Holy Hills & High Streets: Mont Dol and Dol de Bretagne

A Machine to Harness the Wind: on top of Mont Dol

We took an interesting little trip the other day – to Dol. I suppose I should say “The Dols”, because they are actually two sites: Mont Dol and Dol de Bretagne – both of which are within a kilometer or so from one another. The area sits in a flood plain on the southern edge of Baie du Mont St. Michel, about a 45-minute drive northwest from our home in Fougères. Val was still visiting us at the time. The weather was fine so we all bundled into the trusty Audi and made our electrified way out to what was for us yet another new location in France.

19th Century Postcard View of Mont Dol

Our first stop was Mont Dol. Much like its neighbor Mont St. Michel, it’s a big lump of rock. But, in this case, it rises out of a flat flood plain. I read somewhere that, long ago, this area, too, was often flooded by the sea. But the land was later reclaimed by way of dikes and drainage ditches and has been used as farmland and pasturage for centuries. Mont Dol isn’t terribly massive, but it’s still large enough to make for an impressive sight as one approaches from the south. A small village sits around the base and clings to one side of the slope. It must be said that the village itself is not particularly noteworthy (apologies to the inhabitants), but that’s not the attraction anyway.

The mont is the point of travel here. Apparently, this place has been inhabited by humans since the paleolithic era. Archeological investigation has found signs of Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens, as well as mammoths, lions, etc. on and near the mont itself. The Romans built a temple on top of the rock and this later became a Christian chapel. And it has been inhabited continuously throughout. There are also many myths which surround Mont Dol. My favorite is that Saint Michael and Satan met on the summit whereupon they engaged in a duel. The archangel eventually cast his foe off the mountain but their mighty struggle left the many scars and unusual indentations still to be seen on the rocks where they battled. All I can say is that the rocks on the summit are indeed worn and scarred. You be the judge.

At the top of the 65-meter tall outcrop is a nicely restored stone windmill. It can be toured, but it was closed when we were there. Still, it’s worth a look to get a sense of how the landscape of the past must have been dotted with these all-important machines. At the very summit is a small chapel, the current iteration constructed in the 19th century. Next to it is a signal tower from the Napoleonic era. It was one of a long string of towers sited on high points in the landscape, each one in sight of the other so that messages could be transmitted with great speed across the landscape. Mostly they were meant to alert the French military that the British were coming – again! The view from the top of the tower is magnificent. You can even see Mont Saint Michel!

From Mont Dol we made the very short drive south to Dol de Bretagne. In the past, this town was an archepiscopal see, founded in the 9th century. Though it no longer holds this august ecclesiastical status, the town still benefits from this legacy. There are only around 5,000 people living there, but the commercial, sports and civic opportunities to be found are much greater than you would expect. The high street is broad, extensive and a real delight to stroll along. We really enjoyed spending an afternoon window shopping, pleasantly surprised by the variety this small town affords. For me, it’s the many half-timbered buildings lining the street. The architecture throughout Dol de Bretagne is a real treat.

Speaking of architecture, there’s a little church I’d like to mention: the Cathedral of St. Samson. Sam, as I like to call him, came to Dol in the 6th century. Amongst other achievements like subduing a winged dragon and founding a church, he established a fruit orchard with his Welsh buddy Teilo (also a saint) which remains to this day. The church is big and bold and a bit different from others we’ve seen in Bretagne. It’s quite grandiose for a town of this size, full of ancient carving and chapels. We found it to be a very rewarding visit.

A Heavenly Lunch (photo from their Facebook page – our staff photographer, me, forgot to snap a picture)

Also top on this trip was our lunch. Directly across the street from St. Samson’s massive south porch we came upon a humble little restaurant entrance. Restaurant l’Évêché. The posted menu looked okay so we thought we would give it a try. Inside we discovered a startlingly contemporary bistrot with a chill atmosphere, a comfortable dining area and lots of conservatory and outdoor tables as well. The food was excellent. It was just one of times when the meal selections perfectly suit your mood and appetite for the moment. Even more magical was that it hit all three of us in equally satisfying measure. Now THAT’S a real rarity! We gushed about that meal for days afterward. Isn’t food just the best thing ever?

Valerie and Cherie in front of St. Samson: A Last Photo-Op Before Leaving Town

So, that was our visit to the Dols. We had a great time, we ate well (obviously), and we saw some amazing things. France never ceases to surprise and amaze us. We’re so thankful to be here and have the privilege of soaking up the magic of this wonderful place. And we are so happy to share it with you.

Since I’m finishing this up for a quick Christmas Eve posting, I thought I would leave you with a little Noël celebrating – Fougères style. Enjoy. And happy holidays to all!

Just Press Play (in the center of the image). Do it!

