A History of Highnesses: Domfront

Ruins of Past Glory – the Castle of Domfront

To the northeast of Fougères stands a series of grey, stony hills through which the Varenne river carves a winding course as it rushes southward, seeking release into the sea. The flatlands surrounding these hills are broad and sparsely populated, taken up with the business of farming and dotted with the occasional small village or hamlet. Fields play host to herds of dairy cows and sheep cropping the rich grasses and herbs which thrive in this showery part of the world. It’s lambing season. Dim, tangled silhouettes of apple orchards, now long-neglected, occasionally show themselves. The chill of winter still permeates the air and the ashen sky filters a grainy tone onto the landscape. Perched atop one of the rocky promontories, commanding the scene, is Domfront.

We had been wanting to visit Domfront for some time. A few photos of castle ruins was all I needed to entice me. And we needed a break from our daily occupation of house renovation. So, it was with relief and anticipation that we downed tools, cleaned ourselves up, donned clothing suitable for mixing with the non-renovating public and tootled off through the countryside toward Normandie.

Domfront, we discovered, has a rich history. As a settlement, it goes back to the 7th century. But it properly takes off in the beginning of 11th century when a sizable wooden fort was established on top of a rocky hill with a commanding view of the surrounding territory. Later in the 1090’s, Henri, the fourth son of England’s King William (the Conqueror), replaced this with a large stone castle. Domfront became Henri’s base in Normandie and, after a family feud of epic proportions, he became King of England and Duke of Normandy. The castle and town also played host to such royal notables as Kings Henry II (infamous for encouraging the murder of St. Thomas à Beckett) and Richard I (famously lion-hearted and absent crusader), John (notable for political ineptitude and one Magna of a Carta), and Eleanor of Aquitaine (successfully queen of France, then England, and all-around legendary influencer). It was also the center of Protestant (Huguenot) uprising in Normandie in the 16th cenury, ending in a royal siege of the town in 1574.

L’Eglise Notre Dame sur L’Eau; Approaching Domfront from the West

These days, Domfront is a small regional town, situated in the department of Orne some 70 kilometers due east of Mont Saint-Michel. The outskirts on the lower slopes of the hill are a bit run-down. Signs of a perhaps more prosperous past in tourism and industry are still evident – shuttered hotels and restaurants, and unwashed billboards now covered with a green, grainy film of algae and lichen. But the area seems to be struggling now. Then again, it was a cold, damp day in the middle of the week during the in-between months of late winter in the midst of what are, hopefully, the waning days of a global pandemic. Not really a fair time to judge any town’s prosperity.

Tower of the Porte d’Alençon

After an approach which winds up the steep hillside, we found a nicely cobbled car park where we lodged the trusty Audi. Literally steps away from the car, standing proudly sentinel over the shops at its feet, is a stone tower, all that remains of the medieval gate: Porte d’Alençon. But it doesn’t stand alone. Obscured amongst the many quaint stone building along its length are the remains of the medieval wall which once protected the town from invaders or rival nobles. Despite this, the English managed to capture Domfront twice during the Hundred Years War – once occupying it for 32 years in the 15th century. The French only retook it in 1450 after a 20-year siege!

Following the Grande Rue from the gate up the hill takes you past a tantalizing wealth of medieval houses and shops. And this continues at the summit where the narrow streets multiply into warrens of of small courtyards ringed by ancient townhouses of timber and stone. There are numerous examples in Domfront of domestic architecture from the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras. History geeks like us will be happy to see such an extensive area of streetscapes that harken back to earlier eras.

For some of you, all of that dusty history can make your throat dry. Fear not! For Cherie and I found a nice little bistro in the center of the old town called the St. Julien. This might come as a surprise to you, but they sold things to drink! Cherie is not really one for beverages. Except for black tea with milk and sugar. That’s her go-to drink. This really didn’t look like a tea kind of place, so she opted for water. For my part, I noted that they offered a locally brewed beer: an Ambrée Domfrontaise. How could I refuse? And what a good choice it was. An excellent beer. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Just for appearances, we ordered lunch as well. The bistro was filled with locals and one other table of visitors. It was nice to sit amongst regulars, all of us enjoying a satisfying and relaxed lunch – French style. A small pleasure but one we never fail to appreciate as part of our lives in France.

