avranches and L’abbaye de Hambye: A Day Trip to Southern Normandy

In the Middle of Nowhere: L’abbaye de Hambye

October has come and with it a visit from Cherie’s mother. Valerie has made the long trip from the west coast of the United States to spend a few weeks with us in Fougères. And we’re so happy to have her here with us. Valerie is, of course, lovely company and we simply enjoy hanging out with here, wherever it may be. But we are also excited to show her around the amazing place we now call home. As a bonus, she actually enjoys working on home improvement projects, so she has volunteered to help us hang wallpaper in our hallway. Try not to judge her.

Cherie and Valerie in Mid-Hang

After an introduction to Fougères, some preliminary wrestling with papier peint (wallpaper), and maybe, just maybe, a few pastries here and there, we decided to take Valerie on a day trip north to Normandy for a few hours. First up: Avranches. A town of around 10,000 souls, Avranches is situated high on an escarpment overlooking the Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel just over the regional border that separates Bretagne from Normandy. It’s only a 30 minute drive from our house but we have never really explored the center of town. It was time to redress this oversight.

Avranches Centre-Ville Under a Looming Sky

Avranches has an ancient and interesting history. The town stretches back to at least the classical period when it was a Gallo-Roman settlement in the province of Lugdunensis. Its name was originally Ingena. But after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, it began a centuries-long evolution to Avranches, derived from the celtic tribe inhabiting the area: the Abrincatui. Early on, in the 6th century, Avranches became an episcopal seat, and remained so until the Revolution. The area has seen frequent conflict – from viking raids in the 10th century, to the D-day invasion in the 20th, and everything in between.

Église Notre-Dame-Des-Champs

We really enjoyed our visit to Avranches. The centre-ville is quite pretty, with beautiful and interesting architecture running the gamut of styles and periods, pleasingly landscaped borders and gardens, towering churches, and lots of active shops and restaurants. All are within easy walking distance. Parking was easy with a large lot conveniently located in the center of town.

Valerie and Cherie About to Breach the Castle Walls

We arrived in town around noon on a cool but sunny day and found ourselves wandering toward the ruins of the old castle. There are substantial vestiges of the medieval fortifications, including ramparts and towers. They have all been well-conserved. Although only a small part of the château now remains, the town has cleverly incorporated garden areas amongst the stone ruins. It is quite well done, with small, intimate areas where one can take an outdoor lunch or simply enjoy the pretty plantings pleasingly juxtaposed against the stone structures enfolding them at various levels. Within this complex of ruins is the Scriptorial, a museum of jarringly modern concrete box form which houses a large collection of medieval manuscripts that were formerly in the libraries of the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel. Wisely, we did not attempt a visit. For I could easily have spent the remainder of the day there, engrossed in the beauty of such magnificent works of knowledge, art, and craft. I’m at least self-aware enough to realize that not everyone shares my mania for medieval books and art. Weird, huh? Still, it’s a visit for another time.

Our stomachs grumbling, we disembarked from the castle ruins and sought out a nice little place for lunch. As luck would have it, we found one close by. In fact, you could easily hit it with a rock from the castle ramparts. Not that we tried, mind you. Val enjoyed a nice slice of quiche (smoked salmon and leek) while Cherie and I both had the fish and chips. Topped off with some tasty beer, we enjoyed a lovely meal.

Refueled, we stretched our legs with a walk through the streets of the town center, ending up at the Jardin des Plantes. This 3 hectare botanical garden was formerly a monastic park but now houses a large variety of plants and trees, as well as a not-inconsiderable population of goldfish and koi. It’s a well-designed park with several distinct areas threaded together by clear pathways and meandering streams and ponds. The most striking feature is the belvedere, a broad area with an expansive view over the low countryside to the west. In the distance is a clear view of the broad tidal bay and Mont-Saint-Michel itself. Twelve kilometers away, our poor smartphone cameras could not adequately capture the dramatic majesty of the panorama laid out before us. Suffice it to say: très cool!