Delightful Dinan

Outdoor Café on the Rue de l’Horloge

Some places are just worth coming back to again and again. For some people, it’s Disneyland. For others, it’s Mount Everest. Or prison. To each their own. Since we’ve moved to France, we find that the list of places we want to visit repeatedly keeps growing. The city of Dinan definitely ranks high on that list. Cherie and I first visited during our initial trip to Bretagne in 2018 and we fell in love with it. Charming, beautiful, interesting, rich with history, full of good flavors, dramatic vistas, shops galore. It’s got it all. So, when we were thinking of places to show Valerie during her recent visit, we knew that Dinan had to be one of them.

View from the Tour Ducale

Val gave it the thumbs-up, so we checked the weather forecast, picked an upcoming sunny day, and launched into the countryside for the 65-minute drive to our destination. Dinan is a moderate-sized town which sits atop a plateau and spills down the slope to the Rance river. In the Middle Ages, the town began as a port on the river where it was still navigable to larger boats coming in from St. Malo and the English Channel to the north. But there is little room for expansion along this constricted section of the Rance. So Dinan expanded up-hill to the plateau where it’s historic prosperity is still on full display.

The old center of town is thick with architecture from the medieval and later periods. We have never seen such a collection of medieval porches. Formed by the upper stories of the buildings projecting over the sidewalks, these structures are beautiful. Walking through them is so evocative of how it must have been to pass through the town during the Middle Ages. Most of them still enclose shops at the ground level and serve as private residences above. There are supposedly some 130 half-timbered houses in Dinan. We didn’t count them ourselves. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there are that many or more. They are so beautiful and the brilliance of the craftsmanship which they display never ceases to be a wonderment to me.

Ringing in Your Ears for 600 Years – L’Horloge

Civic and religious sites are also on full display in Dinan. As in Fougères, the town élites had erected their own beffroi (bell tower), La Tour de l’Horloge. It was constructed in the 15th century, with a clock installed in the 16th century at the behest of the Duchesse Anne de Bretagne. The beffroi stands on the highest point in town and is reputed to have a magnificent view. None of us are particularly fond of heights, so we didn’t make the climb. But if you’re keen on hanging out in high places, I’m sure it’s worth a look.

The Basilica Saint Sauveur was built in the early 12th century and greatly expanded in the 15th. It’s a lovely church with some particularly fascinating sculptural details both inside and out. There are fantastic, wild and exotic beasts galore to be found on the walls of the basilica. My favorite is the relief of a camel on the capital of the column just to the right on the inside of the entrance to the nave. The area around the church is a bit more tranquil than the heart of the centre-ville, with a chestnut-lined square and the adjacent Jardin Anglais adding to more sedate ambiance which surrounds you as you admire the romanesque and gothic architecture of the edifice.

Enjoying My Stroll Down Rue du Jerzual
The Tower Gate

Rue du Jerzual is a beautiful cobblestone street leading steeply down from the center of town to the old port on the river. It’s been there for 10 centuries and is not to be missed. Flanked on both sides with ancient stone and timber houses, this pedestrian way gently winds down the slope, leading you to the delights of a pasty or a drink on the stone-lined quays along the River Rance. Along the way, there are many opportunities to stop into several art galleries, restaurants and cafés, all of which are housed in the charming buildings lining the way. At mid-point, the rue passes through the midst of a 14th century gate tower, Porte du Jerzual. It’s a beautiful example of a single-tower gate and it’s in such a picturesque setting you won’t believe you’re not in a fairytale. Walking down the street is also a great opportunity to see several former medieval merchant houses, many of which served simultaneously as warehouses and workshops. A word of warning: he who wanders happily down must eventually climb back up. Unless you’re planning on hiring a cab for the drive the long way around, or just giving up and slinking away on a boat downriver to St. Malo. The street is not especially steep, but it’s worth consideration if you have difficulty with long, steady climbs, you are using crutches or a wheelchair, or if you’re trundling along with a baby stroller. In our two visits to this street, we have passed a fair number of out-of-breath visitors – still smiling, but looking a bit worse for wear.

Dinan boasts the longest surviving stretch of still-standing defenses in Bretagne: 2.65 kilometers (1.64 miles). They encircle an area of roughly 30 hectares (74 acres). The city walls include 15 towers and gates which are still visible. One can walk atop a good portion of the ramparts and there are many points which offer beautiful views of the town and its surroundings. The prospect from Tour St. Catherine is particularly awe-inspiring, as it overlooks the Rance, the old port, and the towering viaduct linking the city to the east side of the river valley. Probably the principal attraction of the medieval defenses is the Tour Ducale, a large fortified tower used as a residence for the the Dukes of Bretagne. It was built in the latter 14th century and stands quite close to the tourist information office. Probably not just a happy accident.