So Happy! My Idea of a Fun Day Out.

After lunch I couldn’t wait any longer. We made a bee-line to the castle ruins where Cherie, with her usual patience and good humor, indulged my long progress through the site of yet another once-great French castle. Château-fort Domfront was a formidable castle, standing as it did for centuries at the terminus of a steep-sided ridge line of solid rock. It lasted until the beginning of the 17th century when King Henry IV of France had it razed, apparently in order to prevent any more Huguenot upstarts from using it as a bastion of faith. [I should note here that a branch of my mother’s family, the Lefevres – but one of many alternate spellings – were Huguenots (Protestants) and had to flee France in the 17th century, leading them to take up a new life in that far-flung wild place called America. I wonder if they themselves had any connection with Domfront?] As a result, there are now only ruins to admire. But there is still much to see, particularly the standing remains of the central donjon, part of the original 11th century keep. It’s still an imposing sight and one can easily imagine the majesty and power such a tall structure must have projected throughout the entire demesne which it overlooked.

The area of the castle grounds is littered with massive chunks of masonry walls, laying about at odd angles as though giants had tossed them like dice. The clear outlines of the outer curtain wall are still quite evident, the bases of the encircling defenses remaining intact. We were fascinated to see that a comprehensive archeological investigation was underway throughout the site. There were several trenches in progress and were were able to get quite close to them. Cherie and I are both interested in archeology (Time Team fanatics to our cores!) so we were happy to watch the work being carried out for a time. The site also affords broad panoramas over the Varenne and the lands below. For these many reasons, the ruins of Domfront are well worth a visit.

Communal Courtyard – One of Several Accessed Through Narrow Passages

We ambled back through more impossibly old, narrow streets, stopped at a nice little boulangerie to pick up a local apple pastry for later, and descended the hill toward the car park via a picturesque alley lined with cute pocket gardens. Sadly, our dog Saxon can’t walk as far or as for long as he used to, so we generally leave him home now. He had a pretty bad few months last year when his cervical disc problems, his resulting neuritis in his front limbs, and his rear hips and knees were quite painful and limiting. But with a lot of specialized therapies and careful management of his activity, he has improved to the point where he is functioning well and with much less pain. As long as we don’t push him (or allow him to push himself) too far. Nevertheless, we were anxious to return home to him.

Sounds Familiar? Old Tower of the Medieval Town Wall Becomes a Home

We were happy to get out to visit yet another fascinating town with a rich and interesting history. There is much to see and appreciate in Domfront and we enjoyed sharing it together. What’s next on the itinerary? We have no idea. Mostly, we wing it. But wherever it is, we’ll be sure to report it here. France is magnificent. There is so much to do and see here. Not to mention the simple yet satisfying act of just … being here. We wish you could all experience it too. And, why not?

The Countryside Below

Holy Hills & High Streets: Mont Dol and Dol de Bretagne

A Machine to Harness the Wind: on top of Mont Dol

We took an interesting little trip the other day – to Dol. I suppose I should say “The Dols”, because they are actually two sites: Mont Dol and Dol de Bretagne – both of which are within a kilometer or so from one another. The area sits in a flood plain on the southern edge of Baie du Mont St. Michel, about a 45-minute drive northwest from our home in Fougères. Val was still visiting us at the time. The weather was fine so we all bundled into the trusty Audi and made our electrified way out to what was for us yet another new location in France.

19th Century Postcard View of Mont Dol

Our first stop was Mont Dol. Much like its neighbor Mont St. Michel, it’s a big lump of rock. But, in this case, it rises out of a flat flood plain. I read somewhere that, long ago, this area, too, was often flooded by the sea. But the land was later reclaimed by way of dikes and drainage ditches and has been used as farmland and pasturage for centuries. Mont Dol isn’t terribly massive, but it’s still large enough to make for an impressive sight as one approaches from the south. A small village sits around the base and clings to one side of the slope. It must be said that the village itself is not particularly noteworthy (apologies to the inhabitants), but that’s not the attraction anyway.

