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


In the Middle of Nowhere: L’abbaye de Hambye

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

Cherie and Valerie in Mid-Hang

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

Avranches Centre-Ville Under a Looming Sky

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

Église Notre-Dame-Des-Champs

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

Valerie and Cherie About to Breach the Castle Walls

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


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


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

View of L’abbaye de Hambye Church and Eastern Range

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

Not a Philistine – An Especially Good Day in France!

Blue Skies and Archangels

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

Place du Théâtre, Fougères

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

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

View of Église Saint-Léonard Looming Over the Medieval Quarter

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

The Approach to Mont Saint-Michel

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

Hyper-Tourism Along the Beautiful Grande Rue

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

Wood and Stone: A Beautiful Scene on the Grande Rue

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

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

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

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

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

Languedoc-Roussillon in Spring

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


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

The Mediterranean Coast at Canet-en-Roussillon


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


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

Keep Out! Porte Narbonnaise, Carcassonne

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Rain-washed Courtyard, Hôtel Pams


Narbonne: the Market Hall at Lunchtime

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

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

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

Scarcely Containing Her Joy – Jessica in Narbonne