As a certified Tolkien geek, I was bemused last year when Cherie and I first came across a road sign announcing that the next exit would lead one to Elven. How cool is that?, I thought. But we were on our way to Vannes down the road at the time so we didn’t stop to investigate. A couple of weeks later we discovered that there is a town called Rohan not too far away. Elves, Rohan. Surely we have discovered Middle Earth!
After a few further drive-bys (we always seem to be on our way to Vannes for one thing or another) we finally decided to check out this magical-sounding town of Elven. Would there be houses of sinuous design as at Rivendell? Perhaps timeless glades of statuesque mallorn trees such as would be found in Lothlorien?
Nope. Elven is really just an average French town. We stopped and had a walk around its small center, grabbed a couple of sandwiches and pastries and noted that the town unfortunately appears a bit down on its luck. We discovered a nice little chapel on a knoll and the parish church was undergoing an extensive restoration. But apart from that, we found nothing of particular interest. And definitely no sign of elves. How disappointing.
But. We also saw signs for the Tours d’Elven, or the Forteresse de Largoët. [Tours is French for “towers”] Despite the different names, these appeared to refer to the same site. Intrigued, we attempted to find it. Or them. Or whatever “it” was. Following the signs will get you nowhere. Literally. But with the help of Google Maps we were able to track it down. Finally, we had found it. Unfortunately, we found it out of season. A long rural driveway brought us to a lovely gatehouse with a not-so-lovely paper sign suggesting we try again a few months later, in springtime. This place was proving harder to get into than the Black Gate of Mordor.
One thing led to another and we had many distractions (see previous posts) to keep us away from the mysterious towers in the forest and we had nearly forgotten about them. But last weekend we were wanting to take a walk somewhere new. Suddenly I recalled the mythical Tours d’Elven. Quick, we thought, we had better seek them out before they disappear for yet another off-season hiatus. So we launched the Audi southward from Malestroit, tingling with the anticipation that, at last, we might finally catch a glimpse of this legendary place, shrouded by ancient charms as it was in the misty forest.
This time, Fortune favored us. We arrived to find the gates open and welcoming – as long as we plunked down our five euros each, that is. Tickets in hand, we discovered that this is a privately-owned monument. The gatehouse/ticket office was built in the beginning of the 20th century as part of a regeneration of the property. It’s a beautiful stone cottage with classic, stately lines mottled with lichens and well settled into the landscape. One peculiarity of the gatehouse are the several stone hares which decorate the gable ends and entrance stairway. They’re beautifully carved. A bit fanciful and, in one case, energetically straddling the bannister leading up the stairway to the front door in a way for which bunnies are well-known.
Past the gatehouse a gravel road led us on a tranquil stroll through woodland filled with chatter of songbirds. In the distance, we could hear the baying of hounds on the hunt. Not surprising this time of year. The French are mad about hunting (also fishing). It’s not uncommon to come across an organized hunting party while driving country roads. They usually place a couple of warning signs on the roadside to let people know that there are armed enthusiasts milling about in a nearby wood or field. Proceed at your own risk. The sound of gunshots is fairly common out here in the wilds of Bretagne. It makes hiking the trails a more piquant experience.
Suddenly we emerged into a clearing filled with majestic medieval ruins. We assumed there would be a few remnants of broken wall jutting out from a tumble of brambles. We were mistaken. Confronting us at the end of the road was a moat guarding a stone gatehouse, behind which rose two massive towers. “Quelle surprise!”
The Forteresse de Largoët is a compact site, much of it in ruins, but dominated by its two magnificent towers which still reach to their original heights. The castle was primarily built in the 15th century and, at one time, formed a small island surrounded by a water-filled moat on three sides and a small lake on the other. The rear elements of the gate (two flanking towers) date from the 13th century. It’s the only gate complex that I’ve ever seen which has arrow slits opening into the gate passage itself. Ingenious and, I imagine, quite effective if attackers ever managed to batter the gate down and get into the passage.
