“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?
Things have been happening on the Tour Desnos Project. Some good. Some not so much. But, good, bad or sideways, enough has occurred that we thought an update was in order. I’ll try to be brief, but I’m self-aware enough to realize that brevity is not an attribute I possess in great abundance. I fear, dear reader, that you are all too conscious of this fact as well. Still, here goes …
The house in Fougères was fairly quiet in December. Not a lot gets done in France at this time of year, particularly in the construction trades. Still James, our loyal and determined general builder chap, was able to complete the floor in our new kitchen. It turned out just as we had hoped.
The kitchen fitters finally showed up in the last days of December and installed our cabinets. Well, almost. It turns out that the kitchen company forgot to include our combination microwave/convection oven, as well as a couple of glass panels which fit into the sides of our drawers. Proving that bad news comes in threes, the company also sent the wrong cornice mouldings for the tops of our two tall cabinets which stand at either end. A little frustrating, but we were so elated to have finally achieved the kitchen installation overall, it hasn’t damped our enthusiasm.
Astonishingly, the fitters for the countertops duly appeared, as scheduled, a couple of weeks later and completed the installation. The countertops are ceramic. So, while they appear much thinner than normal counter materials, they’re really durable, won’t stain, and can withstand high heat — no need for trivets or hot pads to protect these surfaces from searing pots and pans.
We love to cook and we love eating even more. Cherie is the true chef de cuisine in our family and I happily serve under her as the sous-chef. So we can’t wait to finally have the kitchen we wanted in which to spread our culinary wings. Of course, the kitchen isn’t finished yet: the doorway to the pantry must be framed in; the range hood (la hotte) must be extended to the ceiling and painted; and we have to get an electrician in to install a new fuse box dedicated to the oven. And, importantly for me, I have been tasked by the chef de cuisine with building a work table which will stand in the center of the kitchen. [In addition to being the sous-chef, I am also the menuisier/ébéniste (carpenter/cabinetmaker) in the relationship.] But more on that much later, as this piece of furniture will have to wait until I have a finished workshop where I can build it. All in all, though, the kitchen works have been real progress that we can see. Something to cling on to as we wait for other parts of the house to transform.
Two steps forward, one giant leap back. On the off-chance that I have lulled you into the false impression that we are finally over the hump, I offer this little nugget of harsh reality: our project manager quit. Or, to be more accurate, he has decided to retire due to health reasons — in the middle of our project. He dropped the bomb on us by email. Needless to say, we were stunned, hurt, angry, and feeling bereft all at once. That was on a Friday. I think we reached peak-anxiety on Saturday. In an earlier post I had alluded to our ship of state being in the doldrums. With this most recent development it felt as though we had lost our ship’s sails and were now adrift without hope in a dead-calm.
After the initial panic, we were able to look at the situation a little more clearly. We finally decided that, in the final assessment, the withdrawal of our project manager was a net-positive. Why? We were never very satisfied with the way things were being managed. Progress on our house renovation had been very slow and many of the roadblocks felt to us as though they were entirely avoidable. So, on balance, we think that we will be better off simply managing the renovations ourselves. As with most things in our family, Cherie will be in charge; mine will be a support role where, for the most part, I simply try not to get in the way and keep my crazy ideas to myself. For the time being, we’ll see how this strategy plays out.
Now, I had honestly hoped for brevity, but it’s become apparent that I have failed in that ambition. “All ye who enter this blog expecting a quick read, abandon all hope!” But stay with me anyway. There’s more to tell.
So, in spite of the setback with our project manager, we’ve managed to move forward on a couple of things. James moved on to working on the new bathroom that will serve as an en suite for the guest bedroom and more generally as the bathroom for the main floor. So far, a doorway to the bedroom has been knocked through, the old wall where the second door will be has been taken out, the old floor has been jackhammered out, a couple of trenches for utilities carved out, the space has been framed (mostly). Nearly an entire day was dedicated to boring a 100mm hole through the exterior wall for an air extractor fan. The wall turned out to be around 1.8 meters thick, entirely of stone with rubble infill!
We also wrangled in a couple of british friends to help us with some odd jobs. Some of these tasks I would normally take on myself, but all of our tools are in storage. Adam and Katie are a great couple who are really handy; they have a lot of experience renovating old houses and classic boats in England and France. So far, they have been busy reducing and capping off old radiator supply pipes, finishing our range hood, and taking large loads of rubble and other junk to the dump. Currently they are tearing out the big old fireplace which dominates the séjour. Cherie’s sister Kasi is right: “Damn, that fireplace is ugly!” We can always count on her to say it like it is.
