Fougères: A Thousand Years of History

The Street Where We Live – Fougères at the Turn of the Last Century

This town is old. I mean, REALLY old. Especially for Americans who grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. In Seattle, for example, you feel fortunate to step into a building constructed before the end of the 19th century; the city itself was only founded in the 1850’s. Such is the natural naïveté into which Americans are born. Cynics (like me) might simply call it willful ignorance. But, despite this disadvantage, both Cherie and I grew to develop a love of history at some point in our early lives. So, I suppose it’s no surprise that we eventually found ourselves living in a place that has a slightly longer story to tell.

Origins

Fougères was first settled in the late 10th century, a wood palisade fort erected on a low rocky promontory around which the Nançon River (more of a creek, really) makes a loop to form a natural defensive barrier. This fort was attacked and destroyed several times over the ensuing centuries, each time rebuilt (eventually in stone) larger and more strongly than before. By the 15th century it had become the vast stone fortress that remains today.

Ferns in the Park Just Below Our Tower

Why is it called Fougères? I’m not entirely certain. The literal meaning of Fougères is: ferns. Ferntown. Fernville. There be ferns here. Ferns ‘r’ Us. That’s the simplest explanation. Occam’s Razor and all that. But it makes sense. This area is thick with beautiful ferns of every description. We have a fair few of them in our garden. Another theory is that the name is a corruption of fous, or fossé – indicative of a gap or terraced border. Perhaps. Fougères is situated where two Roman roads had intersected, one running north/south from Nantes to Avranches, and the other east/west from Chartes to Carhaix. Moreover, it was ideally placed to guard the traditional eastern border of Bretagne, one of a string of fortifications established for that purpose in the Middle Ages.


The town began as a small settlement, established in the low marshy area adjacent to the south side of the fort. This area is now known as the Quartier Médiéval (medieval quarter), or the Ville Basse (lower town), the original core of what was to become Fougères. The convenient supply of flowing water attracted tanners, dyers and drapers and these became the predominant industries in this area of the medieval town. There are still many signs of how the river was manipulated to feed the many mills and other workshops that were here. It’s also the only part of town where you can still see timber-framed buildings still standing. We often take strolls through the lower town. It has a completely different vibe: slow, quiet, relaxed. Watery. The river weaves its way through, pleasantly burbling via separate channels before they join up again as they exit the neighborhood.

Many of the houses in the Medieval Quarter still possess their own lavoirs in their back gardens. Set low on the river channels, with paved platforms invariably roofed and open to the water, these little houses were used for doing the household laundry – many of them up to the early part of the 20th century. It’s difficult to imagine just how polluted the river must have been with all of the tanning, fulling, dyeing and washing feeding into it. You would never know it now, though. The water is now clear and home to a good number of fish and other wildlife. I am continually astounded at how resilient the natural world can be – despite our best efforts to destroy it.


Dominating the Ville Basse is the Église Saint-Sulpice, the parish church. A beautiful edifice built from stone taken from the quarry which looms over it, this church was probably founded in the 11th century. But the current building was begun in the 1400’s with periodic alterations and additions continuing through to the 18th century. It’s a very pretty, primarily gothic structure with dozens of imaginative gargoyles and intricately carved stone decorations. And the interior is no less impressive, with both stone and wood ceilings, painted embellishments, and a pleasing array of figural and architectural carvings. With all of that, St. Sulpice has always been a workaday house of worship, serving the laborers, artisans and merchants who populated the Medieval Quarter. Now, the lower town is primarily residential. All of its former industrial activity has long since moved elsewhere. But the church remains, facing the stark ramparts of the château, its bells ringing the hours of the day as it has for centuries. As it should be. Long may it continue.


