A History of Highnesses: Domfront

Ruins of Past Glory – the Castle of Domfront

To the northeast of Fougères stands a series of grey, stony hills through which the Varenne river carves a winding course as it rushes southward, seeking release into the sea. The flatlands surrounding these hills are broad and sparsely populated, taken up with the business of farming and dotted with the occasional small village or hamlet. Fields play host to herds of dairy cows and sheep cropping the rich grasses and herbs which thrive in this showery part of the world. It’s lambing season. Dim, tangled silhouettes of apple orchards, now long-neglected, occasionally show themselves. The chill of winter still permeates the air and the ashen sky filters a grainy tone onto the landscape. Perched atop one of the rocky promontories, commanding the scene, is Domfront.

We had been wanting to visit Domfront for some time. A few photos of castle ruins was all I needed to entice me. And we needed a break from our daily occupation of house renovation. So, it was with relief and anticipation that we downed tools, cleaned ourselves up, donned clothing suitable for mixing with the non-renovating public and tootled off through the countryside toward Normandie.


Domfront, we discovered, has a rich history. As a settlement, it goes back to the 7th century. But it properly takes off in the beginning of 11th century when a sizable wooden fort was established on top of a rocky hill with a commanding view of the surrounding territory. Later in the 1090’s, Henri, the fourth son of England’s King William (the Conqueror), replaced this with a large stone castle. Domfront became Henri’s base in Normandie and, after a family feud of epic proportions, he became King of England and Duke of Normandy. The castle and town also played host to such royal notables as Kings Henry II (infamous for encouraging the murder of St. Thomas à Beckett) and Richard I (famously lion-hearted and absent crusader), John (notable for political ineptitude and one Magna of a Carta), and Eleanor of Aquitaine (successfully queen of France, then England, and all-around legendary influencer). It was also the center of Protestant (Huguenot) uprising in Normandie in the 16th cenury, ending in a royal siege of the town in 1574.

L’Eglise Notre Dame sur L’Eau; Approaching Domfront from the West

These days, Domfront is a small regional town, situated in the department of Orne some 70 kilometers due east of Mont Saint-Michel. The outskirts on the lower slopes of the hill are a bit run-down. Signs of a perhaps more prosperous past in tourism and industry are still evident – shuttered hotels and restaurants, and unwashed billboards now covered with a green, grainy film of algae and lichen. But the area seems to be struggling now. Then again, it was a cold, damp day in the middle of the week during the in-between months of late winter in the midst of what are, hopefully, the waning days of a global pandemic. Not really a fair time to judge any town’s prosperity.

Tower of the Porte d’Alençon

After an approach which winds up the steep hillside, we found a nicely cobbled car park where we lodged the trusty Audi. Literally steps away from the car, standing proudly sentinel over the shops at its feet, is a stone tower, all that remains of the medieval gate: Porte d’Alençon. But it doesn’t stand alone. Obscured amongst the many quaint stone building along its length are the remains of the medieval wall which once protected the town from invaders or rival nobles. Despite this, the English managed to capture Domfront twice during the Hundred Years War – once occupying it for 32 years in the 15th century. The French only retook it in 1450 after a 20-year siege!


Following the Grande Rue from the gate up the hill takes you past a tantalizing wealth of medieval houses and shops. And this continues at the summit where the narrow streets multiply into warrens of of small courtyards ringed by ancient townhouses of timber and stone. There are numerous examples in Domfront of domestic architecture from the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras. History geeks like us will be happy to see such an extensive area of streetscapes that harken back to earlier eras.


For some of you, all of that dusty history can make your throat dry. Fear not! For Cherie and I found a nice little bistro in the center of the old town called the St. Julien. This might come as a surprise to you, but they sold things to drink! Cherie is not really one for beverages. Except for black tea with milk and sugar. That’s her go-to drink. This really didn’t look like a tea kind of place, so she opted for water. For my part, I noted that they offered a locally brewed beer: an Ambrée Domfrontaise. How could I refuse? And what a good choice it was. An excellent beer. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Just for appearances, we ordered lunch as well. The bistro was filled with locals and one other table of visitors. It was nice to sit amongst regulars, all of us enjoying a satisfying and relaxed lunch – French style. A small pleasure but one we never fail to appreciate as part of our lives in France.

So Happy! My Idea of a Fun Day Out.

