In 2018, while wrapping up our first visit to Bretagne, we stumbled upon a château out in the countryside between Rennes and Vitré. Looking it up in our guidebook, we discovered that this was once the home of Madame de Sévigné, who, well … we didn’t really know who that was. But the house looked like it was very much worth a visit. So, we pulled up at 5:00, only to discover that we had missed the last tour. Disappointing.
Fast forward to April, 2022 and we decided that we were long overdue to make good on our previously failed attempt. On the way, we thought, we can stop in the nearby town of Vitré for a quick lunch. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! A quick lunch. In France. That’s a good one. You’d think we would know better by now. But, as if we were rank amateur visitors to this country, we thought we could dash into a restaurant for a speedy bite before making it to the château for the tour time. Three hours on and we had long-since surrendered to the realization that our schedule had been blown. Yet another failed attempt to visit Château des Rochers Sévigné.
One month later, and we were on the road again. This time with no detours for lunch. At least we had learned that lesson. Still, we were running it very close and we arrived at the ticket office with only a minute to spare. Unfortunately, the lone tour guide working at the château had already locked the ticket office door and commenced her opening tour talk. Failure number three. But this time we had enough of the afternoon left to wait for the last scheduled tour. So, on our fourth attempt, with some patient waiting in the hot afternoon sun, we finally made it in.
So, what is this place? Château des Rochers was the country seat of the Sévigné family, breton nobility of ancient lineage. The existing edifice was primarily built in the latter 15th century. After our first attempt to visit in 2018, we came to learn that the house’s most notable occupant was Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné, having married into the family in 1644 at the age of eighteen. Even in her own time, she was, and continues to be, lauded for her witty and insightful prose. Madame de Sévigné was a prolific letter-writer. Six years after her marriage, her spendthrift, philandering husband was killed in a duel over his mistress. I’m assuming her only reaction to this was: “Good riddance!” In fact, she never married again. Left with two young children, servants, and a lot of free time on her hands, the letter-writing really kicked into high gear. She is known to have written, apparently, hundreds of letters. Just think if she would have had a Twitter account.
You may have noticed that I haven’t said much about the house itself. Because: reasons. Firstly, one doesn’t get to see much of it. The tour guide – a lovely woman who very generously slowed down her french presentation for our benefit – leads the group around, frankly, tired and sparse gardens while dishing racy stories about the former inhabitants. At (great) length, we were taken in to view the nicely restored late 17th century chapel – a lovely octagonal tower which stands separate from the main house. Then the group ducked into the main tower of the house to view two rooms. No more, no less.
And that’s it. The house is beautiful and has a rich history. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit disappointed with the whole thing. Mostly because very little of the house and property is open for viewing. In all likelihood, some of my disappointment stems from the heightened expectation built up by our several foiled attempts to visit over the preceding couple of years. Also, I’m not a big fan of guided tours. Still, it would have been nice to see more. Notwithstanding my complaints, we had a nice time and felt privileged to see yet another outstanding bit of french history. Even better, we could finally relax in the knowledge that we had finally overcome what we had come to regard as the “Sévigné Challenge”. Job done!
The thing with old houses is, well, they’re old. Which is to say that they are in a perpetual state of falling apart. Our centuries-old tour is no exception to this rule. Add to this our ongoing mania for renovation and you end up with a fairly steady slate of housework. So, we’ve been busy over the winter: small jobs, big jobs, and everything in between. Here’s an update on all things La Tour Desnos – winter edition!
We get a fair amount of rain in Bretagne. And all of that water has to go somewhere. At times, it feels like all of that precipitation is channeled through our property. You may recall that last summer we had some work done on our sun terrace: closing off a stairway opening at the top; removal of raised planters along the periphery; and laying down a new coat of sealant; along with placement of some added steel structural supports in the ateliers underneath. We were hoping that this would make for nice and dry workshop spaces below. As you can see in the photo above, it did not go entirely to plan. Yes, the workshops are drier now, but we still have water ingress problems. I may have to wait a while longer before I start moving my workshop stuff out of the chapel and into the ateliers. No further progress yet, but we’re working on a Plan B. Or is it C? We’ll get back to you on this one.
One big-ish job we took on this winter was another push for progress in the office. This space was used by the former owners as a utility and storage room. And there was a small toilet room at the end. Last year we tore everything out, our contractor friends replastered the walls and ceiling, and our electrician put in new lighting, outlets and switches. I then built and installed a new office cabinet in one corner. Even with all of that, we still had the floor to deal with. It was, umnnn … not to our taste.
