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

Avranches and L’abbaye de Hambye: A Day Trip to Southern Normandy

In the Middle of Nowhere: L’abbaye de Hambye

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.

Cherie and Valerie in Mid-Hang

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 Centre-Ville Under a Looming Sky

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.

Église Notre-Dame-Des-Champs

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.

Valerie and Cherie About to Breach the Castle Walls

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!

View of L’abbaye de Hambye Church and Eastern Range

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.

Oooh, La Vache!: a Brook, a Pasture, and a Contented Cow

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.

Not a Philistine – An Especially Good Day in France!