The main tower (the donjon) is open to the public. It’s also open to the rain, the snow, the wind, and pigeons – sadly, it has no roof. So it is somewhat of a shell. But one can still wander about, investigate its many alcoves. [“You use this word, alcoves?” – that’s for all of you In Bruges fans. If you are not a fan of this movie, well … it beggars belief.] There are also two winding stairways which climb nearly the full height of the tower. At each level you can gaze out over the beautiful forest and lake, or wander into empty spaces still containing fireplaces, window seats, garderobes (medieval toilets), arched ceilings and wonderfully carved doorways. The larger halls and chambers of the two central cores running vertically through the donjon apparently had wooden floors which long ago rotted away, leaving precipitous views of fireplaces and other elements now hanging in mid air.
Despite its partly ruinous nature, the donjon is really impressive. Seven floors. Forty-five meters tall! It’s huge. And it must have been mind-numbingly expensive. Elaborately decorated with gargoyles, stepped machiolations, molded edgings, the entirety of the exterior and interior is faced in fully-dressed stone. None of your cheap rubble construction at Largoët.
The other tower, the Tour Ronde, is less statuesque than the donjon, but it, too, is beautiful and imposing. It was restored in 1905 when the top bits were reconstructed and used as a residence for some time. Unfortunately, this tower is closed to the public so we weren’t able to have a peek inside.
It’s easy to imagine how this castle in the woods must once have looked. In spite of the many ruins, the remains are substantial enough to allow one to form a full image of its walled might when the complex was complete and filled with the many inhabitants who must have lived and worked there. For the lords of Largoët it was surely a life lived in the height of fashionable architecture and security. Exciting as it is to explore such amazing sites, I am always left with a bit of sadness that a building of such beauty, so cleverly conceived, and having required such effort to complete, could be left to fall into ruin, largely forgotten or, at the least, discounted. A place no longer valued. To me, it’s a form of disrespect. Not just to the noble elites who conceived and enjoyed the many advantages of such a place, but also to the countless men and women whose names we will never know – those who toiled to build, maintain, and serve the Forteresse de Largoët. We could certainly do them more honor.
As for the elves? Not a one. Nor dwarves, hobbits, orcs or goblins. Not even an ent in the woods did we see. We certainly found the two towers. But Middle Earth? Well, I guess my search continues. Nonetheless, we had a fine day and we were so happy we persevered in our quest to find this place. Should you ever find yourselves in this magical part of the world, you will not regret a visit to the Elven Towers.
You might not have guessed by the lack of posts recently, but the past few weeks have been marked by quite a bit of activity for us. Nothing big. Nothing grandiose. Just busy with lots of smaller errands. Who knew retirement would be so exhausting?
It started several weeks ago with a flash trip to New York. You may have noticed in your own lives that financial institutions can be wonderful things: safeguarding your hard-earned money, investing for your future, contributing to the well-being of a thriving economy. But most of all, they make your dealings with them a bureaucratic misery. In this instance, all we wanted to do was move some money from one part of the bank to another. Sign a paper here, shake a hand there. Easy-peasy, right? “Absolutely,” says our kindly bank representative. “We just need you to do it in person. In the United States.”
“You are aware, kind sir, that we live in France, yes?”
“Yes.” (We had a vision of him distractedly searching for a summer home in the Hamptons as we spoke.)
“Right. Fantastic. Excellent news. Thank you very much Mr. Banker Person. We’re so privileged to have our life savings accepted into your caring, lovingly manicured hands. We would be more than happy to travel several thousand miles in order to ensure that your hallowed institution is not in any way inconvenienced.”
“Okay. See you soon. Have a nice day.” (Hmmnnn, that ‘cozy, light-filled, six-bedroom beach cottage with bags of character’ looks quite nice …)
At least one of us had to make a trip to the U.S. for the sole purpose of signing a paper. We decided that New York would be the least inconvenient destination as it is the shortest flight and would be the easiest to navigate around. Cherie has a pronounced dislike of flying, to say the least. Saxon even more so. It therefore fell to me to make this administrative leap across the ocean.
Actually, for all of my complaints, I’ve always wanted to visit New York. Crazy, I know, but I’ve never been. So, I hopped the TGV (high-speed rail – Train à Grande Vitesse) in Rennes for a two-hour journey to Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris. A few short hours later I was in Manhattan. A great city. Gritty. Filled with people from all walks of life mixing together. Lots of energy and creativity. Just the way I like it. Even though I grew up a country boy, surrounded by woods and fields and farms, I really like big cities and feel quite at home in them. New York fits me very well.