Cherie and I continue to nibble around the edges of the project. We’ve finished painting the guest bedroom (except the door), bought and painted a ceiling rose from which the chandelier will hang, and picked up a couple of vintage pieces of furniture (wardrobe and two bedside tables) that we think will work well for this space. We also accomplished a partial move of our things in storage — just the bare essentials that will enable us to live at the house while construction continues. The aim is to move in as soon as our kitchen and bathroom are functional. As James says: “All you need is input and output.” Construction guys. You gotta love ‘em. I prefer to think that there is just a little bit more to life (love, art, music, etc.) but you can’t deny the essential truth of his philosophy.
That’s the state of play so far. La Tour Desnos is beautiful, and promises to be even more so once we’ve finished the renovations. But it’s also been a towering frustration thus far. We hope that we have turned a corner and can now expect greater progress. So far, so good on that score. Will we be able to move in by the end of February? We hope so. As always, stay tuned.
It was time for yet another random outing. The weather was fine. Not too hot (we’re from Seattle, remember), and we had not been out to sightsee for a couple of weeks. Determined not to neglect any of our fortunate time here in France, we decided that we needed to get out and see something new. So, late Saturday night I leafed through one of our guidebooks and found a few interesting spots located to the east of us. Not far. Perfect for a short day-trip. Having settled on two sites, we set off on Sunday morning. And, yes, technically, it was still morning (11:30). Just. Unless we’re compelled by some unreasonably early appointment, 11:30 is about as soon as Cherie and I are likely to step out of the door. It’s a well-established family policy.
First on the agenda was the small town of Langon. This community sits on one side of a valley through which runs the Villaine river. The town is also fortunate to have a rail station on the line which runs from Redon to Rennes, giving it connections to Nantes in the south and Lorient to the west. After a nice 45-minute drive through undulating countryside and pleasant little villes, we arrived, winding gently down through pretty stone buildings into the center of town. The sun was shining through a tattered carpet of pillowy clouds, the temperature was just perfect for a t-shirt, jeans and cardigan – and it was quiet. Like, really quiet.
Sundays are quite lazy days in France unless you find yourself in a larger city. Very few (if any) shops are open and, if they are, only for a couple of hours in the morning. Usually one can find a café, bar or restaurant open during the lunch hours (12pm – 2pm). And boulangeries are generally open throughout the main hours of the day. Given our accustomed late starts, we nearly always end up at a boulangerie, grasping for the last sandwiches or quiches remaining in their glass cases. But, this being France, they almost without exception prove to be excellent fare. Even if the sandwiches or quiches aren’t so great, we never leave a boulangerie without patisserie (also family policy – the first item on the list, as a matter of fact); so, a mediocre meal will always be made infinitely better by finishing off with a lovely fruit tart or at least a pain au chocolat! It’s pretty hard to lose under such circumstances.
Apart from a couple of other visitors and some locals in the lone café to be open that day, we had the town to ourselves. Our aim was to see the Chapelle Sainte-Agathe. This chapel is one of the few surviving examples of Gallo-Roman architecture in Bretagne. It it thought to have begun life in the 4th century as either a mortuary vault or as a bath. At some point it became a temple for venerating Venus and then transitioned into a Christian church. The history seems rather unsettled, but regardless of that, this little building is a rare survivor in this part of France. Over 1,600 years old. Amazing!
But, O Fortuna! The chapel was closed. Not entirely surprising. But disappointing nonetheless. The interior is supposed to contain a fresco of Venus rising from the waves and Eros astride a dolphin. Racy. It would have been great to see the inside, but that’s the chance you take when you make spontaneous sight-seeing trips on a Sunday. It’s not far from Malestroit so we will have to make a return trip to view the interior of this lovely little chapel.
An unexpected bonus of our visit to Langon was the town’s parish church: Église St. Pierre. The church is literally steps away from the chapel and we were delighted to see a marvelous display of twelve bell-turrets arranged around the tower, each one keenly pointed and individually shod in slate tiles. It was plain to see that this church has been entirely restored – inside and out – within the past couple of years. And a fine job was done. Very impressive work. We were especially taken with the interior. The lime-render of every wall surface had been completely renewed and sensitively redecorated in a period fashion which evokes its original state when first constructed between the 11th and 12th centuries. It is magnificent. Just the kind of restoration we like to see.
We had the entire church to ourselves, allowing us to appreciate undisturbed the harmony of the architecture and its decoration. The peace of our visit was only broken once, momentarily, when one of the church bells suddenly (and loudly) struck the hour somewhere directly above. At the time, I was having one of those sublime out-of-body moments that I experience whenever I am confronted by a beautiful medieval building. The bell shocked me so much I nearly let fly with a pithy selection of invective from my vast vocabulary of swear words and curses. Luckily, I managed to swallow my frothy utterance before committing an outrageous (though witty) sacrilege. I’m not in the least bit religious, but I have a great respect and admiration for these buildings, as well as for the people who maintain them and the congregations who keep them alive. The last thing I want to do is dishonor a place so precious to them. This time I had had a narrow escape!