So, Cherie patiently waited for months while I screwed up the courage to tackle this beast. I finally realized that my courage was taking an extended vacation somewhere so I just went ahead and did it anyway. Trusty hammer-drill in hand (seriously, this had become my most useful power tool), I chiseled away at the concrete-set tiles while Cherie hauled bucketsful of rubble to the déchèterie (garbage dump). It made a godawful mess, but we finally got it all cleared out. We hired our builder buddies to lay down a level of screed because it was frankly much simpler to just have them do it.
All of the preparation completed, Cherie and I fitted and laid stone pavers (dallage), then finished the joints. I’d say it was easy – but it never seems to be. At least for us, anyway. Still, we’re happy with the result and it resulted in a big leap forward for this room. It also allowed us to start using the space for its intended purpose. After four years, Cherie finally had an office again. With a desk and everything! We may be slow, but we’re … just, slow. It’s a good thing we retired early.
We finally got back to that stone wall which I had begun to pick away at a couple of years ago. You know, the one in the buanderie (utility room/passage). It used to be the south half of an old kitchen before we partitioned off a portion in order to create a guest bathroom. Now, it’s not so much a room as it is a wide-ish passage through to the rampart terrace. Anyway, there was one stone wall in this area that had remained exposed. Except that it was covered in patches of plaster and several different coats of paint. Red paint. Ugh! I had earlier been able to remove most of the offending paint and plaster, but then got distracted by other projects. Cherie, patient as ever, quietly waited, although I’m quite sure she was dying a little inside every time she walked by this ugly, half-finished mess.
This would not do. After sighing and shaking my head a lot in despair, I reluctantly returned to my nemesis. Removing the remains of the paint and plaster, I then cleaned out the joints. We’d never done any repointing before. It was a bit daunting. But YouTube is my master. Several videos later, we went at it, methodically replacing the old cement pointing (bad, very bad) with the correct lime mortar. For those one or two of you who haven’t watched a lot of YouTube advice from experts on historic masonry, lime mortar was the traditional material of choice until Portland cement became readily available in the later 19th century and thereafter. But, whereas cement is much too impermeable, too hard and too inflexible for most traditional wall materials, lime mortar is softer, more flexible. And the lime allows the wall to “breathe”. Which is to say, it allows the stone to move and for water vapor which naturally collects in the stone to escape.
Cherie and I pointed away, listening to audiobooks of M.C. Beaton’s series of Agatha Raisin murder mysteries as we worked. We found a nice rhythm: I mixed buckets of mortar while she prepared things for a later lunch break; then we both worked away on the wall for a few hours; and finished for lunch. By then it would be time for Saxon’s 4 o’clock walk (he’s very insistent and punctual, you know). Cherie would take the dog out while I returned to the wall to finish off the now leather-hard joints with brushes. And so we went for a few days until we finally finished our very first repointing project. We’re quite proud of it, actually. And it’s really helped to bring space up a few notches. There is, obviously, more work to do in this area, but we cleared yet another major hurdle and feel pretty good about it. At some point, I will have to install a bench and some paneling. But that’s for another day. Or year. You can’t rush these things.
Let’s see. Oh, yes. In our little garage there is a large square recess [That’s a generous description; it’s really more of a hole, if I’m honest.] in the floor where the old oil tank filler cap and our main water shut-off valve are located. Don’t ask me why those two things are adjacent to each other. I have no idea. French building standards in the past were, well, more of a shoulder-shrug kind of thing than actual rules to be enforced. I’m happy to say that it’s much more strict and regulated now. At any rate, when we bought the house, this square aperture in the floor was covered by a very loosely connected collection of rotting boards that could be kindly described as a hatch cover. If you were less kindly-inclined, you might have called it a menace, an accident waiting to happen, a filthy mess – pick your poison.
After repeated forays through this mess of oil-soaked, rotting boards, I finally had had enough and decided to make a new one. We have the old oak floorboards that came out of the old bedroom which is now our kitchen. I scrounged and cleaned a few of these pieces to make a new cover with some handles I had hanging around to make it easier to lift off. It worked a treat. Now we can walk on top of it without fear of falling through into the hole. Life’s exciting enough as it is. As projects go, it was a small one. But it’s just one of those little quality-of-life things which is nice to cross off the ginormous list haunting my dreams.