La Tour Ducale

For some reason, the three of us actually debated as to whether or not we should visit the Tour Ducale. Cherie and I had gone inside in 2018. And it was great. But I think we undersold the experience to Valerie, which is why she was initially on the fence about it. Wisely, we eventually decided to give it a look and we were quite happy we did. Especially because the number of areas open to visit have greatly expanded since Cherie and I were last there. Now, in addition to the tower itself, there are chambers within the walls and gate (which include some interesting interpretive displays), as well as a long subterranean corridor that connects them. The cost of an entry ticket is definitely worth it. A tour of the ducal residence provides a good insight into the lives of the people who lived and worked there – from the kitchen in the bottom, through the ducal chambers above, and up to the soldiers’ barracks at the top. There are also some spectacular views from the rooftop of the tower. If you don’t mind heights, that is!

Down on the Port

There is so much in Dinan to delight. In addition to all of the amazing sights and history, we enjoyed a great lunch and even a bit of shopping along the way. It’s a brilliant town and well deserves all of the praise it receives. We had a great time. Cherie and I will be visiting regularly and we were so pleased that we could share this wonderful place with Val. You should see it too. Do it! You’ll be glad you did.

Getting Lost in the Charming Side Streets
View of the Viaduct from the Port
A Devilish Font (Église St. Malo)

A Sunny Day in Saint-Malo

Palm Trees and Impenetrable Walls: Saint-Malo

It seems like we only really drop our preoccupation with the tower when we have visitors. Having Valerie stay with us has been a real catalyst for us to go sightseeing. Happy days! Yesterday, we awoke to beautiful October weather. Clear blue skies, warm but fresh temperatures, occasional gentle breezes – absolutely beautiful. And this time the city of Saint-Malo was our target for exploration.

Acres of Harbor: A French Naval Vessel Amongst a Fleet of Fishing Boats

St. Malo is a city of around 135,000 people in the metropolitan area. It’s a port city, situated on the northeastern coastline of Bretagne at the mouth of the Rance estuary. Wider St. Malo is quite spreading, but the old city, the Intra-Muros, is compact, easily walkable, and confined within the still-complete circuit of city walls which define it. It’s essentially surrounded on all sides by water, a combination of the ocean and a series of large harbors. There is a large fishing fleet, a naval station, marinas for pleasure boats, and a significant ferry terminal – all hugging the walls of the old town. From here, you can catch daily ferries to the U.K. (Portsmouth or Poole), or the Channel Islands. So, even though the center within the wall is largely given over to tourism, there is a good deal of serious business going on just outside.

What Was Lost: The Old Train Station in Fougères

There are direct TGV trains from St. Malo to Rennes, Paris, Brest, etc. But, sadly, not to Fougères. Our town has no train service at all, which is a real disappointment. Like many places in the world, a thorough lack of vision led to the cessation of passenger train services in Fougères in 1972. So, we drove. It’s only 1h25m by car to St. Malo, a nice northwesterly drive through rolling countryside. The outskirts of St. Malo are full of business parks, a massive water park, subdivisions and the like. Not particularly awe-inspiring.

Porte Saint-Vincent

Once past the detritus of modern sprawl, we came upon a 17th century vision: the old fortified city of St. Malo. It’s really beautiful and impressive. The original walls, devised by Louis XIV’s famed military engineer, Sébastian Le Prestre de Vauban, still encircle the original town. These formidable defenses erected to shield the inhabitants from English ambitions and to guard the surrounding waters for their naval and fishing fleets. The entire circuit is some 2 kilometers and it’s possible walk the ramparts nearly the entire way. So, we did. It was a glorious stroll, with magnifient views along every single section of the walls.

In particular, the ocean views are tremendous. The azure waters surround numerous small rocky islands, many of them topped with smaller forts and gun platforms. There are several stretches of sandy beach at the foot of the walls, punctuated with rocky patches strewn with tidal pools and low-lying causeways leading out to a couple of the islands offshore. Much of this is under water for part of the time. St. Malo experiences a huge tidal range of 13 meters! We were lucky enough to see it at low tide. There is also a large saltwater pool on one of the beaches, complete with several high-dive platforms at various levels. It was nice to see that locals and visitors alike enjoy these beaches, including several dogs happily frolicking in and around the water.

Run for Your Lives!: Tourists on Parade
Cherie Leading the Way into a Pictoresque Square

The city inside the walls is equally lovely. Massively shelled and bombed by Allied forces in August, 1944 as German forces refused to surrender, the city suffered extensive damage. Rebuilding took 12 years (1948-1960) and much of what stands today was reconstructed. Even so, the architects tried to replicate what had stood before the destruction of the war. The city streets therefore still exude a charm of previous times in a surprisingly pleasant way. The many cafes, bars, restaurants and shops lining the main streets are well-maintained and attractive – all designed to lure the countless hordes of tourists which visit the town every year. Even though we were there in October and Covid restrictions are still impacting travel, the high streets and walls were thronging with visitors. I can’t imagine what it would be like in the height of Summer sans pandemic.

