The day began with rain. Then wind. Then drizzle. Then more rain. But we had a plan, and we were going to stick to it. As it happened, two-thirds of us didn’t actually crawl out of bed that morning until eleven o’clock. Or so. I guess I hadn’t realized that that was part of the plan. But that’s often how our plans go. So I should have known better. Nevertheless, we managed to get out of the door and on the road by half past noon.
The plan? Oh yes, the plan. We had decided to track down a small moated castle in Normandie. The current Château-fort de Pirou has its origins in the 12th century, but it replaced an 11th century wooden fort which itself was built upon a former viking encampment. So goes the story, anyway. The site sits in a flat, marshy part of the Cotentin peninsula, just a couple of kilometers from the broad, sandy beaches of the seaside town of Pirou and some 18 kilometers northwest of Coutances. For us this was about a one hour and thirty minute drive through pleasant countryside, filled with cows (lots of cows), horses and the occasional human.
After turning west off the A84 autoroute at Villedieu-les-Poêles-Ruffigny, we began to notice that several of the roads were paved with a red surface. It seemed to be a fairly common material in this part of Normandie. Strange. At first, I assumed that this must be the dominent color of the local stone which they use to pave the roads. But none of the structures in the area displayed any red-hued stone; all of them were built in the same gray, black and honey colored stone as we see in Fougères. So, what is the reason? I still don’t know. If any of you know why these Norman roads are red, send us a comment. For now, it will have to remain a mystery.
Honestly, the tracking down part of our plan was quite simple. Ten seconds on a mapping app did the trick. Sometimes I miss the romance and challenge of spotting a destination on a large, detailed paper map. It’s so much more fun. And exciting when you manage to locate your target and plan your own route of travel to it. But Google was to be our guide on this day, though I often wonder if the route which it (he, she, they?) gives us is really the most direct. After it has directed us down the third goat track, through a farm yard, and over a dodgy narrow bridge, it begins to feel like the artificial intelligence is just messing with us. I suppose robots have to enjoy their work too.
This outing was extra special because we got to share it with Cherie’s niece, Jessica. She came from the U.S. to visit us for a few weeks. We love having her around. Plus, she is a very fine knitter and she kindly knitted a cardigan for Cherie and a hat for me. So, win/win, I say. Anyway, we have been wandering all over the place, eating and sightseeing our way across eastern Bretagne and southern Normandie. It’s been a great time.
Eventually, the sun came out and we fetched up to the castle. A series of humble fortified gateways leads the visitor (or invader) into an outer courtyard. This grassy area is lined with large, mature plane trees through which the dappled sunlight shone pleasantly on this day. The gateways are not grand, but handsome and cozy, and appropriate to the scale of the castle itself. We found them to be very charming and powerfully evocative of what a perilous environment it must have been for the lords of this land – not to mention for the countless others who lived outside these walls.
The outer courtyard contains a number of outbuildings, including a bakehouse, a cider house, a chapel, a courthouse and farm buildings. You can visit all of them. Of note is the chapel (rebuilt in the 1640’s) which has been fully restored. It contains several nice religious sculptures ranging from the 14th to the 19th centuries, a baroque painted alter table, and pleasant leaded glass windows with decorated panes.
Pirou is also the proud owner of a 58 meter long linen cloth embroidered in the style of the famous Bayeux Tapestry. [Yes, technically, this is an embroidery, NOT a tapestry.] This one depicts the history of the Normans. It was wonderfully created by a local woman (Thérèse Ozenne) in the 1970’s. In fact, it took her sixteen years. Yet it remains unfinished. It’s a remarkable feat and the entire tapestry is nicely displayed, wrapping around the walls and center of the Salle des Plaids (courthouse).