Speaking of oil tanks, we found that we were able to make a change to our noisy, dirty, costly and all-around despised heating system. Neither we nor our suffering planet could take it any longer. So Cherie braved a bewildering web of French energy companies and government regulators to secure the installation of an air source heat pump heating system for our hot water and heating. First, we had our chaufferie (mechanical room) reduced and reconfigured by our go-to contractor guys, with a new slate roof over it and a gutter for good measure. Next, the old oil-fired boiler was taken out. And then our new heat pump was installed and hooked up to our existing piping system. The heat pump only took three days to install and it works quite nicely. We feel much better about it from an environmental point of view – even though a good portion of the electricity it uses is likely generated by nuclear energy. France has always been rather keen on nuclear power plants for generating the country’s electricity needs. We, however, are not. Nevertheless, the electricity route is much cleaner than oil and the system much more efficient, so we feel like we’ve made a positive stride toward reducing our carbon footprint.
The past months also found me addressing the gaping space left between our new stairs and the wall of the stairwell. I had long promised Cherie a paneled wall of cabinets to close off this gap. It was time to face the music, although I had come to feel that the project was beyond my skills. Despite my considerable misgivings, I began to work. It was a struggle. Truly, I had no idea what I was doing. But, in the end, I managed to work it out. Now we have some additional and much needed storage space, and the staircase feels more complete. Most importantly, Cherie is happy.
From the big to the little projects. We had some stone dallage left over from the floor of the office. So, I made a thing. Three things, to be exact. Coasters. Some of the stone scraps were just big enough for some coasters, so I cut them into squares with the cutting wheel and then refined the final shapes and details with files. A few rubber dot pads on the bottoms and, voila! This was one of the more enjoyable projects I’ve done. And useful too. Stone makes for practical and handsome coasters.
Work in the jardin continues. Bit by bit. It’s still crude and entirely underwhelming. But I’ve managed to beat back the majority of jungle vegetation and establish a semblance of order. If I squint, I can convince myself that it’s an actual garden. Still, there are stacks of stones everywhere and piles of cuttings which still need to pass through the chipper. Essentially, I’m only trying to keep the jardin area reasonably civilized until such time as we are able to execute a new design for the area. Someday, we hope to create a parterre garden in the French style. But that will be a large undertaking in terms of both labor and money. It’s a few years away, I’m afraid. But something we definitely want to accomplish. For now, I keep the weeds down, try to maintain a basic shape to what we inherited from the previous owners, and prepare it for the work which we hope to do in the future.
Finally, we had an unplanned repair. One evening, Cherie and I were sitting on the couch in the séjour and I suddenly felt something wet on my forehead. It was water. I looked up to see that another drip was accumulating on the beam in the ceiling above me. In a panic, a dozen scenarios flashed through my mind – all of them disturbingly disastrous and in brilliant ultra-high definition. After quickly moving the couch and placing a bucket underneath the drips, we raced about the house, checking all of the usual suspects (radiators, water lines, toilets, etc.) but everything looked solid. After that we realized that it was raining outside, and the wind was driving quite hard from an unusual direction. We decided that it had to be a leak in the roof. And so it was. Right along our chimney. The render had weakened and failed in several places. Not suddenly, but over time. However, the unusual wind direction had forced the rain into these areas, allowing the water to run down into the ceiling – and onto my head.
Always on the lookout for services which we feel might come in handy at some point in the future, we had a year earlier taken a photo of a van which advertised their specialty in building repairs of areas which are particularly difficult to access. That’s us, we thought. That area of our roof is precipitously high. Quite beyond ladder access. And scaffolding up to that height would cost a fortune. The company we called came out and assessed the situation, using a drone which they used to view all around the chimney and roof. They agreed to tackle the job (unfortunately, not for free) and a crew of three men secured with climbing gear worked away at the repair for three days. They went about their work calmly and with a casual indifference to the circumstance I found amazing, suspended as they were at a death-defying distance above the ground. Then again, I am terrified of heights, so perhaps I’m not the best judge. They finished the job without any fuss and the repair has been successful. No more drips!
And now you’re up to date. We’ve accomplished a lot. But we have so much more to do. The list is almost infinitely long. There are days when I wake up, ready for action, but quickly become paralyzed by the sheer number of tasks that need doing. Cherie is much more methodical and she is undaunted by any job. But I am powered primarily by inspiration and I’m easily distracted. Like a young golden retriever. As you can see, I eventually summon the nerve to tackle these projects. At this point the significant interior jobs on the main floors are nearly at an end. The waves of dust, dirt and rubble inside the house are finally beginning to diminish. Thank goodness!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?