After lunch I couldn’t wait any longer. We made a bee-line to the castle ruins where Cherie, with her usual patience and good humor, indulged my long progress through the site of yet another once-great French castle. Château-fort Domfront was a formidable castle, standing as it did for centuries at the terminus of a steep-sided ridge line of solid rock. It lasted until the beginning of the 17th century when King Henry IV of France had it razed, apparently in order to prevent any more Huguenot upstarts from using it as a bastion of faith. [I should note here that a branch of my mother’s family, the Lefevres – but one of many alternate spellings – were Huguenots (Protestants) and had to flee France in the 17th century, leading them to take up a new life in that far-flung wild place called America. I wonder if they themselves had any connection with Domfront?] As a result, there are now only ruins to admire. But there is still much to see, particularly the standing remains of the central donjon, part of the original 11th century keep. It’s still an imposing sight and one can easily imagine the majesty and power such a tall structure must have projected throughout the entire demesne which it overlooked.


The area of the castle grounds is littered with massive chunks of masonry walls, laying about at odd angles as though giants had tossed them like dice. The clear outlines of the outer curtain wall are still quite evident, the bases of the encircling defenses remaining intact. We were fascinated to see that a comprehensive archeological investigation was underway throughout the site. There were several trenches in progress and were were able to get quite close to them. Cherie and I are both interested in archeology (Time Team fanatics to our cores!) so we were happy to watch the work being carried out for a time. The site also affords broad panoramas over the Varenne and the lands below. For these many reasons, the ruins of Domfront are well worth a visit.

Communal Courtyard – One of Several Accessed Through Narrow Passages

We ambled back through more impossibly old, narrow streets, stopped at a nice little boulangerie to pick up a local apple pastry for later, and descended the hill toward the car park via a picturesque alley lined with cute pocket gardens. Sadly, our dog Saxon can’t walk as far or as for long as he used to, so we generally leave him home now. He had a pretty bad few months last year when his cervical disc problems, his resulting neuritis in his front limbs, and his rear hips and knees were quite painful and limiting. But with a lot of specialized therapies and careful management of his activity, he has improved to the point where he is functioning well and with much less pain. As long as we don’t push him (or allow him to push himself) too far. Nevertheless, we were anxious to return home to him.

Sounds Familiar? Old Tower of the Medieval Town Wall Becomes a Home

We were happy to get out to visit yet another fascinating town with a rich and interesting history. There is much to see and appreciate in Domfront and we enjoyed sharing it together. What’s next on the itinerary? We have no idea. Mostly, we wing it. But wherever it is, we’ll be sure to report it here. France is magnificent. There is so much to do and see here. Not to mention the simple yet satisfying act of just … being here. We wish you could all experience it too. And, why not?

The Countryside Below

A Light Late Lunch in Laval

Magical Verticality: Laval’s Medieval Quarter

My love for alliteration knows no bounds. Hence, the title of this post.

Greetings from France once again. Apologies for the extended space between my posts lately. I plead mercy on two counts. Firstly, we have been rather preoccupied with our ongoing house renovations. We are so desperate to reach a point of relative normalcy with our house, that we haven’t really allowed ourselves any time to explore our surroundings.

And, second: Covid-19. Need I say more? We have seen a new surge of coronavirus in France. Accordingly, many restrictions have come into force. And rightly so, say we. Fortunately, our region of Bretagne has been, so far, less affected than other regions of France, so things are not quite as strict here as in, say, Paris or Marseille. Nevertheless, the pandemic has kept us close to home. Fougères has been our universe for the past several months.

Devastation on our Doorstep: the Old Toilet and Laundry Room

Better!

Shoveling My Mess in the Séjour

Better? Well … Getting There.

Speaking of being holed up in a half-finished house, the renovations are progressing. Some more walls have been demolished, a floor has been broken up, insulation has been blown in, lots and lots of wallboard and plaster has been put up, kilometers of electrical wire and radiator piping have been snaked, and mega-liters of paint have been splashed around – some of it even occasionally landing on a wall or ceiling. How convenient. We try to be disciplined and not rush things. But if you took a look around our séjour (living room) right now you would be able to tell that our discipline is in a precariously fragile state; we have hung paintings and placed furniture in the room, despite the fact that we still only have a subfloor down. Probably not the most pragmatic thing to do, but we desperately needed to feel at least a small sense of completion. Only one of the rooms in this house is currently not serving duty as a storage room: our master bathroom. And even that room still has work to be done on it. Oh well. I guess I can’t say we didn’t ask for it. All in all, we’re happy with the way the renovations have gone. Someday. Some day, we will have it finished and we can focus on travel a bit more.