So, on the morning after my late-night arrival, I enjoyed a wander around the Bowery where I found a great little café for breakfast. And they had bacon. Bacon! How I miss american bacon. In France, honest-to-goodness bacon is a rare commodity. You will find pig meat offered to you in a thousand different ways here. All of them excellent. The french love pigs and eat a much greater variety of all they can offer a nation of gourmandes. But american style bacon is not one of them. When you do find it, it’s generally a pale reflection of the good stuff. Needless to say, I ordered a side of bacon. And relished every bite.
My business at the bank later that morning took all of an hour. And it was about as interesting as you might imagine. Enough said. The upside was that I was then presented with an entire afternoon and evening to do with as I wanted. This was my chance to combine two things close to my heart: public transit and museums. Free to geek out to my heart’s content, I hopped the subway north to the Upper East Side, fended off a couple of insistent (although surprisingly entrepreneurial) street hustlers, and climbed the steps to an institution which I had always wanted to visit: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was not disappointed.
The Met is easily one of the top five best museums I have ever encountered. The medieval and early modern collection alone is vast and comprehensive. Cherie loves museums too. But she is not ridiculous like I am. A couple of hours in any given museum and she is ready to find a café for tea and yummy cake. Quite sensible. I spent over five hours in the Met, never once stopping for scones. Who needs a pastry with milky tea when you can stare at the miracle of Dürer’s painting technique? Food for the soul, man! Food for the soul. I would have stayed longer, but they finally kicked me out of the building. Something unreasonable about closing time or some such. At any rate, it was brilliant and made the ridiculous proposition of travelling to New York from France for the sole reason of signing a paper seem not so silly after all.
After my marathon at the Met, I took the opportunity to wander through Central Park, take the subway back to Lower Manhattan and have a nice italian dinner in, where else?, Little Italy. Just enough time for me to take a rideshare to Newark airport for my red-eye flight back to Paris. By early evening I was back home in Malestroit. I had only been gone not much more than a day-and-a-half. Even though it was kind of a grind, the opportunity to visit New York was really enjoyable.
So, with the paper signed, we were in business. Right? Nope. At it turned out, a further step was required: we needed to sign a further financial form. The good news was that we would not have to make another jaunt across the Atlantic Ocean. It was only necessary for us to have our signatures notarized. Phew! That was welcome news indeed. Problem is, there is no such thing as a Notary Public in France. At least not that is recognized by U.S. financial institutions — well, not ours, anyway. After some digging, Cherie discovered that we could have documents notarized at at U.S. diplomatic station. Sweet! There is a U.S. Consulate in Rennes. That’s only an hour’s drive away. Here’s the bit where the bad news comes in: only the consulates in Paris, Strasbourg and Marseille provide notary services. Bugger!
Forced to make a trip to Paris. Oh the hardship, the cruelty of it all. How the Fates had so unkindly laid their displeasure upon us. Life can be hard. But sometimes we just have to face up to it like adults and persevere. Another whirlwind visit planned. This time together. Dropping Saxon off with our very generous and dog-adoring neighbors (thank you Jean and Adrian!), we comfortably careened our way to Paris on the TGV, and thankfully slowed to a full stop before crashing through the train station barrier at Gare Montparnasse. [Our tickets, by the way, were seriously inexpensive. €130 standard fare, round trip, for the both of us. I love this country.]
I don’t know how anybody could not love Paris. I kid you not. There is something seriously out of sorts with your soul if come away from Paris thinking “meh!”. It’s a truly wonderful city. Full of beauty and character. There is also a quiet and yet forceful confidence which pervades, a relaxed energy. Parisians seem to stroll through their city in such an assured manner regardless tasks they are engaged in; as though they are perpetually on their way to an evening concert in the park. Paradoxically, there is also a cacophony of spirit that, though often heard, is sometimes simply felt. Everyone here has things to do. People to see. And, most importantly, matters to discuss – for hours on end. Conversation in France is a professional sport. And Parisiens are the World Cup champions. If you ever want give your French language skills a challenge, strike up a conversation in Paris. Pro tip: 1.) apply extra deodorant beforehand and 2.) set your facial expression to “feign comprehension”. [Even if they know you are faking it, they don’t seem to care; they’ll happily carry on regaling you with lighting-fast monologue as long as you display even the faintest hint of interest.]