The mont is the point of travel here. Apparently, this place has been inhabited by humans since the paleolithic era. Archeological investigation has found signs of Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens, as well as mammoths, lions, etc. on and near the mont itself. The Romans built a temple on top of the rock and this later became a Christian chapel. And it has been inhabited continuously throughout. There are also many myths which surround Mont Dol. My favorite is that Saint Michael and Satan met on the summit whereupon they engaged in a duel. The archangel eventually cast his foe off the mountain but their mighty struggle left the many scars and unusual indentations still to be seen on the rocks where they battled. All I can say is that the rocks on the summit are indeed worn and scarred. You be the judge.

At the top of the 65-meter tall outcrop is a nicely restored stone windmill. It can be toured, but it was closed when we were there. Still, it’s worth a look to get a sense of how the landscape of the past must have been dotted with these all-important machines. At the very summit is a small chapel, the current iteration constructed in the 19th century. Next to it is a signal tower from the Napoleonic era. It was one of a long string of towers sited on high points in the landscape, each one in sight of the other so that messages could be transmitted with great speed across the landscape. Mostly they were meant to alert the French military that the British were coming – again! The view from the top of the tower is magnificent. You can even see Mont Saint Michel!

From Mont Dol we made the very short drive south to Dol de Bretagne. In the past, this town was an archepiscopal see, founded in the 9th century. Though it no longer holds this august ecclesiastical status, the town still benefits from this legacy. There are only around 5,000 people living there, but the commercial, sports and civic opportunities to be found are much greater than you would expect. The high street is broad, extensive and a real delight to stroll along. We really enjoyed spending an afternoon window shopping, pleasantly surprised by the variety this small town affords. For me, it’s the many half-timbered buildings lining the street. The architecture throughout Dol de Bretagne is a real treat.

Speaking of architecture, there’s a little church I’d like to mention: the Cathedral of St. Samson. Sam, as I like to call him, came to Dol in the 6th century. Amongst other achievements like subduing a winged dragon and founding a church, he established a fruit orchard with his Welsh buddy Teilo (also a saint) which remains to this day. The church is big and bold and a bit different from others we’ve seen in Bretagne. It’s quite grandiose for a town of this size, full of ancient carving and chapels. We found it to be a very rewarding visit.

A Heavenly Lunch (photo from their Facebook page – our staff photographer, me, forgot to snap a picture)

Also top on this trip was our lunch. Directly across the street from St. Samson’s massive south porch we came upon a humble little restaurant entrance. Restaurant l’Évêché. The posted menu looked okay so we thought we would give it a try. Inside we discovered a startlingly contemporary bistrot with a chill atmosphere, a comfortable dining area and lots of conservatory and outdoor tables as well. The food was excellent. It was just one of times when the meal selections perfectly suit your mood and appetite for the moment. Even more magical was that it hit all three of us in equally satisfying measure. Now THAT’S a real rarity! We gushed about that meal for days afterward. Isn’t food just the best thing ever?

Valerie and Cherie in front of St. Samson: A Last Photo-Op Before Leaving Town

So, that was our visit to the Dols. We had a great time, we ate well (obviously), and we saw some amazing things. France never ceases to surprise and amaze us. We’re so thankful to be here and have the privilege of soaking up the magic of this wonderful place. And we are so happy to share it with you.

Since I’m finishing this up for a quick Christmas Eve posting, I thought I would leave you with a little Noël celebrating – Fougères style. Enjoy. And happy holidays to all!

Just Press Play (in the center of the image). Do it!

