So, yes, Autumn is in full swing. Probably not the best time of the year to visit a garden. But Fall has a beauty all its own, don’t you think? It’s not necessarily measured in riotous explosions of flowering and ebullient foliage. But this season brings a certain, slightly melancholic subtlety. An evanescence, a dénouement, if you will, signaling Nature’s job well done over the Spring and Summer. I like Autumn. I like its understated quality, its more solemn light and colors, its less frenetic energy. And there is a certain grandeur to be witnessed for those who wish to see it.
It was in this spirit that Cherie, Valerie and I decided to make a visit to the Parc Botanique de Haute Bretagne. This botanical park is a mere 15 minute drive northeast of Fougères, deep in the rural countryside, set amongst low, tumbling hills checkered heavily with corn fields and cow pastures. Last year, Cherie and I had ventured out to visit this garden, but we arrived to very ominous-looking skies which were daring us to go for a walk far from shelter. So we took the coward’s way out and drove right back home. But on this day of our return the weather was beautiful and Cherie and I were ready to reclaim our pride.
We had a nice, quiet time at the park. While there were certainly other visitors, they were far and few between. So it was tranquil. We felt like guests on a friend’s estate. Not that we know anyone who actually owns an estate. [But we’re not snobbish – if there are any estate owners out there who would like to become our friends, we’re more than happy to visit you!] The 25 hectare park is beautiful and offers a great variety of areas to explore with different themes. It’s well-curated and maintained. And even though most of the flowers were spent, it is still easy to imagine the potential. We will certainly visit again in the Spring or Summer.
And finally, your reward for making it to the bottom of this post. A moment of zen …
October has come and with it a visit from Cherie’s mother. Valerie has made the long trip from the west coast of the United States to spend a few weeks with us in Fougères. And we’re so happy to have her here with us. Valerie is, of course, lovely company and we simply enjoy hanging out with here, wherever it may be. But we are also excited to show her around the amazing place we now call home. As a bonus, she actually enjoys working on home improvement projects, so she has volunteered to help us hang wallpaper in our hallway. Try not to judge her.
After an introduction to Fougères, some preliminary wrestling with papier peint (wallpaper), and maybe, just maybe, a few pastries here and there, we decided to take Valerie on a day trip north to Normandy for a few hours. First up: Avranches. A town of around 10,000 souls, Avranches is situated high on an escarpment overlooking the Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel just over the regional border that separates Bretagne from Normandy. It’s only a 30 minute drive from our house but we have never really explored the center of town. It was time to redress this oversight.
Avranches has an ancient and interesting history. The town stretches back to at least the classical period when it was a Gallo-Roman settlement in the province of Lugdunensis. Its name was originally Ingena. But after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, it began a centuries-long evolution to Avranches, derived from the celtic tribe inhabiting the area: the Abrincatui. Early on, in the 6th century, Avranches became an episcopal seat, and remained so until the Revolution. The area has seen frequent conflict – from viking raids in the 10th century, to the D-day invasion in the 20th, and everything in between.
We really enjoyed our visit to Avranches. The centre-ville is quite pretty, with beautiful and interesting architecture running the gamut of styles and periods, pleasingly landscaped borders and gardens, towering churches, and lots of active shops and restaurants. All are within easy walking distance. Parking was easy with a large lot conveniently located in the center of town.
We arrived in town around noon on a cool but sunny day and found ourselves wandering toward the ruins of the old castle. There are substantial vestiges of the medieval fortifications, including ramparts and towers. They have all been well-conserved. Although only a small part of the château now remains, the town has cleverly incorporated garden areas amongst the stone ruins. It is quite well done, with small, intimate areas where one can take an outdoor lunch or simply enjoy the pretty plantings pleasingly juxtaposed against the stone structures enfolding them at various levels. Within this complex of ruins is the Scriptorial, a museum of jarringly modern concrete box form which houses a large collection of medieval manuscripts that were formerly in the libraries of the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel. Wisely, we did not attempt a visit. For I could easily have spent the remainder of the day there, engrossed in the beauty of such magnificent works of knowledge, art, and craft. I’m at least self-aware enough to realize that not everyone shares my mania for medieval books and art. Weird, huh? Still, it’s a visit for another time.
Our stomachs grumbling, we disembarked from the castle ruins and sought out a nice little place for lunch. As luck would have it, we found one close by. In fact, you could easily hit it with a rock from the castle ramparts. Not that we tried, mind you. Val enjoyed a nice slice of quiche (smoked salmon and leek) while Cherie and I both had the fish and chips. Topped off with some tasty beer, we enjoyed a lovely meal.
