Saturday. We had just returned home to La Tour Desnos after a nice meal out at a friend’s restaurant up the street. The air was clean and cool, but not cold. A lovely Spring evening. So I walked into the séjour (living room) and opened one of the doors to the little balcony which looks out over the Parc du Nançon below. As I swung open the door, I was greeted by the sound of a strong, confident female voice accompanied by a jaunty accordion. There, below me in the park, was a clutch of perhaps fifty revelers gathered in front of a pair of musicians as the glowing light of dusk was slowly giving way to the night. Traditional French music filled the air as it soared in rich waves up to the top of our tower.
What a surprise! A small, informal concert in the park, virtually at the foot of our home. And the music was, at least to my American ears, that kind of arm-swinging, head-bobbing, sing-along, smoky cafe style that is so quintessentially French. To such a degree that I felt compelled to search the crowd for Hemingway sharing a drink (or two) with Picasso and Gertrude Stein at a little bistro table while puffing away at their cigars and Gauloises. I’m almost certain they weren’t there, but it was a nice image that I had concocted in my mind’s eye.
Both the chanteuse and accordion player were top-notch, really talented. So much so that I stood there, on our little balcony, for the next hour, transfixed, swooning with pleasure at the way the music had so taken me. I listened contentedly as the tunes rolled by, clapping my appreciation along with the crowd below as each one finished. The shadows slowly crept in, darkening the scene at my feet. And our resident host of small bats began to fly about the tower, indulging in a moving feast of insects as they careened through the air. The music played on with that particularly French combination of angst and verve.
But nothing lasts forever. Except perhaps Twinkies. At length, the singer closed her last song with a crescendo and the accordionist gave a final flourish to end the evening’s entertainment. The crowd of cheerful listeners began to disperse. And I, with bittersweet reluctance, watched them all go into the night. The park was once again quiet, apart from the excited but hushed voices of a few stragglers who, like me, were unwilling to let go of the musical high. But they were soon gone as well. Eventually, I left the balcony and closed the door, content to have such a special memory of life in France. How lucky I felt to be living here where such magical serendipity seems to happen with such astonishing regularity. My hope for you, dear reader, is that you, too, may someday chance upon your own special memory of a magical moment in France. I promise you that it’s not difficult. You just need to be here.
Until next time, here’s a little taste of the evening:
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.
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.