On the day we arrived, we took the Metro from the train station to our hotel in the 8th arrondissement. There, we dropped our shared suitcase (we like to travel light if we can) and, as it was lunchtime, searched for somewhere to eat. Little did I know, but Cherie had already spied a Chinese restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. Like bacon, asian food can be difficult to come by in our neck of the woods so we are always on the lookout for it. I guess we never fully appreciated how fortunate we were to be surrounded by such a variety of really good asian food restaurants while living in Seattle. Well, we certainly appreciate it now. The Chinese restaurant near our hotel was good. Not great, but good enough to satisfy our longing. In fact, Cherie was later regretting that we hadn’t taken advantage of the dim sum offerings they had at the restaurant. So much so that we went back to the same place for dinner that evening. Lack of Chinese food addressed? Check.
After lunch we engaged Paris’ excellent Metro system again to travel to Saint-Ouen area in the north of the city. This is where the famous Paris flea market (Le Marché aux Puces) is held – the largest in the world, or so we have been told. Whether it’s true or not, it certainly is extensive. We spent a find afternoon of rummaging through posh antique shops to junk stalls and everything in between. I’m pretty sure you could find just about anything at the Marché aux Puces if you looked long enough. We were there on a Monday, so it was not crowded at all. So large is the market that, even after a few hours, we had barely scratched the surface. Of course, a good 45 minutes to an hour of that was spent chatting to an antique dealer who cheerily engaged us in conversation. Well, mostly he talked and we smiled, nodded our heads and said “Oui” a lot. In that time, we managed to discuss politics, philosophy, food, architecture, art, friends and family. He was a lovely guy, clearly a contender as a starter for the city team in conversation.
The following day we had an appointment at the the U.S. Embassy to get our signatures notarized. On our way we grabbed two of the best pains au chocolat we have ever had and ate them as we strolled through the Jardins des Champs-Élysée on a sunny August morning. We arrived outside a heavily guarded building to find a long line of people queued up outside the gates along the tree-lined street in various states of being ranging from nervous, anxious, irritated and desperate. Regardless of their varying emotional states, everyone shared in the pervading sense of confusion. Yes, we thought. This must be the place.
As with most things American, the whole affair was hopelessly disorganized. No one knew what they were supposed to do or where to go. Were we in the right line? Do we wait to be called? No one knew. Officials of any kind were conspicuously absent; when they deigned to come around at all, they would randomly shout conflicting information adding further confusion to the already-bewildered group of people in their charge. Cherie and I stood in line for a while, trying in vain to detect some pattern or form of logic as to who was allowed in, why, and in what manner. Failing that, Cherie left me to hold our place in line while she skipped up to the front to seek guidance. It turned out that, because we were American citizens and we had an appointment, we were allowed to enter directly.
I should reiterate that all of this took place outside, on the sidewalk opposite the embassy. The point of entry to the building was a detached gate area across the street, covered by a marquee where private security guards performed an initial security screening and attempted to address the concerns of frazzled patrons trying to navigate a clearly broken system run by, well, nobody, it seemed. We were feeling fortunate that the weather was pleasant. Had it been raining or if had been in the midst of one of the brutal series of heatwaves which plagued Paris this summer, I think these poor contractors would have had a riot on their hands. We would have taken photos of this interesting scene, but anyone who even briefly pointed a lens in the general direction of the embassy was met with a stern warning from gun-toting guards. Neither one of us was willing to end up in Guantanamo Bay just for the sake of a colorful photo.
With guilty consciences we skipped past the long queue, breezed through security and finally made it to an area that can only be best described as a Paris branch of your state Department of Motor Vehicles. Rows of windows faced by even more rows of chairs, several roped lanes for queueing, announcements over crackling speakers and dozens of people whose former confusion and anxiety were now replaced by frustration and boredom in equal measures. For us the path was relatively straightforward and we didn’t have to stand in any more lines. Just wait for our number to be called. It still took a couple of hours, but we finally got our signed document notarized. Emerging into the sunlight of Parisien freedom, we hot-footed it away as quickly as we could, relieved that we had, once again, managed to overcome a bureaucratic hurdle.
Business was finished. Time for some fun. We quickly made our way across the Seine from the Place de la Concorde to the Left Bank and headed east. With reluctance, we passed the Musée d’Orsay following the Rue de Lille through beautiful beaux-arts buildings the street-levels of which were filled with high-end antiques and art shops. We longed to step into the Orsay and the many shops. But we knew that, if we had, it would be the day gone. Which would normally have been just fine with us but we already had tickets for another attraction: Sainte-Chapelle.