A Sunny Day in Saint-Malo

Palm Trees and Impenetrable Walls: Saint-Malo

It seems like we only really drop our preoccupation with the tower when we have visitors. Having Valerie stay with us has been a real catalyst for us to go sightseeing. Happy days! Yesterday, we awoke to beautiful October weather. Clear blue skies, warm but fresh temperatures, occasional gentle breezes – absolutely beautiful. And this time the city of Saint-Malo was our target for exploration.

Acres of Harbor: A French Naval Vessel Amongst a Fleet of Fishing Boats

St. Malo is a city of around 135,000 people in the metropolitan area. It’s a port city, situated on the northeastern coastline of Bretagne at the mouth of the Rance estuary. Wider St. Malo is quite spreading, but the old city, the Intra-Muros, is compact, easily walkable, and confined within the still-complete circuit of city walls which define it. It’s essentially surrounded on all sides by water, a combination of the ocean and a series of large harbors. There is a large fishing fleet, a naval station, marinas for pleasure boats, and a significant ferry terminal – all hugging the walls of the old town. From here, you can catch daily ferries to the U.K. (Portsmouth or Poole), or the Channel Islands. So, even though the center within the wall is largely given over to tourism, there is a good deal of serious business going on just outside.

What Was Lost: The Old Train Station in Fougères

There are direct TGV trains from St. Malo to Rennes, Paris, Brest, etc. But, sadly, not to Fougères. Our town has no train service at all, which is a real disappointment. Like many places in the world, a thorough lack of vision led to the cessation of passenger train services in Fougères in 1972. So, we drove. It’s only 1h25m by car to St. Malo, a nice northwesterly drive through rolling countryside. The outskirts of St. Malo are full of business parks, a massive water park, subdivisions and the like. Not particularly awe-inspiring.

Porte Saint-Vincent

Once past the detritus of modern sprawl, we came upon a 17th century vision: the old fortified city of St. Malo. It’s really beautiful and impressive. The original walls, devised by Louis XIV’s famed military engineer, Sébastian Le Prestre de Vauban, still encircle the original town. These formidable defenses erected to shield the inhabitants from English ambitions and to guard the surrounding waters for their naval and fishing fleets. The entire circuit is some 2 kilometers and it’s possible walk the ramparts nearly the entire way. So, we did. It was a glorious stroll, with magnifient views along every single section of the walls.

In particular, the ocean views are tremendous. The azure waters surround numerous small rocky islands, many of them topped with smaller forts and gun platforms. There are several stretches of sandy beach at the foot of the walls, punctuated with rocky patches strewn with tidal pools and low-lying causeways leading out to a couple of the islands offshore. Much of this is under water for part of the time. St. Malo experiences a huge tidal range of 13 meters! We were lucky enough to see it at low tide. There is also a large saltwater pool on one of the beaches, complete with several high-dive platforms at various levels. It was nice to see that locals and visitors alike enjoy these beaches, including several dogs happily frolicking in and around the water.

Run for Your Lives!: Tourists on Parade
Cherie Leading the Way into a Pictoresque Square

The city inside the walls is equally lovely. Massively shelled and bombed by Allied forces in August, 1944 as German forces refused to surrender, the city suffered extensive damage. Rebuilding took 12 years (1948-1960) and much of what stands today was reconstructed. Even so, the architects tried to replicate what had stood before the destruction of the war. The city streets therefore still exude a charm of previous times in a surprisingly pleasant way. The many cafes, bars, restaurants and shops lining the main streets are well-maintained and attractive – all designed to lure the countless hordes of tourists which visit the town every year. Even though we were there in October and Covid restrictions are still impacting travel, the high streets and walls were thronging with visitors. I can’t imagine what it would be like in the height of Summer sans pandemic.

Branching out from the main avenues, the smaller, more narrow and intimate streets were havens of greater tranquility from the madding crowds. These were our favorite areas, harboring old-style coffee shops, épiceries, restaurants, and bars. The ambiance was alluring.