The primary enclosure, the castle itself, is entirely encircled by a water moat. When we visited, the surface of the water was a bright, almost fluorescent green from the algae, mirroring the color of the foliage above. Very pretty. A 17th century stone bridge replaced the earlier drawbridge, leading through a narrow covered gateway into the small castle courtyard. The courtyard is fully enclosed by buildings and wall. Many of the older portions of the castle are accessible, having undergone a considerable amount of restoration to their medieval origins. The way through also leads visitors to the wall walk above where one can appreciate the views not only of the château grounds, but of the surrounding countryside as well.
Our visit to Pirou was a completion of a tour, of sorts. You might recall our earlier post regarding Lucerne Abbey [Monastic Intentions: Abbaye de Sainte-Trinité de la Lucerne d’Outremer]. That and Château de Pirou were the two properties purchased and set upon a path to restoration by Abbot Marcel Lelégard. This priest fell in love with these properties and endeavored to save them from almost certain ruin. Both were, in fact, already largely in ruins when he purchased the abbey in 1959 and the castle in 1966. Abbot Lelégard organized volunteers to begin the clearing and reconstruction of these historic properties, eventually establishing a formal foundation for continued administration and ongoing conservation/restoration. My hero!
For castle enthusiasts, I couldn’t recommend Pirou more. It’s one of the best little medieval castles I’ve ever visited. Quirky, characterful, and quite old, there is an atmosphere of mellow history about the place which we found to be very entrancing. It’s a place which sits apart from the modern world in the best manner possible, creating – or perhaps, maintaining – a unique historical microclimate. One that should be preserved forever, in my opinion. It’s thanks to the hard work and determination of many dedicated people that Pirou remains. We felt privileged and very fortunate to have experienced it for ourselves.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The thing with old houses is, well, they’re old. Which is to say that they are in a perpetual state of falling apart. Our centuries-old tour is no exception to this rule. Add to this our ongoing mania for renovation and you end up with a fairly steady slate of housework. So, we’ve been busy over the winter: small jobs, big jobs, and everything in between. Here’s an update on all things La Tour Desnos – winter edition!
We get a fair amount of rain in Bretagne. And all of that water has to go somewhere. At times, it feels like all of that precipitation is channeled through our property. You may recall that last summer we had some work done on our sun terrace: closing off a stairway opening at the top; removal of raised planters along the periphery; and laying down a new coat of sealant; along with placement of some added steel structural supports in the ateliers underneath. We were hoping that this would make for nice and dry workshop spaces below. As you can see in the photo above, it did not go entirely to plan. Yes, the workshops are drier now, but we still have water ingress problems. I may have to wait a while longer before I start moving my workshop stuff out of the chapel and into the ateliers. No further progress yet, but we’re working on a Plan B. Or is it C? We’ll get back to you on this one.
One big-ish job we took on this winter was another push for progress in the office. This space was used by the former owners as a utility and storage room. And there was a small toilet room at the end. Last year we tore everything out, our contractor friends replastered the walls and ceiling, and our electrician put in new lighting, outlets and switches. I then built and installed a new office cabinet in one corner. Even with all of that, we still had the floor to deal with. It was, umnnn … not to our taste.
So, Cherie patiently waited for months while I screwed up the courage to tackle this beast. I finally realized that my courage was taking an extended vacation somewhere so I just went ahead and did it anyway. Trusty hammer-drill in hand (seriously, this had become my most useful power tool), I chiseled away at the concrete-set tiles while Cherie hauled bucketsful of rubble to the déchèterie (garbage dump). It made a godawful mess, but we finally got it all cleared out. We hired our builder buddies to lay down a level of screed because it was frankly much simpler to just have them do it.
All of the preparation completed, Cherie and I fitted and laid stone pavers (dallage), then finished the joints. I’d say it was easy – but it never seems to be. At least for us, anyway. Still, we’re happy with the result and it resulted in a big leap forward for this room. It also allowed us to start using the space for its intended purpose. After four years, Cherie finally had an office again. With a desk and everything! We may be slow, but we’re … just, slow. It’s a good thing we retired early.
