Sweet Sainte-Suzanne


Late spring is lovely in Bretagne. June has seen our little jardin leap into exuberant life. The bushes have been humming with several varieties of bees (bumble and honey) as well as hover flies and lots of songbirds. Martins are screaming overhead in daredevil acrobatics; we never cease to wonder at their flying skills. And the flowers are ornamenting the landscape, subtly perfuming the cool mornings with their calming scents, painting in broad strokes of reds, whites, yellows, purples and oranges. The sun is putting in extra hours now, rising early in the mornings and glowing long into the evenings when the long shadows trail away from the many trees that ring our tower. It’s my favorite time of year.


Puttering around in the jardin is my way of doing work around the house that I enjoy, while simultaneously avoiding the more pressing work that I should actually be doing instead. It’s easy to get sidetracked down there. Especially in the spring when it’s so lovely and there is so much to do. Today, I was surprised to find that the red current bush we inherited had produced quite a good crop of berries. Long strings of red pearls hung like Christmas ornaments within the green leafy covering which hides them from view. I picked them all and collected them in the straw hat I was wearing. Later on, I made a cake with them and it was delicious. But more than that, it was satisfying. For we had grown them ourselves. It’s a minor achievement, we know. But we find more and more that it’s the little things which give us so much joy. I would bet that it’s much the same for you.

Saxon Enjoying the Spring Weather in Fougères

As is often the case, the house projects were getting to be a bit of a chore. And we said to each other, “Hey, we live in France. There’s some pretty nice things to see here. Why don’t we go see some more of it?” Congratulating ourselves on some first-class reasoning, we hopped into the car (freshly topped up with electricity) and headed east over the border into the wilds of Mayenne.

So Beautiful! (The Town’s Not Bad Either). Cherie Exploring Sainte-Suzanne

This time, our target was the town of Sainte-Suzanne. About 60 kilometers west of Le Mans and 40 kilometers east of Laval, Sainte-Suzanne is in the region of Pays de la Loire. By car the trip takes around an hour and 20 minutes of pleasant driving. It’s another one of those many fortified hill-towns born in times long ago when living on a more easily defensible high point allowing you to see your enemies coming from miles away was an idea well worth considering. The small but energetic river Erve courses around the western side of the rise, through a steep-sided and green-wooded cleft in the rocky terrain where it once powered several mills.


This is a place of ancient history, going back to at least the pre-roman period. There is a small part of the town’s rampart walls which is thought to be of celtic origin. But the greater bits of visible architecture in Sainte-Suzanne range from the 11th through the 19th centuries. It’s a lovely little town, rightfully earning its place amongst the ranks of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. It’s a compact place. The cobbled streets wind through handsome and well-kept stone buildings. A few nice shops line the central area and a lovely square. Several cafés and bistros offer a satisfying selection of food and drink, all of them with pleasant outdoor seating. Sainte-Suzanne welcomes a fair amount of tourists, but it’s, thankfully, not touristy. You won’t find much in the way of kitschy souvenirs there. The town is clearly aware that it is a destination spot, but there is little in the way of overt exploitation of the fact. Instead, there is a quiet feeling of welcome and self-assurance. Nice.

Will We Ever Get Used to Such Views? Doubtful.

As soon as we parked the car, we wandered toward a chemin (a pathway) which follows the line of defensive walls encircling part of the town. Not only are the walls and houses which have been built into it over the centuries interesting to view from the outside, but walking the path also offers lovely views of the surrounding countryside laid out below. It’s quite a pretty landscape: verdant valleys and rolling hills with patchworks of grasses, wildflowers and deciduous trees through which run vigorous, sparkling streams. We found a strategically placed bench to eat some sandwiches we had brought with us and enjoyed the pastoral view.

