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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
“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?