Branching out from the main avenues, the smaller, more narrow and intimate streets were havens of greater tranquility from the madding crowds. These were our favorite areas, harboring old-style coffee shops, épiceries, restaurants, and bars. The ambiance was alluring.

Val, About to Test Out Another Kouign Amann (“queen-ahmahn”)
The Fattiest Pastry: We Love You Just the Way You Are

Of course, we stopped for some Kouign Amann (a sweet Breton specialty pastry), amongst other goodies. Unusually, for me, I resisted the urge. Probably because I was so entranced by the interesting architecture and animated street scenes laid out before me. Val has been eager to try out different iterations of Kouign Amann because it’s a recipe which she and her granddaughter Jessica have been working to perfect. So far, she’s been a bit underwhelmed by the offerings she has tried. We have to agree. The versions we had in Seattle were far better. Which is surprising, given that we now live in the birthplace of this really yummy pastry. In Breton, the name simply means “butter cake” and was invented in Finistère town of Douarnenez in the 1860’s. Apparently, the New York Times dubbed it the most fat-filled pastry in all of Europe. Yeah, baby! That’s why it’s sooooo good. Just a puff-pastry consistency yeast dough filled with butter and caramelized sugar. When done well, it’s a beautiful thing. When not – meh!

A Bemused Valerie in Front of La Maison du Beurre

Pastries accomplished, we sought out another destination: La Maison du Beurre. No, this “House of Butter” is not actually made of butter. Though nearly so. Situated down a cozy little street off the main thoroughfare, is a pretty blue-fronted shop dedicated to all things butter. I know, right? What could be better than that? They sell cheese too, which is also pretty great. It’s a small shop, packed with amazingly good things. Cherie and Val displayed admirable restraint, emerging with only a small bag of one slab of butter (olive oil and lemon infused), a wedge of cheese (Tomme de brebis Corse), and some apricot/basil paste (trust me, it’s good) to pair with the cheese. We broke into those goodies later that evening and I’m happy to report that they were all voted – by unanimous consent – delicious. None of it will last long. Not in our house!

We visited two churches in town. Well, one, really. The first one we spotted from the ramparts. It looked to be a mix of medieval and baroque architecture and we were intrigued. So we descended from the wall and found the front. But it was not quite what we thought it would be. We should have known by the formal greeting we received upon entering. Not something one expects when entering your average church in France. We quickly discovered that this was a former church, now an exhibition space. We could see right away that the art on display was, shall we say, not to our taste. Lots of large format watercolor renderings of industrial buildings, parking lots, old school structures and the like. But, given the formal welcoming we received, we felt obligated to at least make a show of interested and purposeful viewing of the pieces on display.

The social graces observed, we exited and returned to the ramparts. Somewhat later on, we managed to find the Cathédrale Saint-Vincent de Saint-Malo. A proper church. Although it is still referred to as a cathedral, it doesn’t appear to be the seat of a bishop anymore. But it was in the 12th century when bishop Jean de Châtillon began construction on the current edifice, built upon the ruins of a succession of older, war-ravaged, churches going back to the 6th century. Additional pieces were added in the later Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the 18th century – elements of which are on display in this beautiful and interesting church. Of note is the sunken ambulatory which is one level below that of the chancel it surrounds. I’m sure there are other examples, but I’ve never come across this particular type of arrangement in any of the other ecclesiastical architecture I have visited. The famous french explorer Jacques Cartier (a native of St. Malo) received a blessing here before setting off to discover Canada in 1535. Well, if you want to get technical about it, he re-discovered it. Scandinavian explorers had found it centuries before. And, the Indigenous Peoples had been living there the whole time. Still, it was a remarkable feat of sailing and navigation. So there’s that. Back to the theme of war-ravaging, the cathedral was also heavily damaged during the siege of St. Malo in August, 1944. Reconstruction was not completed until 1972. Now whole again, St. Vincent offers a great insight into the history of the city and its people. We love churches and this one was well worth a look.

Place Chateaubriand

St. Malo was a real treat. We were so lucky to have visited during a spate of such glorious weather. Despite some crowded areas and the understandably heavy tourist influence, this city will definitely reward your efforts to get there. If you’re coming by train or ferry, it’s dead simple. By car, it’s rather congested and parking – even in October – was a bit hard to come by. But the city has clearly made significant efforts to accommodate their visitors. We will certainly make St. Malo one of our regular destinations.

For Jessica: A Bit of Retro Art Nouveau