In 2018, while wrapping up our first visit to Bretagne, we stumbled upon a château out in the countryside between Rennes and Vitré. Looking it up in our guidebook, we discovered that this was once the home of Madame de Sévigné, who, well … we didn’t really know who that was. But the house looked like it was very much worth a visit. So, we pulled up at 5:00, only to discover that we had missed the last tour. Disappointing.
Fast forward to April, 2022 and we decided that we were long overdue to make good on our previously failed attempt. On the way, we thought, we can stop in the nearby town of Vitré for a quick lunch. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! A quick lunch. In France. That’s a good one. You’d think we would know better by now. But, as if we were rank amateur visitors to this country, we thought we could dash into a restaurant for a speedy bite before making it to the château for the tour time. Three hours on and we had long-since surrendered to the realization that our schedule had been blown. Yet another failed attempt to visit Château des Rochers Sévigné.
One month later, and we were on the road again. This time with no detours for lunch. At least we had learned that lesson. Still, we were running it very close and we arrived at the ticket office with only a minute to spare. Unfortunately, the lone tour guide working at the château had already locked the ticket office door and commenced her opening tour talk. Failure number three. But this time we had enough of the afternoon left to wait for the last scheduled tour. So, on our fourth attempt, with some patient waiting in the hot afternoon sun, we finally made it in.
So, what is this place? Château des Rochers was the country seat of the Sévigné family, breton nobility of ancient lineage. The existing edifice was primarily built in the latter 15th century. After our first attempt to visit in 2018, we came to learn that the house’s most notable occupant was Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné, having married into the family in 1644 at the age of eighteen. Even in her own time, she was, and continues to be, lauded for her witty and insightful prose. Madame de Sévigné was a prolific letter-writer. Six years after her marriage, her spendthrift, philandering husband was killed in a duel over his mistress. I’m assuming her only reaction to this was: “Good riddance!” In fact, she never married again. Left with two young children, servants, and a lot of free time on her hands, the letter-writing really kicked into high gear. She is known to have written, apparently, hundreds of letters. Just think if she would have had a Twitter account.
You may have noticed that I haven’t said much about the house itself. Because: reasons. Firstly, one doesn’t get to see much of it. The tour guide – a lovely woman who very generously slowed down her french presentation for our benefit – leads the group around, frankly, tired and sparse gardens while dishing racy stories about the former inhabitants. At (great) length, we were taken in to view the nicely restored late 17th century chapel – a lovely octagonal tower which stands separate from the main house. Then the group ducked into the main tower of the house to view two rooms. No more, no less.
And that’s it. The house is beautiful and has a rich history. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit disappointed with the whole thing. Mostly because very little of the house and property is open for viewing. In all likelihood, some of my disappointment stems from the heightened expectation built up by our several foiled attempts to visit over the preceding couple of years. Also, I’m not a big fan of guided tours. Still, it would have been nice to see more. Notwithstanding my complaints, we had a nice time and felt privileged to see yet another outstanding bit of french history. Even better, we could finally relax in the knowledge that we had finally overcome what we had come to regard as the “Sévigné Challenge”. Job done!
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.
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.
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 DuchesseAnne 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.
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.
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!
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.
The New Year has begun at a low point. On the thermometer. In fact, two degrees below 0 (celsius). We awoke [Well, to be precise, only Saxon and I awoke; Cherie tends to sleep through such inconveniences as breakfasts and, umnn … mornings in general.] on the first day of 2021 to a very frosty but sunlit morning in Fougères. It was beautiful. Serene. Saxon and I took a bracing walk in the park below the tower, crunching through the crystalline grass. This weather made Saxon frisky and he was bounding around with the kind of pure joy only displayed by dogs, children, and a certain demographic of nerdy adults who have just found out that there will be a new season of Downton Abbey coming soon. I was just cold. Like, really cold. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but smile. It was that familiar “I can’t believe we’re actually living in France” feeling that continues to grip us on a regular basis. Pretty great. I don’t think we’ll ever truly get used to the fact that we live here.
On New Year’s Eve we were treated to our next-door neighbors’ outdoor celebrations, consisting of very loud and frenetic music, combined with a barbecue (as one does in freezing weather) and fireworks. One of these light-filled celebrations – a large chinese lantern – caught my eye as it descended from their terrace above, wafting downward into our garden. But just as it was touching down, it began to gather heat and floated upward, lofting directly toward the roof of our upstairs neighbor’s apartment where it snagged onto her TV antenna and burst into flame. The Montgolfier brothers would have hung their heads in shame, but I was panicking as I watched what amounted to a large tube of paper with flames leaping out of it threaten to burn down our neighbor’s house. Since hers is directly on top – ours would likely be next. I stared helplessly at the conflagration lighting up the sky, praying that it wouldn’t spread to the roof while at the same time cursing our careless neighbors. Neighbors whom, incidentally, I could hear, whooping it up on the other side of the garden wall, apparently unknowing or uncaring that they may have started a house fire next door. Thankfully, the paper lantern burned out as quickly as it had started and the roof was none the worse for its close encounter with a firebomb.
