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!
A somewhat hastily planned outing to the Breton town of Pont-Aven was on our agenda for this weekend. Frustration with the glacial pace of progress on our house renovation in Fougères continues to build so we felt we needed a sanity break. What better way than to visit a picturesque ville and a château on a lazy summer’s day? It was also my birthday (54 years – almost equal to the number of hairs on my head) so I was keen to get out and do something. Not that I feel the Grim Reaper’s breath – surprisingly minty, by the way – on my back, but I am gaining a greater appreciation of how fleeting time can be. Best to gather ye rosebuds while ye may, n’est-ce pas? [Obscure reference to 17th century English poetry courtesy of my liberal education.]
From Malestroit in Morbihan, we drove to the département of Finistère which encompasses the westernmost portion of Bretagne. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive through gentle hills festooned with oak, beech, and lush farmland of cow pastures, maize and grain crops. It’s pretty country, reminding me somewhat of the area where I grew up in western Oregon.
Our trusty Audi which we purchased not long after we moved to France has proven to be a great car. We bought it used but with low mileage. A plug-in hybrid, the electric battery will get us around 60 kilometers on a full charge. It doesn’t sound like much, but it actually translates in to a considerable savings in fuel consumption. Like most people, the majority of our car trips are short errands around town. We find that we complete most of these trips using only the electric battery.
Our primary intention in purchasing a hybrid electric car was to reduce our carbon emissions. Because, you know, man-made climate change is a real thing and we prefer to try to contribute to reversing it rather than sticking our heads in the sand. So, the car is good for that. It is quite satisfying to be quietly making one’s way through the cobblestone streets under electric power. Of course, we try to walk when we can. And our hybrid electric is certainly not the best solution available. But we feel it’s at least a small positive step towards a wiser, more sustainable future.
The Audi also saves us a bit of cash. In our present situation living in Malestroit, we don’t have a place to park the car where it is appropriate to charge it from an outlet in the house. Thanks to some very forward-thinking action on the part of the town’s leaders, Malestroit has installed, not one, but two charging stations in its main parking lot. And one of those even offers free charging. A slow, full charge of wind-turbine-generated power takes about two-and-a-half hours. Not the most convenient, given that I have to take the car out and pick it up from the charger. But still a pretty sweet deal. Once we are moved in to our house in Fougères, we can simply plug the car in from our garage at will. Can’t wait!
Pont-Aven rests cozily in a narrow valley through which the River Aven flows on its way to the sea. In fact, the tidal limit of the estuary comes up to the southern end of town. There, the river widens, accommodating a sizable fleet of pleasure boats moored either side of the main channel. Except for this channel, the river bed stands dry at low tide. The boats are modified to remain upright on their landlocked moorings by the use of legs fixed to either side of their hulls so that, in concert with their deep keels, they always have at least two points on the ground to stabilize them. It’s a pretty harbor and would be a lovely place to keep an old sailboat. I can dream, can’t I?
The river Aven forms the spine of the town. As it flows through the center of the ville it is channelled into numerous mill races (the mills themselves now long disused) which are criss-crossed by a series of pedestrian bridges. The bridges are well-kept and made all the more colorful with rows of flowers in planters along their railings. The watercourse is often interrupted by patches of large boulders, strewn about as though, in the dim mists of times now long forgotten, géantes celtique were interrupted in their crude game of pétanque, leaving their pieces lay as they were thrown. Along the banks of the river, numerous lavoirs step down to the water, where once the householders of the town washed their clothes. In the rare quiet moment, we could imagine the sounds of scrubbing, beating and rinsing as it must have been for centuries. On this warm July day of sun and puffy clouds, the whole made for really pleasant scene. We soaked it in for a good long time as we meandered along the paths and bridges.
Our river walk was particularly satisfying because we had just enjoyed a quiet lunch. The restaurant is situated at the very heart of this busy tourist town and we were seated at a widow above the street. Inveterate people-watchers, we engaged in one of our favorite spectator sports, amusing ourselves with the myriad of visitors marching past our view.
Pont-Aven is quite popular with tourists – it has been so since at least the 19th century. From the 1850’s to 1900 it became the frequent summer haunt of artists, the most famous of which was Paul Gaugin. [For any of you interested in art history, I recommend a quick read of the Wikipedia page for the “Pont-Aven School”. A lesser-known, nonetheless influential art movement.] It’s not hard to see why this area attracted artists and continues to do so. The light, the many colors, the juxtaposition of a myriad of textures, architecture and nature, the people, the boats and, running through it all, the water. There’s so much to dazzle the eye.
We really enjoyed our trip to Pont-Aven. A lovely town in a lovely setting. It’s definitely worth a visit for anyone and we ourselves are quite likely to return someday.
After a few hours in town, we decided to spend the remains of the afternoon at the manor.
You know. As one often does.
Unfortunately, the manor in question does not belong to us. But thanks to the kind people of Bretagne (and payment of a small entry fee) we were allowed to poke around the house and grounds of Le Manoir de Kernault. The house was begun in the 15th century and later modified successively in the 17th and 19th centuries.
The house itself is a beautiful example of Breton manorial architecture and there remain many elements of the original building. An unusual feature is the attached chapel. Manorial chapels were most often separate structures situated within the confines of the house and outbuildings. This one, however, is built on to the side of the house with an exterior stairway access for servants and manorial workers and a private doorway from within the house itself for use by the seigneur (lord) and his family.
Directly opposite the house is a large grain store built in stone and half-timber. Such a rare thing to survive. It’s quite large. Far too large for storing the crops produced by the manor’s fields alone. Researchers have theorized that the manor must have been speculating on crops from other farms in the area, storing the grain over several years until a time when the selling price was advantageous enough to reap a significant profit. Sound familiar? Some things never change.
We had an interesting and pleasant wander through the manoir’s buildings and fields, pausing to have some tea at the lovely little café in one of the farm’s outbuildings. By the late afternoon we had run out of steam [Did I mention I just turned 54?]. So, even though there was much more of the farmland and animals to see, we called it a day and promised ourselves that we would return to explore further.