As time went on, Fougères was beginning to outgrow the fairly limited lowland space around the Nançon. By the 12th century the more prosperous inhabitants began to seek higher, less soggy ground for their homes. And so was born the Haute Ville, a rocky plateau which overlooks the meandering river and the narrow valley below. This upper town grew to become the civic focus of the settlement. Although close to, and protected by the castle below, it was to a large extent independent. Beginning in the 13th century, a defensive wall of stone was constructed to encircle the Haute Ville. Further towers (like ours!) were added in the early part of the 15th century. Unfortunately, only one of the three (or four, depending on the source) original town gates remains, but there are many sections of the wall and several towers still stand. It must have been quite impressive in the Middle Ages.


Le Beffroi: the Oldest Bell Tower in Bretagne

Eager to show their prosperity, the town’s leaders financed the construction of a beffroi (bell tower) at the end of the 14th century. Many towns did this in the Middle Ages, but only two now remain in all of Bretagne; the other one is in Dinan. The beffroi is a really interesting structure, designed solely for the purpose of showing off. Oh, and also for tolling the time of day for the populace, which it’s done continually for over five hundred years. Not only is it charming, but it’s still really useful. You always know the time of day within 15 minutes just by the sound of the bells and the number of times they chime.


Further down Rue National from the beffroi is L’Église Saint-Léonard. This parish church is perched atop the highest point of the Haute Ville, overlooking its sister St. Sulpice and the lower town below. It was founded in the 12th century and “modernized” in the 15th and 17th centuries. In the late 18th century revolutionary zeal contributed to significant damage of St. Léonard. This later led to a major redesign and additions to the church in the following century. Today, it’s still the hub of religious worship in the center of town. Somewhat disappointingly, the interior is not particularly interesting. Probably thanks to the anti-clerical anger of the sans-culottes at the height of the Revolution.


Adjacent to Saint-Léonard is the Hôtel de Ville (the town hall) and the Jardin Publique. The former was constructed in the 15th century and a nice example of administrative architecture of the time. I have personally never set foot in it, but Cherie once had to go in to arrange a street parking permit for a moving truck. The Jardin Publique is, as the name suggests, the public garden. This formal garden was established in 1766, following the removal of the town defenses in this area. It’s broad terraces trail down the southwestern slope of the promontory to the Ville-Basse and the river below. The upper levels provide for beautiful panoramic views of the lower town, the verdant countryside beyond, St. Sulpice, and the château. This garden is a lovely place to take a stroll and enjoy the views; unfortunately, we hardly ever go there because it’s one of the few places in France where dogs are inexplicably not allowed.

Home of the Marquis de la Rouërie, hero of the American Revolution and a Chouan leader – (Saxon Likes to Pee in the Rear Garden)

After the end of the Middle Ages and the incorporation of the Duchy of Bretagne into the kingdom of France, Fougères’ strategic importance disappeared. The château fell into disuse, then became a prison; it even housed German prisoners of war during World War I. Following centuries of numerous battles and sieges, the town enjoyed relative calm. Until the Revolution sparked the local Chouannerie counter-revolution in the 1790’s. Following their success in the Battle of Fougères in 1793, the Chouans continued to revolt against Republican forces in the area. One of their leaders was a local boy, Armand Tuffin, Marquis de la Rouërie. Before becoming embroiled in French conflicts, Tuffin had spent several years serving as an officer with American revolutionaries during the War of Independence and had become a friend of George Washington. His former home in Fougères is just up the street from our tower, now serving as a courthouse.


By 1800 a more peaceful existence had returned to Fougères. And the town spent the following century getting down to business. Primarily, the business of manufacturing shoes. The craft of shoe-making had a long tradition in the area, particularly the making of clogs. Indeed, the street on which we live had several clog makers (sabotiers) up to 1900. But large factories making leather shoes had become the industrial focus, dominating the local economy in the 19th and 20th centuries. At one point Fougères counted more than 60 shoe factories. Our tower was home to one of the largest: the Pacory shoe manufacturing company. Although the shoe-making industry is now almost entirely gone from the town, numerous remnants of its factory buildings are dotted throughout the area. Some of them reveal glimpses of art nouveau and art deco mosaic decoration and architecture.