Val, About to Test Out Another Kouign Amann (“queen-ahmahn”)
The Fattiest Pastry: We Love You Just the Way You Are

Of course, we stopped for some Kouign Amann (a sweet Breton specialty pastry), amongst other goodies. Unusually, for me, I resisted the urge. Probably because I was so entranced by the interesting architecture and animated street scenes laid out before me. Val has been eager to try out different iterations of Kouign Amann because it’s a recipe which she and her granddaughter Jessica have been working to perfect. So far, she’s been a bit underwhelmed by the offerings she has tried. We have to agree. The versions we had in Seattle were far better. Which is surprising, given that we now live in the birthplace of this really yummy pastry. In Breton, the name simply means “butter cake” and was invented in Finistère town of Douarnenez in the 1860’s. Apparently, the New York Times dubbed it the most fat-filled pastry in all of Europe. Yeah, baby! That’s why it’s sooooo good. Just a puff-pastry consistency yeast dough filled with butter and caramelized sugar. When done well, it’s a beautiful thing. When not – meh!

A Bemused Valerie in Front of La Maison du Beurre

Pastries accomplished, we sought out another destination: La Maison du Beurre. No, this “House of Butter” is not actually made of butter. Though nearly so. Situated down a cozy little street off the main thoroughfare, is a pretty blue-fronted shop dedicated to all things butter. I know, right? What could be better than that? They sell cheese too, which is also pretty great. It’s a small shop, packed with amazingly good things. Cherie and Val displayed admirable restraint, emerging with only a small bag of one slab of butter (olive oil and lemon infused), a wedge of cheese (Tomme de brebis Corse), and some apricot/basil paste (trust me, it’s good) to pair with the cheese. We broke into those goodies later that evening and I’m happy to report that they were all voted – by unanimous consent – delicious. None of it will last long. Not in our house!

We visited two churches in town. Well, one, really. The first one we spotted from the ramparts. It looked to be a mix of medieval and baroque architecture and we were intrigued. So we descended from the wall and found the front. But it was not quite what we thought it would be. We should have known by the formal greeting we received upon entering. Not something one expects when entering your average church in France. We quickly discovered that this was a former church, now an exhibition space. We could see right away that the art on display was, shall we say, not to our taste. Lots of large format watercolor renderings of industrial buildings, parking lots, old school structures and the like. But, given the formal welcoming we received, we felt obligated to at least make a show of interested and purposeful viewing of the pieces on display.

The social graces observed, we exited and returned to the ramparts. Somewhat later on, we managed to find the Cathédrale Saint-Vincent de Saint-Malo. A proper church. Although it is still referred to as a cathedral, it doesn’t appear to be the seat of a bishop anymore. But it was in the 12th century when bishop Jean de Châtillon began construction on the current edifice, built upon the ruins of a succession of older, war-ravaged, churches going back to the 6th century. Additional pieces were added in the later Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the 18th century – elements of which are on display in this beautiful and interesting church. Of note is the sunken ambulatory which is one level below that of the chancel it surrounds. I’m sure there are other examples, but I’ve never come across this particular type of arrangement in any of the other ecclesiastical architecture I have visited. The famous french explorer Jacques Cartier (a native of St. Malo) received a blessing here before setting off to discover Canada in 1535. Well, if you want to get technical about it, he re-discovered it. Scandinavian explorers had found it centuries before. And, the Indigenous Peoples had been living there the whole time. Still, it was a remarkable feat of sailing and navigation. So there’s that. Back to the theme of war-ravaging, the cathedral was also heavily damaged during the siege of St. Malo in August, 1944. Reconstruction was not completed until 1972. Now whole again, St. Vincent offers a great insight into the history of the city and its people. We love churches and this one was well worth a look.

Place Chateaubriand

St. Malo was a real treat. We were so lucky to have visited during a spate of such glorious weather. Despite some crowded areas and the understandably heavy tourist influence, this city will definitely reward your efforts to get there. If you’re coming by train or ferry, it’s dead simple. By car, it’s rather congested and parking – even in October – was a bit hard to come by. But the city has clearly made significant efforts to accommodate their visitors. We will certainly make St. Malo one of our regular destinations.

For Jessica: A Bit of Retro Art Nouveau