A Rare Pickup Truck On the Streets of Belle Époque Laval

For now, our travels will have to be occasional and local. But, this being France, one never has to go far to see something extraordinary. Last weekend, we decided to visit a town in the nearby département of Mayenne (formerly the province of Maine). Laval, a mid-size town of about 49,000 people, is the capital of its département and straddles the Mayenne river running southward through its center. [see also, Mayenne in the Afternoon]. It’s just under an hour to drive from our house southeast to Laval, a picturesque jaunt through low, rolling hills with the smaller town of Ernée at midpoint in the journey. The city rises on either side of the river, a pleasing mix of townhomes, apartment buildings and businesses ranging from the 18th to late 20th century. The river itself is broad and calm as it runs under a tall rail viaduct, old bridges and a lock, lending a serene pace to the overcast Saturday afternoon of our visit.

The 13th c. Pont Vieux Spanning the Mayenne River

The Proud Tower – Château Laval

Perched halfway up the slope of the rive doite (right, western, bank) is the château. Begun in the 11th century, it was much modified over later periods, most notably in the 15th and 16th centuries. An impressive stone tower (constructed 1219-1220) stands at the southern end, its wooden hoardings on the top still in their original form. Renaissance window embrasures decorate its exterior, hinting at more to come in the courtyard.

Château Elegance

Passing through a well-restored gatehouse, one comes to an assemblage of buildings forming a courtyard of beautiful renaissance harmony. The restoration of this area is visibly a work in progress, but the decorative medieval and renaissance features are on full display. Much of the original carving has deteriorated considerably, but portions have been restored handsomely. Such a great example of french renaissance architecture elegantly integrated into its gothic predecessor. We thoroughly enjoyed seeing this one.

Just What We Like

Renaissance Goodness

Surrounding the castle is a pleasantly extensive old town, filled with medieval and renaissance houses. It’s a feast for the eyes – especially for historic architecture fanatics like us. We spent a mesmerizing couple of hours just wandering around the quaint, narrow medieval lanes basking in the magic of the atmosphere and soaking up the inspiration we always feel in such places. Photos never really do these scenes justice. At least not the ones we take. But we hope you can get a small sense of what it is like. Honestly, you just have to visit to fully appreciate how special these places are. So unique, so evocative. It’s time travel that can’t be beat.

The Château Square

A huge cobbled square lies just to the west of the château complex, framed by beautifully restored façades containing well turned out shops, bars and cafés. By now it was after lunchtime and we realized that we had not eaten for a few hours. Still, we were determined to march onward and see more of the town. So Cherie ducked into La Maison du Pain (boulangerie) and picked up some tasty bites to go while Saxon and I waited outside.

Waiting at the Maison du Pain
(Hoping for a Treat)

This is how our visits go when we bring Saxon with us. We view the sights from outside. Yes, you can often take your dog inside bars and restaurants (not boulangeries!), but our little guy still sometimes struggles to settle down when we try it. It’s not that he misbehaves. He just finds it difficult to sit or lay down at our feet. He’s far too curious for that. Also, he has a hard time finding a comfortable spot to sit or lay down in cramped areas. Those long legs come with a price. Poor guy. The situation doesn’t bother Cherie, but I confess that it makes me anxious and I myself can never get comfortable because of it. Thus, we get a lot of meals to go when we have the dog with us. To be fair, Saxon has gotten better about relaxing in restaurants as he’s matured. Maybe by the time he is 35 years old he will have perfected the art of chill. Of course, we know he won’t live that long, but we like to delude ourselves in to thinking he will. It’s the tragic curse of the dog owner, but totally worth it.

Angling for Heaven – Cathédrale de la Trinité

Fancy Font

The Chapel Down the Aisle

Food for later in hand, we continued westward to the Cathédrale de la Trinité. This church was begun in the 11th century, but it has been much altered throughout its history. In fact, they say it did not attain its current appearance until the beginning of the 20th century. I believe it. Although the cathedral is beautiful, it’s disparate elements never quite seem to blend harmoniously. Despite not being high on the list of churches we have visited, it’s still very interesting and well worth seeing. We both found the exterior to be a pleasing sight, its many gables and discordant rooflines offering an ever-interesting skyline to the viewer.

Porte Beucheresse

Just across from the cathedral are the remains of the town’s western gate, Porte Beucheresse. It’s a beautiful but lonely gate, having long ago lost its connection to the town walls. The two adjoined towers appear to be private residences. And they have been for quite a long time; a local artist of some repute (Rousseau – the 19th century post-impressionist naïve artist, not the philosopher) grew up in one of them. Impressive even now, they must have been very imposing when the town defenses were complete. At some point, some enterprising householder inserted a grand banque of renaissance windows in the left tower. Very posh.