View of L’abbaye de Hambye Church and Eastern Range

Avranches was nice, but our primary goal was to visit the Abbaye de Hambye. So, off we went. After a short drive north on the autoroute, it’s a pleasant roll through the Normandy countryside of lush, rolling hills and deep dells spotted with dairy farms and the occasional hamlet. It’s really beautiful scenery there, accentuated on that day with blue sky and patchy white clouds creating dramatic lighting over the scene. Many twists and turns brought us to an ancient stone bridge spanning the Sienne river. Bordering the eastern side of the river is the precinct of the old benedictine abbey which once thrived there for centuries. The abbey is situated in a flat valley, surrounded by stony slopes blanketed by oaks. It’s an idyllic setting and, frankly, our photos simply don’t do it justice. But, hopefully, you get the general idea.

Our Lady of Hambye Abbey was founded in 1145, reaching its peak of prosperity in the 13th century and then slowly declining until the last monks left the place a few years before the Revolution. In the 19th century, the many monastic outbuildings appear to have been used for farming until the whole complex was inscribed as an historic monument and protected. It’s now partly under private ownership, the abbey church and some other parts owned by the regional council. But the whole site meshes nicely and there is plenty to see.

Even though a good deal of stone was taken (vandalized, in my opinion) from the church, and the entirety of the cloister was removed, the original plan of the monastic complex is still clear. A well-written and succinct visitor guide comes with the price of a ticket provides excellent descriptions of the major areas. But I was so transfixed with the glorious medieval religious and lay architecture that I barely glanced at the guide. It’s a tremendous example of a monastic community from the Middle Ages and several of the rooms – the chapter house, sacristy and kitchens in particular – have been nicely restored/conserved and furnished. I spent a few minutes just sitting quietly in the chapter house, soaking up the atmosphere and marveling at the medieval builders and sculptors who created such beautiful and evocative spaces. A surprisingly good deal of original lime plaster and painted decoration remains on the walls of several chambers. It’s a direct glimpse of what the monks and lay brothers must have seen in their own time, and real pleasure to see in the 21st century!

People often forget that monasteries in the Middle Ages were complex corporate enterprises that required sophisticated management or resources, finances and personnel. At Hambye, it’s easy to see how much the abbey relied upon farming and management of the waters, fields and meadows that supplied the monks with all they required. Many of the farm outbuildings are still visible. One of them includes a large cidery housing a massive crushing wheel with a circular stone trough, and a huge juice press with armatures formed from entire oak (or perhaps beech) tree trunks. Super impressive!

The abbey church is the most ruined part of the site. Much of the shell of the structure remains, but it is largely open to the elements and, sadly, the flooring is no more. Nonetheless, it’s a dramatic piece of architecture. Large, soaring, but still it must have been an intimate place of worship for the lay and monastic brothers residing at Hambye. Many of the columns are heavily inscribed with graffiti from visitors who felt the need to carve their marks over the past centuries; some of it is quite beautifully done. Despite being only a ghost of what it once was, it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to form a mind’s eye view of how this church must have appeared when in use. A stroll through the forest of columns and pilastered walls, the side chapels, the nave and ambulatory is evocative. One can easily see how visiting victorians would be inspired to compose romantic poems of nearly opaque allusions to the mists of time as they trod the silent stones.

Oooh, La Vache!: a Brook, a Pasture, and a Contented Cow

All three of us thoroughly enjoyed our long afternoon visit to L’abbaye de Hambye. It was one of those quintessential conjunctions of fascinating history, dramatic architecture, a bucolic setting, pleasant weather, and the best of company (if we do say so ourselves). It couldn’t have been better. Well, okay, a tea shop with pastry, could conceivably have been a nice bonus. But that would have been almost too perfect – if there is such a thing. Regardless, it was a truly memorable day in only the absolute best sense of the word. A visit there is highly recommended. And, unless you’re an utterly hopeless philistine, you won’t be disappointed that you made the effort.

Not a Philistine – An Especially Good Day in France!