The 19th century seems to have been a good time for the town. Several literary, political and military luminaries of the time gilded the ville’s image. Victor Hugo visited his long-time mistress (Juliette Drouet) who lived in Fougères. Hugo’s fellow novelist, Honoré de Balzac, took up residence just outside of town for a time and wrote a novel (Les Chouans, 1829) which established his standing as a significant writer. The towering writer/politician/historian/diplomat, François-René de Chateau-Briand had a sister (Julie, la Comtesse de Farçy) who lived here, so he visited often; apparently, he held a low opinion of the town, finding it rather provincial and dull. The post-impressionist, Emmanuel de la Villéon, was born in Fougères. Primarily a painter of landscapes, there is a small museum dedicated to his life and works just a couple of blocks away from our house. General Baston de Lariboisière, also from Fougères, rose to prominence during the Napoleonic era, brilliantly commanding forces in the Spanish and Russian campaigns. It’s surprising how much celebrity such a small town could produce and attract. That’s all in the past, though. There are no paparazzi haunting the lanes of Fougères nowadays.

American and British Bombing Raid Devastion

By far the lowest points in the history of Fougères the two World Wars. The town lost over 600 men to fighting during the first war. And Fougères suffered under Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1944 and a devastating Allied bombing during the D-Day invasion. There was quite an active Resistance movement here; for that reason, the town itself received the Croix de Guerre from the French government. However, perhaps most enduring communal memory of WWII here are the Allied bombings of June, 1944. As part of the Allied invasion of France, Fougères’ railroad station and factories were targeted for destruction in order to impede the ability of German forces to move and sustain themselves. An initial bombing run on June 6th failed to destroy the rail station. And so, a further attack fell upon the town on June 9th. Nearly 300 people were killed, over 400 homes destroyed, and the ville’s industry was decimated. And, yes, they finally got the rail station as well. Our own street suffered significant devastation; several of the houses to either side of our were leveled in the bombing raids. Fougères was liberated by American forces in early August, the nightmare of four years of occupation finally over.

The post-war years were a period of boom and bust for Fougères. The town prospered for a time. But the French economy slipped in the 1970’s, coinciding with a rapid fading of the local shoe manufacturing industry. In recent years things have brightened once again. No longer dependent upon a single sector, the local economy is diversifying. And, with the opening of a major motorway in 2003, connecting Fougères with the large cities of Rennes and Caen, the town is within commuting distance to a much wider catchment area of employment.

And that’s the long story of our town. A community that has witnessed, and withstood, over one thousand years of everything history can throw at it. Despite that, it’s still standing proudly and with a grace that I’m struggling to maintain at the tender age of 55. Perhaps that’s why people here are a bit more relaxed, more philosophical about life. They tend to take the long view. Not something that comes naturally to most Americans. But I’m trying to get with the program. The day that I can effortlessly shrug and patiently wait in line at the grocery checkout while the cashier and her customer take five minutes to catch each other upon on current events, I will have arrived. I’ll let you know when that happens.

Don’t hold your breath.


View Over the Quarry Which Supplied Most of the Stone for the Building of Fougères
The Heraldic Arms of Fougères

Parquet & Stone: Tasks Around the Tower

La Tour Desnos (or, formerly, Des Noë) At the Height of Its 19th Century Shoe Factory Phase

March in Bretagne. The weather has been all over the place: from snow and freezing temperatures, to beautiful sunshine and nearly t-shirt warmth and everything in between. France remains under various forms of curfew and/or confinement. In Fougères the pandemic has been less severe (thankfully) so the town is only under a curfew. Restaurants are only permitted to sell meals to take away. Still, all of the shops are open and movement is unrestricted. That is, until 6pm. One must have a valid reason for being out after 6. Luckily for us, it is allowed to take your dog for a walk during curfew. Vaccine administration continues to be fairly slow in France. We don’t expect to be eligible for a Covid-19 inoculation until at least May, if not later. So, we remain somewhat hunkered down, keeping mostly to ourselves.