On the way we stopped into a nice little bistro for lunch before crossing over Pont Saint Michel to the Île de la Cité. This island is where Notre Dame cathedral is located. From afar we could see this beautiful monument’s sad state after the devastating fire of earlier this year which, amongst other things, destroyed the roof over the nave and toppled the spire. Having both seen Notre Dame in its former glory, we didn’t have the heart to take a closer look.
Sobered by tragic damage to Notre Dame, we continued on to Sainte Chapelle, a 13th century royal chapel built by King Louis IX in order to house his treasured relics: a portion of the “True Cross” and the “Crown of Thorns”. It’s a beautiful chapel which suffered terribly at the hands of French Revolutionaries at the end of the 18th century as they vented centuries of built-up resentment of the Catholic Church’s vast wealth, power and political machinations. Not without a little controversy, the chapel was restored in the later 19th century with what some consider to have been a heavy hand. A good deal of the damaged or missing stonework was replaced, the designs often deriving from what is felt to have been misguided research. The attempt by these well-intentioned 19th century restorers was to reintroduce the splendor of the original chapel. Whether or not one agrees with the historical accuracy of the restoration, it’s hard to argue that they did not live up to putting the magic back into the old place. It is simply stunning.
Further pro tip: buy your tickets for Sainte Chapelle online. This allows you to avoid the long lines for purchasing tickets at the site itself. This time, instead of feeling guilty as we did at the embassy, we waltzed smugly right past scores of people directly to the entrance. No line at all. Guilt-free.
As beautiful as the chapel is, it’s somewhat diminished by the hordes of visitors filling every square inch of it. It’s a little difficult to fully appreciate the true architectural and historical glory of the edifice when you are constantly interrupted by foolish statements like “Why don’t they have an elevator here?”, or “It would be totally rad to have a bubble party in here, right?” Ugh! Americans, no less. It makes one despair.
Despite the minor irritations, we were so glad to have seen it. Sainte Chapelle is truly a special place. Just across a courtyard is the Conciergerie. In the Middle Ages it began as a royal palace. In the fourteenth century it began to be transformed into a prison and was eventually to become during the Revolution the infamous site where victims of the Reign of Terror were held, most of whom were then marched to the guillotine. Marie Antoinette was amongst them and visitors can see the cell where she was held, some of her personal items, and the prison chapel where she is memorialized. I found it a bit creepy. But it was interesting and important to see.
For most of its history during the Middle Ages, the Conciergerie was a busy palace and royal administrative center, teaming with nobility, soldiers, diplomats, administrators and petitioners. Only a small portion of the Conciergerie is open to visitors. But one of these areas is huge room called The Hall of the Soldiers, a massive, colonnaded space stretching 64 meters in length and 25 meter wide; it is located directly under the Great Hall and was used as a dining area for the over 2,000 servants required to keep the place ticking. The chill of winter was kept at bay with four monster fireplaces. Equally impressive is the adjacent kitchens. They include another four huge fireplaces which are each big enough to hold a dining table with seating for six.
Unfortunately, our time in Paris ran out and we had to get the train back home in order to break Saxon away from the greedy clutches of his adoring admirers, Adrian and Jean. It’s great that he really loves them and he’s quite happy to be in their home. But we also have to admit that it is satisfying to see him so overjoyed to welcome us back, springing up and down, snorting with happiness, and tail working so hard that we fear he will wag himself apart. It never ceases to warm our hearts. We loved our little Paris break and we hope to enjoy many, many more in that wonderful city.
Amongst all of this is grinding reality of our house project, a glacial exercise in equal parts anticipation and frustration. Over the summer we have been waiting helplessly for our project manager to find builders and get work started. We don’t mind living there while work is going on, but I hope you’ll agree that we can’t do so without a bedroom, working bathroom, and functional kitchen. To all intents and purposes, we have none of those right now. But finding artisans who are qualified to work on a 15th century monument and who have space in their schedules to fit us in has proven extremely difficult. And so we wait.