Vélo, Vélo!

Capitalizing on the Great Event: Fougères Tourist Office

I know it’s been a long time since our last post. Not a lot of action, lately, to report. But, just to let you know that we haven’t forgotten about you, I thought that I should at least post a little something to fill the gap. Here it goes …

In the time we’ve lived in France, we have learned a few undisputed truths: 1. The natural talent which the French have for rapid, intense, and exceedingly lengthy conversations cannot be overestimated, 2. The bise (kissing on the cheek) is a cultural ritual held in such high esteem by the French that it easily outmatches any American beliefs in the sanctity of owning a car or a Bruce Springsteen album, 3. French pastries are what your soul has been craving all of your life, and 4. The French absolutely adore a good bicycle race.

And it is the last truism I’d like to briefly explore. This is, in part, because one of our readers quietly expressed their disappointment that I had missed the opportunity to report on this year’s Tour de France. You know who you are. But also because it seems to be a not infrequent feature of life in France. One which, surprisingly, comes close to home.

The French are great enthusiasts about competitive bicycle racing. In fact, they adore all types of competitive sport. From informal Sunday afternoon games of boules played by a few locals in the village park, to internationally televised football (soccer) matches played by multi-millionaires. And everything in between. They love it all with equal fervor.

Promotion at the Château’s Expense

Our city of Fougères has hosted stages of the Tour de France in the past. It’s quite a coup to have a the course run through your town. So, when it was announced that the 4th stage of the 108th edition of the most elite bicycle race in the world was going to end in Fougères, the city was justly proud. For several months before the race, everything here was Tour de France. Clothes, key rings, advertising, the tourist office, the excitement surrounding the event was at a fever pitch. Even the Château was brutally adorned with a giant yellow jersey stretched across the rampart. June 29th arrived, streets were closed, cars, busloads and RV’s of race enthusiasts jockeyed for space, and everyone was sporting those little cycling caps that neither keep your head warm, soak up sweat, keep the sun out of your eyes, nor make you look more attractive. Pointless, really. Nevertheless, cap bedecked cycle fans were teaming throughout the city.

Fanfare is a Big Part of the Experience

As it happens, Cherie and I had to go south to Rennes so she could get her second COVID vaccination. When we arrived back in town that afternoon, the Tour mania was in full swing. We had no idea it was such a big deal. Apologies to those of you who are fans of bicycle races, but it’s just not our thing. Because of that, we simply continued on with working on the house, amidst the background din created by a world-class sporting event. Shame on us, I suppose. We probably should have taken greater interest. But we didn’t. So, yeah.

The Crowd Gathers at the Mouth of our Drive

Later in the summer, the town closed off our street for a series of races. All of which were run in succession directly in front of our house. It, too, was a big event, albeit a purely local one. There were 8k, 18k and 26k courses winding through the streets of Fougères during a lovely late summer evening. It was kind of fun to watch all of the hullaballoo that goes along with such affaires. Our fellow citizens clearly enjoy the event and lots of encouragement was given to all of the runners. Surprisingly, part of the course ran right through the church of St. Leonard. We watched, bemused, as the runners trotted through the main doors of the church, down the nave, and out, somewhere, beyond.

Television Trucks Taking Over the Streets

Not to be outdone, last weekend our street was closed off again. This time to allow for the Tour de Bretagne. This particular tour is a major race in the national sporting calendar, running across the length and breadth of Brittany. The streets were filled with network TV trucks and their broadcast equipment, temporary communications towers, and the many, many team support vehicles which accompany the riders. In short: kind of a big deal! The course ran right past our house, so we again had front row seats. Although the advantage is wasted on us, we were happy to see many fans filling the front of our driveway, eager to support their favorite riders.

The Peleton Racing Past the Gates of the Château

Even though neither of us are particularly interested in races, or sports in general, for that matter, we are conscious that lots and lots of people are. Clearly, this holds true for our neighbors in Fougères. The people here are very eager and supportive of sporting events in this city. That’s probably why this town seems to punch far above its weight in terms of attracting major competitions like the Tour de France. The excitement is infectious, even for us. So we can’t help but share a little pride in the place we now call home. For this, and so many other reasons!