Work on the house; walk the dog; shop for groceries; grab bread (and pastries) at the boulangerie: that’s pretty much the story of our existence at La Tour Desnos over the past few months. Not that we’re complaining. I mean, we’re still retired, still living in France, still healthy, and still in love. What more could we ask? Sure, it would be a nice bonus if we could travel a bit further afield, visit museums, eat at restaurants, etc. But those opportunities will return soon enough. And we are keenly aware of how fortunate we are. For now, we’re just happy to putter around the house, tackling one project at a time.

A Promise of Spring – Blooms Emerge Along Our Rampart Overlooking the Jardin

A couple of weeks ago we enjoyed a few days of really lovely weather. Sunny, warm, spring-like weather. I had been wanting to work in our garden on the east side of the tower for months. But other projects and poor weather had forestalled me. However, with the suddenly good weather, I couldn’t resist any longer and stole a pleasant couple of days chopping things down. First on my list were the hydrangeas of elephantine proportion. Cherie will tell you that hydrangeas are not one of my favorite plants. Apologies to all of you who love hydrangeas, but I am just not a fan. Messy, woody, monstrous bushes that are always threatening to take over the garden. I’m not even particularly enamored of the blooms. But Cherie likes them very much so they are staying for now. Somewhat earlier I had discovered our gardening shears, lopers and other tools that we had taken with us from Seattle. So I set about pruning (heavily) the several hydrangeas which had grown over the paths and were about to invade the rose bed. It was a lot of work, though. In the end, I’m not sure who won. Yes, the shrubs are now only a diminutive shadow of their formerly gargantuan proportions. But, against my better judgment, they lived to taunt me for another season. Moreover, my dodgy right elbow and shoulders were made even more dodgy and were aching mightily for days. We’ll call it a draw.

After the hydrangeas, I pruned the roses quite hard as well. Unlike the hydrangeas, this was done with love. The roses we inherited from the previous owners are really pretty, but they had become gangly, sparse and top-heavy. I honestly know very little when it comes to roses, but I’ve come to admire them very much and I’m determined to help them regain some of their former vitality. My mother, Carol, was a great lover of roses and she was quite accomplished in maintaining a pretty rose garden beside our family home. So, in a way, I want to pay tribute to her by remembering her through keeping some roses in bloom.

A Window Once Hidden – Work in the Jardin reveals a Buttress Wall

One bit of gardening led to another and, before I knew it, I was hacking down small trees and blackberry vines at the far end of the plot alongside the medieval rampart. We knew there was a sort of buttress wall at the end, but we really couldn’t see it very well. So, upon clearing out the tangle of vegetation there, I was surprised to discover a lovely stone wall with a window opening in it. Very cool! The wall is in serious need of repair and repointing, but it’s a nice addition to our jardin that we will be sure to feature prominently.

There is much more work in the garden that needs doing. But my body was complaining. Also, there were too many other projects inside the house that had priority. Reluctantly, I downed tools, vowing to return when and as I am able. I swear I could hear the hydrangeas whispering their revenge as I trudged wearily up the rampart stairs.

The Laundry Passage Floor Finished

The builders have been away from the tower for a couple of months. But Cherie and I have been busy with our own, smaller scale renovations. Previously (https://findingourfrance.blog/2021/01/04/minus-two/) I had noted that we were beginning to lay stone paving in what was previously the kitchen, now our buanderie (laundry room). I was pretty anxious about it. But I’m happy to report that the paving is now finished and it looks satisfyingly good. At least to our eyes. You can judge for yourselves. It’s been a good skill to add to our repertoire. Especially since we’ll have another opportunity to practice this art when we lay a new floor in Cherie’s new office. Stay tuned.

Spreading the Glue – the First Row Down, We Prepare for the Next

The great parquet order debacle having been resolved, we were finally able to get to grips with laying the floor in the séjour. You may remember that, last autumn, our builders had leveled the concrete floor and laid a layer of OSB on top. Getting a finished floor down was long overdue. As usual, I was very concerned about our ability to carry this out successfully. Sure, we had laid wooden plank flooring down in the master bedroom upstairs and it turned out well. But the séjour is far more complicated; the floor plan has a round end and none of the straight edges are square. Add to that the fireplace footprint jutting out from the wall at an odd angle, and I knew we were in for a complicated project.