Pleasant Shopping

More wandering around the center of Laval brought us to more narrow lanes and quirky buildings, then down the slope to broad boulevards tastefully lined with rows of pretty shops offering everything from luxury goods to a coiffure à la mode. The quaint and tranquille medieval lanes had rapidly given way to a bustling and energetic commercial center. This area had a good vibe, too, and we enjoyed some pleasant window shopping. In fact, we decided that, along with Rennes and Vitré, Laval will be a good place to come shop for things we can’t find in Fougères.

On Marche Ensemble!

Our stomachs started grumbling, reminding us that we had yet to fill them with something. Continuing onward, we stumbled upon a sunken plaza area with a coffee shop and lots of outdoor seating. Perfect! It was quite busy, but we managed to find an outlying table and settled in. It was not cold, exactly. But cool. Hot chocolate seemed just the thing. So we ordered a couple of cups and tucked in to the filled breads (salmon and crème fraîche) we picked up earlier. While we were waiting for the chocolate goodness to appear, a small manifestation (protest) marched into one end of the plaza and speakers with bullhorns began to lead chants and make speeches. The crowd was earnest but civil. It made me reminisce fondly about our former home of Seattle. But it is also quintessentially French. They are born agitators and will protest anything, anytime, with great verve. For some reason, it makes me happy to see. They exercise their right to disagree freely, en masse, as seriously as Americans take shopping. It’s right up there with the daily baguette and sneering at the English.

Über Chocolate

Our hot chocolate arrived in two small cups on saucers and, as always, with a small cookie on the side. Picking up my cup, I noticed that the luscious brown liquid inside didn’t move. Not a ripple. I put my small spoon in to stir and realized that the drink was thick, viscous. Cherie and I debated as to whether it was chocolate pudding or a chocolate bar, freshly melted from the microwave oven. Technically, it was liquid, although my spoon probably would have stood up in it if it had been plastic. To our surprise, the thick gloop in our cups was delicious. Velvety, smooth and creamy. But not overly rich and just the right touch of sweetness without being overpowering. In fact, it was really excellent. We settled in to happily sip our chocolate goo and munch away at our lunch while the pleasing sounds of other chatting tables and the protest filled the air. So French, and so soul-satisfying.

Oblivious to History – Shredding Before the Medieval Ramparts

We had satisfied our stomachs, so they were no longer complaining. [See? Protesting works!] A few meters away was a long stretch of medieval wall remaining from the town’s defenses so we took some time to check it out, trying to imagine how it must have looked in its heyday.

Cherie and Saxon, Masked Up and Ready to Explore

By the time we explored a bit further, the afternoon was waning and Saxon was ready for a rest. Laval has much more to offer. In particular, several romanesque churches and abbeys. But they would have to be for another day. It’s not far away from home, after all. We thoroughly enjoyed our few hours in this interesting historical town on the Mayenne. If you are ever in the area, we highly recommend a visit. You won’t be disappointed.

By the way, we enjoy reading your comments. Let us know what you think – good or bad. We can take it. Or, if you have any stories of France you would like to share, we would love to read them.

As always, take care and good health to you all.

Carousel in a Parking Lot

The Castle Down the Block

Le Château de Fougères Reflecting Upon Its Long History

We live within spitting distance of a castle. Well, okay, you would have to be an Olympic-level expectorator in order to fling a globule far enough to hit the château from our house. But it’s literally just down the street, about a three-minute walk. And we have the privilege of seeing it pretty much every single day. Given that we are so fortunate to be in such an enviable position, I thought it was high-time to dedicate a post to the spectacular medieval monument in our backyard.

The Main Bailey. La Plus Grande?

Not surprisingly, our neighborhood castle is locally known as Le Château de Fougères, usually accompanied by the subtitle: la plus grande forteresse d’Europe (the largest fortress in Europe). Now, I have to say that I’m a bit skeptical as to whether the claim to be the largest fortress in Europe is true. The walls of the castle encompass an area of two hectares. [For the people living in the three remaining countries still desperately clinging on to imperial measurements – United States, Liberia and Myanmar – this is essentially the equivalent of five acres.] The massive fortifications of Carcassonne springs to mind. But the boast might just be true. By a technicality. In carefully specifying that the Château de Fougères is the largest fortress (i.e., only the area within the walls of the castle itself), they are excluding any fortifications which include any part of a village, city or town. While Carcassonne’s town walls encompass a much larger area, the castle (fortress) itself is much smaller than Fougères. Clever, eh? A crafty bit of marketing worthy of P.T. Barnum himself.