We’ll be back with another post in the near future. Good health and happiness to all!

A Quiet Town in France: Bazouges-la-Pérouse

A Central Square in Bloom: Bazouges-la-Pérouse

“We’re retired, right?” I keep reminding myself of this as I’m toiling away in and around our staircase. My attempt to build a paneled wall with cabinets alongside the lower flight of stairs has been, so far, a long slog. And it continues. My pre-retirement vision of being retired has required a radical revision.* Instead of long, relaxing walks, lazy wine-lacedf afternoons of sedate contemplation, care-free come-and-go-as-you-please explorations interspersed between long periods of sublime irresponsibility, I’ve found our post-work lives to be more like … well, work. At least in the sense that we seem to be constantly busy. Busy with appointments; busy with bureaucracy; and, especially, busy with projects around the house. It’s frankly kind of exhausting.

Supervillain Staircase Cabinets (in progress)

Nevertheless, do not, dear reader, mistake this for a complaint. Even on its worst day, being retired beats working (at least any job I’ve ever had) by a country mile. We’re both enjoying it immensely. And we wouldn’t change a thing. Well, if someone more skilled than I offered to finish this damn staircase for me, I wouldn’t say no.

Cherie was recently searching for new places to visit in the area and she stumbled upon a small town 30 minutes west of Fougères which holds the designation of Petite Cité de Caractère (roughly translated: a little town of distinction). Cool, we thought. Let’s go! Anything to get me away from the stairwell. [Can an inanimate object be an arch nemesis? I shall have to ask the superhero sages at Marvel.] Besides, the name of the town alone is distinctive: Bazouges-la-Pérouse. So, we took the day off and made our way westward toward the Couesnon valley.

From Spa to Town: An Easy Country Stroll

Cherie and I have a pilot/co-pilot arrangement. She drives. I navigate. We’ve found that, if we reverse these roles, we tend to arrive more quickly; unfortunately, the place where we arrive is not the place we intended to go. So, like I said: Cherie drives, I navigate. It’s an arrangement that works best for us. As navigator, I quickly discovered that Bazouges-la-Pérouse is only something like three or four kilometers away from le Château Ballue where we had just been a couple of weeks earlier (see our previous post: Topiaries and Tea: Château Ballue). In fact, one could easily stay at the château’s hotel/spa and take a nice country walk to Bazouges and back for the day.

Nobody Home: The Nearly Empty Square

We parked in the town’s central square. The weather was agreeable and the planting beds in the square were overflowing with colorful blooms. Amongst the flowers were were happy to see that some enterprising gardener had also included tomatoes, peppers, and a few other vegetables and herbs in the mix. Nice.

After admiring the flora, we quickly came to the realization that this town is quiet. One might even say sleepy. No one was about, save for three locals having a sedate coffee on their private terrace. It being lunchtime, the post office, mairie and tourist information office – all huddled next to each other at the administrative end of the square – were all closed. On the other side of the square were a restaurant and a boulangerie. We were looking forward to a bit of lunch. Disappointingly, it was obvious that the restaurant was no longer in business. And the boulangerie was closed. Hmnphf! We happened to visit on the one day of the week when the sole boulangerie in town was closed. Stomachs protesting, we carried onward.

Shapely Stone: A Quirky House

There is a very helpful map in the square which points out highlights of the town and surrounding area. The map also outlines two walking routes for visitors to follow. One of the routes explores the countryside and includes Château Ballue on the itinerary. But that was a bit more walking that we were prepared to take on that day. Besides, we were more interested in seeing the town. So we took up the town route. Which we almost immediately lost. As with many things like this, the signposts for the route were too intermittent, missing or too well hidden for us to follow. So, what began as a curated visit, quickly became a random wandering amongst pretty little streets hemmed in by a good number of interesting houses and gardens.