Wrapping Around the Fireplace Hearth – Geometry Makes My Brain Hurt
A Bit of Versailles in Our Living Room – Job Done!
A Match Made in Heaven – Tile and Parquet Finally Meet

We really wanted wood parquet flooring in this room. Something with a bit more formality and a classic french look. We went with a pattern known as Versailles. It comes in 60cm x 60cm tongue and groove panels. Since we were already familiar with gluing, we stuck (ahem) with what we knew for this time. It was a tricky business and midway through we had to make a slight adjustment in alignment which caused us to have to trim several panels in order to correct the line – something I would highly discourage, by the way. As expected, the hardest part was fitting around the fireplace. It was a pretty fiddly operation. But we managed to get it down without screwing it up entirely. In fact, we’re very happy with the overall result and the sejour finally has a finished floor that we can be proud of. Phew!

Before – A Too-Short Kitchen Table
After – Our Table, All Grown up

A project I had been putting off for some time was to increase the height of our kitchen table. Now that I have a semblance of a workshop (temporarily housed in the “Chapel” one floor below), I felt that I could finally make a reasonable stab at this one. When we purchased this old French farm table, we knew that we wanted to make it counter-height. This was for two reasons: first, so that we could use the two chairs we brought from Seattle and, second, so that we could use it for additional counter space for cooking, baking, etc. The table wasn’t very expensive and, although technically an antique, not even a remotely rare piece. Still, I’m the first one to cry havoc when I see someone alter anything with age or beauty to it. The current vogue for “upscaling” perfectly sound antiques makes me mental. So, to all those who share this philosophy, know that everything I did to our table is reversible; it could be entirely restored to its original state with very little effort if so desired in the future. Anyway, the surgery was successful and I hope you’ll agree that the patient came through passably well, performing its new function as a kitchen island-slash-table in admirable fashion.

A Reconfigured Middle Drawer
The Completed Bathroom Vanity

Further procedures were performed on our guest bathroom vanity. I finally got around to reconfiguring the middle drawer in order to accommodate the sink drain. This former three-drawer commode has been heightened and now houses a bathroom sink, a marble top, a faucet and two functioning lower drawers. The top drawer front is now just for show due to the depth of the sink. None of this, you’ll note, is reversible. But, in my defense, and in a desperate attempt to evade cries of hypocrisy, I would add that this dresser was already a wreck when we found it. Neither was it a particularly notable nor well-made piece of furniture – even on its best day. Just one amongst the legions of relatively cheap reproduction pieces churned out between the 1920’s and 1960’s. My conscience is clear. Mostly.

Fancy-Schmancy – Our New Gilded Mirror

We found a new mirror for the petit-salon at the antique store just up the street. A big, heavy gilt frame, it’s uncharacteristically more elaborate than we normally go for. But, hey, we live in France now. This country virtually invented glitz. So why not go with the flow? At least a little bit. And, actually, we really like this mirror. It’s been a nice addition to the room and we’re happy to have stretched our decorative tastes. We have many more plans for this room, but they will have to wait until more pressing items have been addressed. For now, the petit-salon is in a reasonable state of completion and that’s good enough. I don’t know how much the mirror weighs – but it’s heavy enough. So much so that we thought it prudent to purchase special cleat hardware normally used for hanging cabinets. It might be overkill, but it’s reassuring to us and we don’t worry about a loud crash in the night.

And so, all of these relatively small projects have allowed us to feel more at home, more settled. Each completed task moves us just a little bit forward, toward the finished house we can envision so clearly in our minds. It also allows us to unpack another moving box, put away more household goods or display more of our beloved objets d’art. It’s been a long road – and we have much further to go – but we’re enjoying it immensely. And, we hope, you are finding some enjoyment in it too. For now, though, good health and happiness to you all. And enjoy this moment of zen we offer to you below. See you next post!

Our Daily Soundscape – the Bells of Église St. Sulpice Sounding the Hour and a Panorama of the South Ramparts of Fougères