“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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.