We finally got back to that stone wall which I had begun to pick away at a couple of years ago. You know, the one in the buanderie (utility room/passage). It used to be the south half of an old kitchen before we partitioned off a portion in order to create a guest bathroom. Now, it’s not so much a room as it is a wide-ish passage through to the rampart terrace. Anyway, there was one stone wall in this area that had remained exposed. Except that it was covered in patches of plaster and several different coats of paint. Red paint. Ugh! I had earlier been able to remove most of the offending paint and plaster, but then got distracted by other projects. Cherie, patient as ever, quietly waited, although I’m quite sure she was dying a little inside every time she walked by this ugly, half-finished mess.
This would not do. After sighing and shaking my head a lot in despair, I reluctantly returned to my nemesis. Removing the remains of the paint and plaster, I then cleaned out the joints. We’d never done any repointing before. It was a bit daunting. But YouTube is my master. Several videos later, we went at it, methodically replacing the old cement pointing (bad, very bad) with the correct lime mortar. For those one or two of you who haven’t watched a lot of YouTube advice from experts on historic masonry, lime mortar was the traditional material of choice until Portland cement became readily available in the later 19th century and thereafter. But, whereas cement is much too impermeable, too hard and too inflexible for most traditional wall materials, lime mortar is softer, more flexible. And the lime allows the wall to “breathe”. Which is to say, it allows the stone to move and for water vapor which naturally collects in the stone to escape.
Cherie and I pointed away, listening to audiobooks of M.C. Beaton’s series of Agatha Raisin murder mysteries as we worked. We found a nice rhythm: I mixed buckets of mortar while she prepared things for a later lunch break; then we both worked away on the wall for a few hours; and finished for lunch. By then it would be time for Saxon’s 4 o’clock walk (he’s very insistent and punctual, you know). Cherie would take the dog out while I returned to the wall to finish off the now leather-hard joints with brushes. And so we went for a few days until we finally finished our very first repointing project. We’re quite proud of it, actually. And it’s really helped to bring space up a few notches. There is, obviously, more work to do in this area, but we cleared yet another major hurdle and feel pretty good about it. At some point, I will have to install a bench and some paneling. But that’s for another day. Or year. You can’t rush these things.
Let’s see. Oh, yes. In our little garage there is a large square recess [That’s a generous description; it’s really more of a hole, if I’m honest.] in the floor where the old oil tank filler cap and our main water shut-off valve are located. Don’t ask me why those two things are adjacent to each other. I have no idea. French building standards in the past were, well, more of a shoulder-shrug kind of thing than actual rules to be enforced. I’m happy to say that it’s much more strict and regulated now. At any rate, when we bought the house, this square aperture in the floor was covered by a very loosely connected collection of rotting boards that could be kindly described as a hatch cover. If you were less kindly-inclined, you might have called it a menace, an accident waiting to happen, a filthy mess – pick your poison.
After repeated forays through this mess of oil-soaked, rotting boards, I finally had had enough and decided to make a new one. We have the old oak floorboards that came out of the old bedroom which is now our kitchen. I scrounged and cleaned a few of these pieces to make a new cover with some handles I had hanging around to make it easier to lift off. It worked a treat. Now we can walk on top of it without fear of falling through into the hole. Life’s exciting enough as it is. As projects go, it was a small one. But it’s just one of those little quality-of-life things which is nice to cross off the ginormous list haunting my dreams.
Speaking of oil tanks, we found that we were able to make a change to our noisy, dirty, costly and all-around despised heating system. Neither we nor our suffering planet could take it any longer. So Cherie braved a bewildering web of French energy companies and government regulators to secure the installation of an air source heat pump heating system for our hot water and heating. First, we had our chaufferie (mechanical room) reduced and reconfigured by our go-to contractor guys, with a new slate roof over it and a gutter for good measure. Next, the old oil-fired boiler was taken out. And then our new heat pump was installed and hooked up to our existing piping system. The heat pump only took three days to install and it works quite nicely. We feel much better about it from an environmental point of view – even though a good portion of the electricity it uses is likely generated by nuclear energy. France has always been rather keen on nuclear power plants for generating the country’s electricity needs. We, however, are not. Nevertheless, the electricity route is much cleaner than oil and the system much more efficient, so we feel like we’ve made a positive stride toward reducing our carbon footprint.