Medlars Beginning to Take Shape in the Medieval Garden

The locals maintain a medieval garden on a terraced bit of land below the ramparts. There they cultivate an admirable number of plants: herbs (medicinal and culinary), flowers, vegetables, berries and nut and fruit trees. We were particularly impressed with the sheer variety of fruit trees which included apples, pears, apricots, cherries – they even had quince and medlar trees. I had never seen a medlar tree before, so I was especially glad to have checked out this garden. A special shout out to our friend Adam from Idaho who recommended an app (Seek) that was of tremendous help in identifying some of the more rare varieties to be found there.

The 11th Century Donjon

Integral to the town is the château. Begun in the first half of the eleventh century as a donjon (a single large square tower), it was expanded in the 12th, 13th and 15th centuries to form a stone fortified enclosure. It is now a ruin, but substantial parts of the castle remain standing. They have cleverly built a set of metal walkways and stairways within the shell of the donjon which allow visitors to climb up the several levels of the Norman-period building. Just think, this structure was here when William (Guillaume) duke of Normandy and king of England (i.e., The Conqueror) laid siege to Sainte-Suzanne. He tried for three years (1083-1086) to take the town, but never succeeded. It was the only time he had ever failed in such an endeavor. There is still a place outside of town which is called Le Camp des Anglais, recalling the memory of the site where William’s forces established their base. The château should not be missed. Particularly because entry is free!


Touristing is thirsty work! So we stopped in at a nice little épicerie which also happened to have table service right on the square. Cherie had tea and I had an excellent local beer. Yes, France is justly famed for its wine. And I take full advantage of that happy circumstance. But I must also observe that they produce some very fine beer as well. We both shared slices of rhubarb tarte. Made in-house, it was a custardy, yummy treat which we enjoyed as the weekday afternoon quietly meandered on. Probably much as it has in Sainte-Suzanne’s square for centuries on end. It was pretty great.

An Ancient Wonder of the World (I’m Only 56)

Not more than a couple of kilometers from town is a prehistoric site called Le Dolmen des Erves. Always keen to see a very old pile of rocks, we stopped by on our way out of town. This neolithic stone monument is literally plonked down in the middle of several animal pens. A narrow path between the pens of nonplussed chickens and goats leads you to a tremendous sight: huge slabs of stone laid horizontally on top of equally huge slabs sunk vertically into the ground to form a sort of covered corridor. When built, it would likely have been covered by smaller stones or earth to form a mound with an enclosed chamber inside in order to contain burials. The remains of fourteen individuals (9 adults and 5 children) have been found within. It is amazing to us how many of these prehistoric megalithic monuments are still to be found in This part of France. They are everywhere. And so impressive to see in person. Truly, the photographs do not do them justice.


Sainte-Suzanne is indeed a plus beau village. And we really enjoyed our visit there. Every time we go somewhere like this we learn so much about French history and culture. We can’t get enough of it. And there is so much to see. We’ve barely scratched the surface. Luckily for us, we’ll be living here for a very, very long time. Thanks again, dear reader, for taking time out of your busy lives and allowing us to share our lives and travels in France with you. It’s a real privilege to have you along with us. Talk to you soon!

French Farmyard Chill by the Dolmen

Prose and Persistence: Madame Sévigné and Château des Rochers

At Last We See It! – Or Did We?

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.

French Bluebells in the Spring – Our Only View in 2018

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.

Touring the Lovely Countryside – On the Road Between Fougères and Vitré

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.

Waiting to Buy Our Golden Tickets in the Former Orangery
Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné

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!

Entering the Main Tower
Gardens With the Château in the Background
Tour’s Over: Marching Back to the Handsome Orangerie

Topiaries and Tea: The Gardens of Château Ballue


Château Ballue from the Garden à la française

“Finally!”, you say. “We’re tired of talk about your house and your neighborhood. Surely there’s more to France than you’ve shown us so far.” It’s a fair critique. Frankly, we’re a bit tired of it too. It feels like we’ve been shut in for months. Oh, that’s right. We HAVE been shut in. The general purpose excuse is, of course, Covid-19. The knock-on effect of this is that I haven’t had much in the way of sightseeing material for blog posts. So, admittedly, my posts have been a bit thin on the ground. Apologies if this has been a disappointment. Or, you’re welcome, if you were enjoying a reprieve from my writing. Whatever the case may be, I’m not sure how long I can keep blaming my shortcomings on global pandemics (damn miraculous vaccines!) so I’m going to have to step up my game – one way or the other.