This brief episode rattled me, though. How easily things can take a turn for the worse. How fragile are our lives and all that we depend upon. It seemed to me to be the disturbing but apt exclamation point on a year that has been so difficult for so many around the globe. My family had experienced several unfortunate events in 2020 – forest fires, impacts to business, illness (Covid-19 and others), injury, and even, most heartbreaking of all, death. Not to be too morose about it, but it’s been a pretty awful year on planet Earth. I hope you’ll all join us in resolving to make this year a better year for our neighbors, our countrymen, our fellow human beings everywhere, and our planet.
So, what have we been up to? Why, working on our house, of course. What else would we be doing in the age of Covid? To be fair, even without a global pandemic, we would still be spending most of our energies (and money) working on the tower. But we would hopefully have engaged in more travel and sightseeing. Admittedly, the blog posts would be more varied and interesting too. At least with the beginning of the New Year, we can proudly say that the first phase of our major works has now been completed. All of the primary demolition, plumbing, electrics, build-outs, and plastering has been done. Which is not to say that our main living areas are looking nearly finished. There is still a lot of finish work to do – by us. Cherie and I are the finishing crew. And we are methodical. Deliberate? Careful? Perfectionists? Okay, we’re slow. But, in our defense, we don’t really know what we are doing. So each little project comes with its own, rather precipitous learning curve. At least we have positivity on our side. That’s all Cherie’s doing. She firmly believes we can do almost anything. I, on the other hand, am the voice of doom. I have no confidence in my ability to do anything well and I feel like most things are beyond my skill. Nevertheless, we soldier on. Between the two of us, we manage to get most tasks done. Eventually.
We replaced the stairs leading from the main floor to our master bedroom and we’re really happy with the results. A local menuisière (carpenter) and his team completed it in their shop over the summer and installed it in two days. Pretty impressive. When we first started this whole renovation thing we were hoping to continue the stairway down to the “Chapel” (the tower chamber below the main floor). But that will be another several thousand euros, so we’ll have to put that project on the back burner for now. Seriously, I may have to sell a few organs before we can get the chapel done.
For now, the chapel will serve as my temporary workshop. When we bought the tower, the floor of this chamber had quite a large trap door of wood in the center. We surmise that it was put in during the time the tower was part of a large shoe factory in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For what purpose, we have no idea. Somewhat ominously, the former owners had placed a sandwich of three large sheets of particle board on top of it. Something told us that we probably shouldn’t walk on it, lest we fall through to the room at the bottom of the tower. It turns out that we were right to be concerned. Our trusty builders, Kelson and Stuart, poked around a bit and found that the trap door was entirely rotten. They merely tapped it and the whole thing collapsed and crashed to the floor below. Needless to say, we spent the money to have them span the opening with concrete. A fine job they did, and now the floor is whole. Our electrician, Mark, routed some temporary power outlets as well, so now I am in the process of rearranging our many storage boxes (the majority of which contain books – Oh! How I miss my books!) so I can cobble together a functioning workshop.
Back up in the main floor, the guys finished all of the electrics, plumbing and plastering for the entry, the petit salon, the laundry passage, the hallway, stairwell, and Cherie’s office. It was a long sequence of messes that kept us constantly cleaning. When we purchased the house, there was a door separating the séjour (living room) from the rest of the main floor. Unlike American houses, it’s very typical in French houses to have a door closing off a living room. I wanted to get rid of it right away. Wisely, Cherie thought we should keep it until the main construction was finished. She was right. It has sure helped to keep out the worst of the mess. Also the noise. We would seek refuge from the construction zone, all three of us huddling in our séjour and kitchen throughout the day. I’d say that we’ll look back on that time fondly some day. But I doubt it.
There are still a couple of projects that we’ve attempted to get completed, but have been thwarted by some circumstances that we’ll just say are, different, here than we were accustomed to in the U.S. As you saw in an earlier post, we chiseled out all of the old tile and concrete screed underlaying it this summer. The builders then poured some self-leveling concrete and topped that with ABS chip board. Excitedly, we ordered new parquet flooring from a company near Lille in the north of France. Cherie and I plan to lay it ourselves. It took some time, but the pallet was finally delivered in September. We hauled it in, box by box, and then opened one up. Only to find that they sent the right parquet, but in the wrong finish. Ugh!
That’s when the Machiavellian maneuvering really began. The company offers two finishes: natural, and a darker tone they call “cognac”. Before we ordered we had confirmed with them that we wanted cognac. They of course assured us that they would send the cognac. What we got was natural. Well, we thought, a simple mistake. We’ll just email them and they will make it right. Not so. It took a couple of emails to even establish that we had actually ordered cognac. Once that was ironed out by sending them copies of our original order (surely, they must have their own copy, right?), they then tried to claim that there is virtually no difference between the natural and cognac finishes. Classic. We actually had to send them photos from their own website to prove that there is clearly quite an obvious difference between the two. After several more phone calls – a couple of which they simply abandoned because we do not speak perfect French, they agreed that they had made a mistake.