A Castle on the Rocks

The château sits upon a rocky promontory which was almost completely encircled by the Nançon river. It’s an unusual site for a castle. Medieval fortresses were generally placed on high ground or a position which afforded broad vistas in all directions, the theory being that it was better to see and be seen for long distances. The Château de Fougères is sited in a place which has none of those characteristics. It huddles down in a cramped little river valley which is almost totally surrounded by tall hills on nearly all sides. Indeed, the upper town which it guards sits loftily on a much higher plateau overlooking its protector. One would normally expect to two positions to be reversed.

A Stopping Point Along the Ramparts

Notwithstanding its low position, the fortress presents a grand and imposing edifice on all sides. As you drive toward town from the west, crest the hill and descend into the Nançon valley, the vast walls and towers suddenly reveal themselves. Wow!” Was all we could manage to utter when we first laid eyes on it. To be honest, I think I actually said something like “Holy shit!” (Cherie managed to keep it clean – I’m definitely the potty-mouth in the family). As if it needed it, the deep grey local stone lends a somber and forbidding aspect to the structure; the ultimate in local sourcing, the stone for the castle was quarried just a few meters away in the surrounding hillsides. In fact, the largest of these quarries was still in use until the beginning of this century.

A huge postern gateway stands elevated at the highest point of the rocky promontory on the west end of the rectangular fortress, but the main entrance is situated on the eastern end, looking out on a lovely cobbled square with stone and timber-framed buildings home to souvenirs shops, bars and restaurants. Inside the first gate is an outer bailey, completely surrounded by fortified walls and towers. This leads through to another gateway and the larger, main bailey where the lord’s hall and various other buildings were located. Tragically, the once grand hall was destroyed in the early 19th century; only the foundations and a few other elements of this structure now remain. The main bailey gradually slopes upward to a small inner bailey in the east end. This is where the first defensive structure is thought to have been erected.

View from the Central Bailey, the Haute-Ville Looming in the Distance
Angles and Curves: High Atop the Castle Ramparts

There has been some form of fortified enclosure at the current site of the castle since at least the 11th century. It likely began as a timber tower or hall surrounded by a wooden palisade. In the Middle Ages it was a strategically important site, standing on the eastern marches of Bretagne as a bulwark against all-comers, usually the English or the French Crown. Fougères was one of a string of several fortresses sited all along the border between what had been an independent duchy and France. Over a period of some 700 years, the château was beseiged on numerous occasions. As far as I can tell, it was taken at least five times – once by a spanish mercenary. The last storming of the gates was done by the Chouans and Vendéans in 1793 during the counter-revolutionary struggle gripping France at the time. This castle has seen a lot of action. It’s a miracle that it still stands.

In the Time Before Covid-19

But its life wasn’t over after the 18th century. Oh no. In the 19th century the château became a private prison and, following that, housed a shoe factory. Just like our tower. The town purchased the entire site in 1892 for the current equivalent of €280,000 and restoration began over the ensuing decades. It has always been a major tourist attraction; even in the 19th century it was visited by the likes of Balzac and Victor Hugo. But now it’s more popular than ever. Particularly in the summer, the castle is heaving with visitors. We buy a season pass for a ridiculously low price (something like €17) so we can walk in whenever the mood strikes us. It’s nice and quiet in the off-season so sometimes we virtually have the place to ourselves.

Tourists Like the Show …
But the Toilet Facilities are Horrendous!

The substantial walls are strengthened by formidable towers, most of which you can tour. They have been beautifully restored and contain interesting sound and light shows illustrating the history of the castle and marches of Bretagne. One can also walk a good portion of the ramparts and the views of the surrounding town are exceptional.

The Wheels on the Mill go Round and Round

Also of note is the adjacent mill house (just inside the lovely 15th century town gate of Notre Dame) featuring four waterwheels; there has been a mill attached to the castle since the 12th century. And the beautiful 14th century Eglise St. Sulpice, just across the street from the château is well worth a visit in its own right.

Église St. Sulpice

We feel so fortunate to have such an important, impressive and beautiful castle virtually on our doorstep. So far, it never fails to cause us to gasp in awe. And I doubt it ever will. Shame on us if we should ever come to take it for granted. We love taking Saxon for a walk around the château in the quiet of the evening as the fading light heightens the mysterious ambiance of the walls and towers looming overhead. It’s a terribly overused cliché, but I can think of nothing better than to describe these walks as “magical”. I hope you all have the opportunity to experience it as we do.

Don’t Forget the Oubliette!: a Place for Prisoners in a Hole Underfoot.