The past months also found me addressing the gaping space left between our new stairs and the wall of the stairwell. I had long promised Cherie a paneled wall of cabinets to close off this gap. It was time to face the music, although I had come to feel that the project was beyond my skills. Despite my considerable misgivings, I began to work. It was a struggle. Truly, I had no idea what I was doing. But, in the end, I managed to work it out. Now we have some additional and much needed storage space, and the staircase feels more complete. Most importantly, Cherie is happy.
From the big to the little projects. We had some stone dallage left over from the floor of the office. So, I made a thing. Three things, to be exact. Coasters. Some of the stone scraps were just big enough for some coasters, so I cut them into squares with the cutting wheel and then refined the final shapes and details with files. A few rubber dot pads on the bottoms and, voila! This was one of the more enjoyable projects I’ve done. And useful too. Stone makes for practical and handsome coasters.
Work in the jardin continues. Bit by bit. It’s still crude and entirely underwhelming. But I’ve managed to beat back the majority of jungle vegetation and establish a semblance of order. If I squint, I can convince myself that it’s an actual garden. Still, there are stacks of stones everywhere and piles of cuttings which still need to pass through the chipper. Essentially, I’m only trying to keep the jardin area reasonably civilized until such time as we are able to execute a new design for the area. Someday, we hope to create a parterre garden in the French style. But that will be a large undertaking in terms of both labor and money. It’s a few years away, I’m afraid. But something we definitely want to accomplish. For now, I keep the weeds down, try to maintain a basic shape to what we inherited from the previous owners, and prepare it for the work which we hope to do in the future.
Finally, we had an unplanned repair. One evening, Cherie and I were sitting on the couch in the séjour and I suddenly felt something wet on my forehead. It was water. I looked up to see that another drip was accumulating on the beam in the ceiling above me. In a panic, a dozen scenarios flashed through my mind – all of them disturbingly disastrous and in brilliant ultra-high definition. After quickly moving the couch and placing a bucket underneath the drips, we raced about the house, checking all of the usual suspects (radiators, water lines, toilets, etc.) but everything looked solid. After that we realized that it was raining outside, and the wind was driving quite hard from an unusual direction. We decided that it had to be a leak in the roof. And so it was. Right along our chimney. The render had weakened and failed in several places. Not suddenly, but over time. However, the unusual wind direction had forced the rain into these areas, allowing the water to run down into the ceiling – and onto my head.
Always on the lookout for services which we feel might come in handy at some point in the future, we had a year earlier taken a photo of a van which advertised their specialty in building repairs of areas which are particularly difficult to access. That’s us, we thought. That area of our roof is precipitously high. Quite beyond ladder access. And scaffolding up to that height would cost a fortune. The company we called came out and assessed the situation, using a drone which they used to view all around the chimney and roof. They agreed to tackle the job (unfortunately, not for free) and a crew of three men secured with climbing gear worked away at the repair for three days. They went about their work calmly and with a casual indifference to the circumstance I found amazing, suspended as they were at a death-defying distance above the ground. Then again, I am terrified of heights, so perhaps I’m not the best judge. They finished the job without any fuss and the repair has been successful. No more drips!
And now you’re up to date. We’ve accomplished a lot. But we have so much more to do. The list is almost infinitely long. There are days when I wake up, ready for action, but quickly become paralyzed by the sheer number of tasks that need doing. Cherie is much more methodical and she is undaunted by any job. But I am powered primarily by inspiration and I’m easily distracted. Like a young golden retriever. As you can see, I eventually summon the nerve to tackle these projects. At this point the significant interior jobs on the main floors are nearly at an end. The waves of dust, dirt and rubble inside the house are finally beginning to diminish. Thank goodness!