Refueled, we stretched our legs with a walk through the streets of the town center, ending up at the Jardin des Plantes. This 3 hectare botanical garden was formerly a monastic park but now houses a large variety of plants and trees, as well as a not-inconsiderable population of goldfish and koi. It’s a well-designed park with several distinct areas threaded together by clear pathways and meandering streams and ponds. The most striking feature is the belvedere, a broad area with an expansive view over the low countryside to the west. In the distance is a clear view of the broad tidal bay and Mont-Saint-Michel itself. Twelve kilometers away, our poor smartphone cameras could not adequately capture the dramatic majesty of the panorama laid out before us. Suffice it to say: très cool!
Avranches was nice, but our primary goal was to visit the Abbaye de Hambye. So, off we went. After a short drive north on the autoroute, it’s a pleasant roll through the Normandy countryside of lush, rolling hills and deep dells spotted with dairy farms and the occasional hamlet. It’s really beautiful scenery there, accentuated on that day with blue sky and patchy white clouds creating dramatic lighting over the scene. Many twists and turns brought us to an ancient stone bridge spanning the Sienne river. Bordering the eastern side of the river is the precinct of the old benedictine abbey which once thrived there for centuries. The abbey is situated in a flat valley, surrounded by stony slopes blanketed by oaks. It’s an idyllic setting and, frankly, our photos simply don’t do it justice. But, hopefully, you get the general idea.
Our Lady of Hambye Abbey was founded in 1145, reaching its peak of prosperity in the 13th century and then slowly declining until the last monks left the place a few years before the Revolution. In the 19th century, the many monastic outbuildings appear to have been used for farming until the whole complex was inscribed as an historic monument and protected. It’s now partly under private ownership, the abbey church and some other parts owned by the regional council. But the whole site meshes nicely and there is plenty to see.
Even though a good deal of stone was taken (vandalized, in my opinion) from the church, and the entirety of the cloister was removed, the original plan of the monastic complex is still clear. A well-written and succinct visitor guide comes with the price of a ticket provides excellent descriptions of the major areas. But I was so transfixed with the glorious medieval religious and lay architecture that I barely glanced at the guide. It’s a tremendous example of a monastic community from the Middle Ages and several of the rooms – the chapter house, sacristy and kitchens in particular – have been nicely restored/conserved and furnished. I spent a few minutes just sitting quietly in the chapter house, soaking up the atmosphere and marveling at the medieval builders and sculptors who created such beautiful and evocative spaces. A surprisingly good deal of original lime plaster and painted decoration remains on the walls of several chambers. It’s a direct glimpse of what the monks and lay brothers must have seen in their own time, and real pleasure to see in the 21st century!
People often forget that monasteries in the Middle Ages were complex corporate enterprises that required sophisticated management or resources, finances and personnel. At Hambye, it’s easy to see how much the abbey relied upon farming and management of the waters, fields and meadows that supplied the monks with all they required. Many of the farm outbuildings are still visible. One of them includes a large cidery housing a massive crushing wheel with a circular stone trough, and a huge juice press with armatures formed from entire oak (or perhaps beech) tree trunks. Super impressive!
The abbey church is the most ruined part of the site. Much of the shell of the structure remains, but it is largely open to the elements and, sadly, the flooring is no more. Nonetheless, it’s a dramatic piece of architecture. Large, soaring, but still it must have been an intimate place of worship for the lay and monastic brothers residing at Hambye. Many of the columns are heavily inscribed with graffiti from visitors who felt the need to carve their marks over the past centuries; some of it is quite beautifully done. Despite being only a ghost of what it once was, it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to form a mind’s eye view of how this church must have appeared when in use. A stroll through the forest of columns and pilastered walls, the side chapels, the nave and ambulatory is evocative. One can easily see how visiting victorians would be inspired to compose romantic poems of nearly opaque allusions to the mists of time as they trod the silent stones.
All three of us thoroughly enjoyed our long afternoon visit to L’abbaye de Hambye. It was one of those quintessential conjunctions of fascinating history, dramatic architecture, a bucolic setting, pleasant weather, and the best of company (if we do say so ourselves). It couldn’t have been better. Well, okay, a tea shop with pastry, could conceivably have been a nice bonus. But that would have been almost too perfect – if there is such a thing. Regardless, it was a truly memorable day in only the absolute best sense of the word. A visit there is highly recommended. And, unless you’re an utterly hopeless philistine, you won’t be disappointed that you made the effort.
“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?