Bazouges-la-Pérouse sits atop a hill surrounded by pleasant countryside of scattered woodlands and farms. Several points on our amble amongst the streets afforded lovely panoramic views of this. The town is not big, sheltering around 1,800 inhabitants. Sadly, most of the active commerce appears to be located on the edge of town, huddled around a small chain grocery store. The town center appears to have suffered, with many closed shops and empty spaces – we found only one active restaurant (although it was closed while we were there), a bank, a pharmacy, a shop selling fishing tackle (an obsession amongst the rural french), a couple of small art galleries, a florist shop and the aforementioned closed-on-wednesdays-boulangerie. There is also a library, a couple of small schools, a health center and the ubiquitous church. All in all, the atmosphere left us feeling that the town is a bit tired. Sadly, it seems to suffer from the same curse of small towns everywhere in the world: increasing urbanization and the drift of employment away from the countryside to large cities. Some rural communities have been lucky enough to discover strategies to fend off this kind of malaise, but all too many are sinking under the weight of desertification. We hope that Bazouges will find a way to recharge itself without losing its heritage and character.

Approaching L’église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul

Notable amongst our visit was the church. L’église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul is a lovely stone church in excellent condition, ringing out the hours as it has done for centuries. The interior has enjoyed a thorough renovation in recent years. All of the wood and stonework is in excellent condition and the vaulted timber roof has been repainted with great care – all of this highlighted with the latest in LED lighting fixtures, subtly installed throughout. Objectively, it’s beautiful. And the restoration has been executed with great skill. But, for me, it’s just a little bit too clean. Too pristine. The past sanitized, like an aging celebrity, struggling with their mortality, smoothed and recolored – a once interesting person with a lifetime of experience written on their face, become unrecognizable – bland, banal. Despite my pedantic quibbles, the church is worth a visit. There are many examples of excellent architectural and figural woodcarving, and unusual pulpit accessed by two sets of steps wrapping around its supporting pier, and a lovely altar with a towering, carved reredos.

Oh, Happy Days!: A Late Medieval Manorial Fortified Gateway

Ironically, the most surprising and rewarding discovery in Bazouges-la-Pérouse wasn’t in the town at all. A few hundred meters south of town, down a winding country lane, stands a well-preserved late medieval fortified gateway. Amidst verdant corn (maize) fields and a stand of oak, hazel and fir trees, two squat towers are connected by an archway through which a narrow drive crosses a dry moat and enters a complex of buildings where there was once a seigneurial manor. This is probably all that remains of the original manor of Martigné. The gate structure was apparently purchased in the 1990’s by the town and restored. The complex of house and farm outbuildings within remain under private ownership, so we were unable to intrude. No matter. The gateway was reward enough. It’s a little gem of late medieval architecture and we were so glad to have made the effort to find it. If you like this sort of thing, we highly recommend it. A word of caution, you might avoid driving down the narrow farm lane which leads to Martigné if you are in a large motor home; there is only a small turnaround at the end of the dead-end drive and you will likely face the prospect of having to reverse all of the way back to the main road. That being said, it is well within walking distance from the town (about 2.2 kilometers, or 23 minutes) if you are reasonably fit and have the time to do so.

And with that, we bid you adieu. We must prepare for a visit from our new friend Claudia, a neighbor who lives just up the street from us. Claudia is french but speaks quite good english (also italian and russian, apparently – show-off!) and we invited her over for “apero”(aperitifs – a french tradition of getting together for a casual pre-dinner snack and drinks). It will be our first true use of our newly refurbished sun terrace. Now that the major phase of work on the terrace has been completed we have purchased a set of outdoor furniture and a sun shade. At long last, this is a comfortable area to lounge in the sun (or under the shade), listen to the birds, and look out over the tranquil Parc du Nançon directly below. Lovely. We still have a bit of work to do on this part of the house, but it’s now usable and we’re ready to entertain when the weather is fair. Lucky us!

*For anyone keeping score, that was olympic-level alliteration. Judges?