Then the negotiations as to how to get them to pick up the wrong flooring and deliver the correct order began. They simply could not conceive of completing both transactions at the same time. Pick up AND deliver? You mean, with the same truck? Bah non! Right. Reluctantly, we turned to our guardian angel, Kelson’s wife Patricia. She is French. She is a force of nature. And she is on a personal crusade to see justice done. Patricia is very kind and generous with her time. She also speaks English very well. We knew that, with her on the case, these guys from Lille would rue the day they messed with us. We’d seen her in action before. She’s frankly terrifying. Predictably, after a couple of phone calls, the company agreed to swap the merchandise and they set a date for the exchange. Amateurs. The arrangement was so carefully choreographed, you’d think we were exchanging spies with the Soviets on a lonely bridge in Budapest. Actually, it turns out that Patricia told the company representative that Cherie and I were attorneys and suggested that we were preparing a very expensive lawsuit. See? I told you. Terrifying. She’s the best. As far as we’re concerned, she has a lifetime of chocolates coming her way. We are happy to report that we finally received delivery of the correct flooring just before Christmas. Now all we have to do is install it.
But before we tackle that, we needed to get the stone flooring laid in our laundry passage. Just before Christmas, Mark laid the underfloor heating mat (electric) and secured it with a thin layer of latex. We wanted to protect the wires of the mat as soon as possible, so we’ve already begun to lay down the stone flooring. It’s the same stone we used in our guest and master bathrooms, but we paid another builder to do that. With funds getting low, we decided to save some cash and do this one ourselves. Armed with Cherie’s confidence, a grinder with a diamond wheel, a long level, some string, and copious amounts of tea, we embarked on our first attempt to lay stone flooring. Thus far, we’ve cut and dry-fitted the entire floor, and bedded in the first few stones. To us, it looks like a pretty good start. My habitual pessimism won’t allow me to claim victory yet. So I’m reserving judgment until the job is completed. We’ll let you know how it turns out.
Cherie had a special birthday this year. In December, she turned 50. Annoyingly, she doesn’t look anywhere near that age. We had been hoping to have a nice party to celebrate. But Covid laughed and said “no!”. So we baked her favorite cake (Germans’ chocolate cake) and ate it all. Don’t judge us.
A couple of weeks ago we had an interesting brush with a neighbor. We had just come in from our last dog-walk of the day. It was evening. Cherie was putting away Saxon’s leash and taking her coat off while I strode into the kitchen by way of the séjour. Suddenly, a large shadow momentarily dimmed the lights. I looked up just as a monstrous bat strafed over my head. I’m pretty sure I didn’t squeal like a little girl. Well, at least as far as you know. But I did raise my voice to a higher register as I loudly warned Cherie that a dragon was loose in the house. With immediate presence of mind, Cherie bravely closed the door to the séjour – locking me in with the beast. Right. It was just me and the shadowy monster now. Mano a guano. I donned some protective gear and grabbed the time-tested weapon beloved of husbands for time immemorial: a broom. The bat and I locked horns in a grim battle that seemed to last for hours [Editor’s note: It was ten minutes – tops.]. To be fair, the thing was huge. I’m not kidding. It’s wingspan was easily two feet (60 cm) wide. I don’t know how it got in. Probably the fireplace, but we also had an open vent hole in our pantry off the kitchen (which was duly closed up the next day). The bat was actually rather handsome. Cute, even, It would fly slowly around the room for a bit and then alight on a beam, looking down at me, the clueless idiot ineffectually holding a broom while assuring my wife that I had everything under control. I had opened all of the windows, thinking that the bat would be happy to escape into the night, away from the stupid human maniacally swinging a broom about the place. But he seemed to like it in our house, preferring to fly by the open windows and toy with my emotions. After a while, he tired of his amusement and let me off the hook, lazily flying out the window. No doubt he had other husbands to humiliate that night.
Last, but not least, I should mention that we also spent our first Christmas in Fougères. To be sure, the pandemic had a significant effect on holiday celebrations and events in the old town this year. Nevertheless, the ville put on a brave face and decked the halls with all kinds of sparkly things. We found it to be quite pretty and we’ve been enjoying our evening walks with Saxon through the lighted streets. Like so many other places in the world, the shop and café owners were desperately trying to make up for lost trade. Despite the necessary restrictions and safeguards, there seemed to us to be quite a bit of shopping. The streets were fairly busy, especially on the weekends. And there was a definite air of good cheer and hope throughout the town. As for myself, I managed to consume at least one cup of vin chaud (hot mulled wine). Since moving to France, it has become a personal goal to drink vin chaud whenever I can get it. I’ll have to do much better next year. We enjoyed a quiet Christmas in our new home. Just the three of us, cozy in our half-finished 15th century tower, stuffing ourselves with Cherie’s legendary turkey, and trying to to think about the hundreds of tasks we’ve yet to finish. But, hey! We’re in France, right? Not a bad way to spend the holidays. We feel very fortunate indeed.