Admiring chapels and churches is hungry work. It was also mid-afternoon. Cherie spotted a boulangerie just up the street from the church so she just managed to squeak through their open door before they closed while I minded Saxon. Distraught, as he always is, to be separated by more than three feet from the love of his life, Cherie, the dog and I fidgeted outside while she grabbed lunch. Out of sandwiches, the boulangère sold her a couple of individual quiches, a strawberry tart (for Cherie) and a pear tart (my favorite). We quickly munched them in the car in a very un-french manner, and then set off for our second destination: Grand-Fougeray.
Crossing the Villaine river and continuing further eastward for 15 minutes brought us to Grand-Fougeray. It’s a small-ish town of around 2,500 souls with a lovely square. Even though the end of lunchtime was fast approaching the restaurants terraces were still lively with diners enjoying their meals en plein air on this relaxed summer’s day. It made for a nice atmosphere amidst the backdrop of well-maintained 18th and 19th century facades and riots of flowers blooming in the numerous planters dotted around the square. So typically French. These scenes, so common in France, make us smile every time.
But our goal in this area lay instead on the edge of town. So, this time, at least, we didn’t tarry in the centre-ville and made straight for La Tour du Guesclin. This tower, or donjon, is the only substantial remnant of a castle that had once guarded not only the town of Grand-Fougeray, but also the border of Bretagne which, for most of the Middle Ages, was an autonomous duchy, independent of the kingdom of France. Such vigilance was necessary. For several french kings had made military forays against Bretagne. The only land approach being from the east, several large fortresses were constructed on Bretagne’s borders to guard against recurring french invasions. The castle at Grand-Fougeray was one of these (our new home to the north, Fougères, was another of these guardians of the marches). This string of defenses served as a bulwark to help maintain the duchy’s independence for centuries.
Our guide-book merely includes a brief mention of the Tour du Guesclin. No photos. From the description, we expected a stumpy ruin poking out of the grass, just recognizable as having once been a tower. But as we drove into the casually-marked parking lot, we were stunned to be confronted by an intact monumental stone tower 34 meters high and 13 meters wide. Wow! Although once part of a walled castle, the tower now stands alone, the last sentinel still keeping watch over this part of Bretagne’s ancient border. A beautiful and serene park and arboretum has grown up around the tower, resulting in a very pleasant setting. The tower’s neighbor next door is an eighteenth-century château-cum-convent and on this day several of the nuns had ventured out between their daily services to enjoy the park and take a jovial turn up the spiral staircase of the edifice which overlooks their garden walls.
The fortress of Grand-Fougeray was begun in 1189. In 1350 it was captured by an english pirate (seriously) and occupied by the english for four years until Betrand du Guesclin, constable of France, recaptured it. The tower has borne his name ever since. When we first arrived, the tower appeared to be closed. It looked like, if were to get a look inside, we would ourselves have to lay siege to it. But we forgot to bring our battering ram. So, after a first look around the exterior, we took a stroll through the arboretum, Saxon having great fun sniffing around and watching the many ducks in the ponds with his ever-present fascination for such things. When we returned, the door of the tower was wide open and people were casually entering. Not a battering ram in sight. What luck! It must have been closed for lunchtime. Opening (and closing) times in France are highly unpredictable, changeable and often seemingly random. Sometimes you get lucky. We were quite happy to find that this was one of those times.
Sensibly, the French tend to take a dim view of allowing a large black standard poodle who is lavishly uninhibited in demonstrating his love of meeting new people to wander around inside national historic monuments. So, I entered the tower first to have a look around while Cherie waited outside with our celebrity dog. Ostensibly, the tower was open for an art exhibition. A number of local artists had their works plastered all over the interior spaces of the tower. Although the “art” was a bit distracting, it was still possible to see the beautiful architecture it was concealing.
Clearly, this was once a lavish building. Still visible are the numerous carved moldings, capitals, plinths, lintels, architraves and other decorative features. It was easy to imagine the now-bare stone walls once covered with lime plaster and brightly painted with patterns, figures and/or solid panels of color, some hung with tapestries or painted cloths. Even though it is now a bit stark, it is easy to feel how comfortable and luxurious the rooms of this tower must have once been. Each floor, joined by a projecting spiral stairway, features a large central space from which smaller peripheral chambers radiate around the exterior. The floors were laid in red or buff-colored terra-cotta tiles adding a further sense of solidity to the spaces (as if it needed it). I lingered as long as I dared. After a last look, I reluctantly exited so that Cherie could take her turn. She found it no less impressive than I did. All in all, we both felt that this was a real gem and one of the better medieval buildings we have visited.
Our visits to Lougan and Grand-Fougeray were further proof of our theory that, more often than not, it is the unexpected things which turn out to be the most rewarding travel experiences. It is the surprise discovery or the unforeseen event which gives us the most pleasure, the most long-lasting memories.
Serendipity. We swear by it. And it almost never lets us down. We hope that it works in your favor as well.