To keep ourselves from going mad we have been doing as much preparatory work as we think would be useful. An earlier post showed us removing wallpaper and chiseling out plaster moulding. But there’s only so much of that kind of thing we can do. There are other tasks, though. Such as finding the right flooring we need. As those of you who know us might already have noticed, we are fairly determined and particular about the way we decorate. This house being so much more special than all of the rest, we have struggled to find just the right floor covering we want.
We only needed to find two types of flooring: clay tiles for the kitchen, chapel and master suite bathroom; and stone slabs for the entry, rampart passageway and guest bathroom. After months of searching, we finally found a company that appeared to have what we wanted. A quick check indicated that their closest showroom was in the département of Loire-et-Maine – a two hour drive east from Malestroit. What with working on the house in Fougères every week, interspersed with the many administrative errands we had been having to run throughout the spring and summer, our enthusiasm for making the drive to this showroom in the Pays de la Loire in the hope that they would actually have what we wanted was somewhat dampened. Nevertheless, the areas of the house so critical to finish so that we could move in had to have flooring installed before they could be completed.
Fortifying ourselves with tea and fresh pastry, we trundled into the car and tottered through the lovely rural countryside of eastern Bretagne on our way to the flatter, more open lands of the western Loire region. As is usual, it was a pleasant drive past countless picturesque farms and hamlets interspersed with the winding roadways threaded through quiet country villes sporting their ubiquitous stone parish churches, bar/tabacs, boulangeries, boucheries and mairies [combination bar/tobacco shops, bakeries, butchers, and town halls].
At length we found our way to the stone yard. Filled with clay tiles, stone slabs, paving, curbstones, and cobblestones, this place is a floor designer’s dream, especially for traditional and historic properties. Despite our novice language skills, we managed to discuss our needs with a salesman quite handily and we came away with samples of a terre cuite (fired clay) tile and a smaller stone paving that we felt might work. After months of deliberating and struggling to find flooring on which we could both agree, we were convinced we had finally made a real breakthrough.
Filled with a sense of accomplishment we stopped off at the nearby town of Segré for a quick bite to eat. It’s a pretty town perched above and upon the confluence of two rivers (Oudon and Verzée). The sacred lunch hour had long passed so we grabbed something from a boulangerie and found a nice spot at little marina along the river where we munched contentedly and enjoyed the sleepy sights and sounds of an August day under the shade of a towering oak tree standing nearby. Honorable mention goes to the amazingly good crumble that Cherie chose for our dessert. Miam, miam! [Editor’s note: “miam, miam” is the french equivalent of “yum, yum”, something really tasty. For drinks, it is “glou, glou” – not quite as catchy to our english-speaking ears, but it gets the idea across.]
We victoriously brought the tile samples back home. And almost immediately we realized that, while we liked the clay tiles, we both preferred stone with a more aged appearance and in much larger slabs. As often happens with us, we had both been too concerned with hurting each other’s feelings and so ended up choosing a stone that we each thought would make the other one happy. We need to stop doing that. So, more research and a week later we found ourselves back at the same stone yard again, invigorated with fresh perspective. This time we found what we both truly wanted. Phew! Stone yards are hard (pun intended). But we got there in the end. Now we have all of our flooring settled. If only we can find someone to install it …
Lastly, while all of this was going on, the both of us made separate appointments to the Préfecture in Rennes in order to apply for our Cartes de Séjour. This would allow us to extend our visas to stay in France for another year. So, no big woop. We’ve only bet the rest of our lives on living in France. Not to mention having bought a house here. No pressure. To say that we were a little anxious about it would be a massive understatement. Thankfully, our respective interviews went well and we seemed to have prepared all of the required paperwork correctly (thanks to Cherie’s meticulous research). We each left with an approved temporary visa. The official Carte is supposed to arrive in a couple of months. Talk about relief! We both shed a couple pounds of worry over that one. So, we’re happy to report that we are good for yet another year in France. We’re not entirely certain, but we think that we can apply for permanent residency after three years of this. We can’t wait!
So, that very long account is the tale of the many travels and errands we found ourselves engaged in over the summer. It’s been interesting, frustrating, energizing, exasperating, encouraging, exhausting and rewarding – all at the same time. As the autumn approaches, we look forward to more wonderful surprises as our new life in France continues. We hope you keep following and we love to read your comments. Keep them coming!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
This post is an edited version of an email sent to friends and family in April, 2019.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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)
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)
[This post was originally an email sentin 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!