The Val du Couesnon

Today, we made a relatively short drive westward to Château Ballue. This was all Cherie’s idea. She’s been wanting to visit some local gardens for some time now. And today was perfect for such an outing. The weather has been miserable for the past couple of weeks, but the forecast was good and we decided to chance it.


Curbside Appeal

Thirty minutes of wheeling through pleasant countryside dotted with old farms and the occasional small village brought us to our destination: a large, lovely stone house set high on a south-facing slope overlooking the valley through which the Couesnon River flows on its way to the bay of Mont Saint-Michel. The current Château Ballue was finished in the 1620 after the owner (a tax collector) tore down the original medieval fortress in order to build his swanky new house. It has attracted the best and the brightest over the centuries. Balzac and Chateaubriand were visitors there. Victor Hugo, too, stayed at Ballue and he wrote the first lines of his novel Ninety-Three (Quatre-Vingt-Treize – yeah, don’t even get me started on French numbers) while there. And who can blame them. It’s a beautiful house in a setting. Particularly the gardens.


Arbored Entrance to the Gardens

And the gardens are what we came for. The house itself is privately owned but run as a hotel and spa. The gardens, however, are open to the public. For a fee. The ticket price is actually a bit steep – €9.50. At least we had the consolation that the money goes toward maintaining an historic, beautiful house and grounds. Worth it.

The gardens are beautiful and varied. Set over 2 hectares (5 acres), the garden is partitioned into several “rooms”. Some feature particular species. Others, themes. While yet others are more about the function of the space. So, for example, there is a lovely fern grove, a grove of scented plants, a green theater, a labyrinth, a music grove, a temple of Diana. They are all nicely done, creative and well-kept. We enjoyed a long afternoon of strolling amongst pleasant plantings and a soundscape of trickling fountains and energetic songbirds.

The largest single space at Château Ballue is the classical garden, à la française, occupying a south-facing terrace possessing a serene panorama of the fields and woodlands of the Couesnon Valley below. The classical garden is by far the most formal, structured design. And logically so, as it forms the rear space of the château, mirroring the regular, linear orders of the 17th century architecture. Quite beautiful. To be sure, this is a country manor garden. Elegant but understated. It doesn’t attempt grandeur or intricate design such as might be found at a more grand and less provincial château or palace. To my mind, that’s as it should be. The notes are hit firmly, pleasingly, but without flourish or pretense. Just as one would expect in a moderate stately home in the provinces of France.

Below the house are a couple of ponds with several breeds of ducks, geese and chickens. Nothing exceptional, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. The garden walk brings you back up to the other side of the château and back to where we started. Full circle.


Tea and Gâteau – Our Day Was Complete
View From Our Table

At this point, two things became urgent. Firstly, I had to pee. But a very close second was the need for tea and cake. Both of which were on offer at the tea room on the grounds – tea and cake, that is. Cherie selected a table under a large awning while I raced away to take care of that other urgent matter. Ballue offers a very nice tea room and we took full advantage. Cherie chose Ceylon and almond cake, while I went with trusty old Assam and pear cake. Excellent choices all around. The sun was out but the temperature was moderate as we whiled away a good hour over a laden table looking out to the front of the château and the garden set out before it. The bees were buzzing in the roses and potted herbs, and the birds were chittering away at each other as they went about their birdy business. And we two companions-for-life talked about everything and nothing while sipping tea and sharing each other’s cakes. Heaven.

A day out in the gardens at Château Ballue with tea and scrumptious cakes at the end. What’s not to love?

The All-Important Tea Room