Flood Tidings We Bring


Feeling a Bit Bloated – The Oust River Just Before Christmas

This morning I’m drinking a nice cup of breakfast tea (milk, sugar), munching on a freshly baked pain au chocolat from the boulangerie just up the street, and reflecting on the flood that almost was.

You may recall that the house we are renting in Malestroit stands on the banks of the river Oust (pronounced “oost”, like “boost”). It’s a beautiful, tranquil watercourse meandering southeast from the central spine of the Breton peninsula in the north down to the town of Redon on the border with Loire-Atlantique in the east.

Dry Times – Our Back Garden on a Sunny Day in April, the Banks of the River Oust Just Beyond, Where They Belong

It so happens that this seemingly bucolic river is prone to flooding. We had heard the stories, seen the photos of past inondations. Sounded pretty grim and looked even worse. Tales of homes submerged and views of boats being paddled down the street past our front door. Ask anyone who has lived here most of their lives (which is nearly everyone) and they are eager to raise their eyes heavenward and regale you with accounts of the floods of yore.

Lest We Forget

Dotted around town are small round plaques mounted on walls to commemorate the high water marks of various past floods. Apart from scaring the bejeezus out of the two of us habitual hill-dwellers, for most visitors these markers stand as low-rent tourist attractions; it’s common here to see tourists pointing at the plaques and enjoying a moment of schadenfreude. Rarely a day goes by in Malestroit without watching an out-of-towner gawp in astonishment at the town’s past flood levels.

In the past, l’inondations, or, les crues were relatively rare events. Old-timers here have told us that they had only witnessed one or two floods in the past. But in the past 25 years there have been several significant floods. Instead of a 50-year event, they now seem to be happening every five to ten years. As a debating proposition, it becomes increasingly more tenuous to deny climate change as one finds the homes of one’s neighbors regularly awash in river muck with greater frequency.

Normal

Not Normal

This time the river began to seriously rise about a week or so before Christmas. When it began to look serious, the town government sprang into action in an impressive manner. They have a sort of civil emergency corps made up primarily of volunteer retirees who are reasonably well organized and get to wear bright orange vests as a bonus. [The French love a good uniform, baldrics, badges, hats, clipboards – anything that marks them out as being an official something.] Two of their members visited our house a few days ago to look in on us and ask if we were prepared. All in warp-speed French, of course. I managed to get the gist of what they were saying and answer with near lucidity. Satisfied that we were not completely incompetent, they then took a rough inventory of the furniture on our ground floor, though I wasn’t sure why.

Two days later I found out what they were doing. In the morning, as flood waters were continuing to rise, a town work-truck pulled up, one of the occupants knocked on our door, shook my hand and cheerily confirmed that, according to the previous furniture assessment, we required eight blocks.

Huh? As I puzzled with his announcement, wondering if, in all likelihood, I had misunderstood him, he and his associate unloaded eight large blocks, the kind used as footings for temporary cyclone fence panels for festivals and such. Soon the men finished piling the blocks neatly on the sidewalk next to our door. They smiled again, shook my hand, and careened the truck down the street to the next house.

Our neighbors later explained that the town government does this for everyone who may be threatened with flooding. The blocks are for raising furniture up off the floor and, if actual flooding of the home looks to be imminent, members of the police and/or fire brigade will come to help do this for those who are unable to do it themselves. By the time the blocks were delivered, Cherie and I had already spent a few hours moving what we could upstairs and elevating everything else off the floor. But it was really nice to know that the town government and community was so caring, prepared and organized. We have several elderly neighbors on our street who would be in a sorry state were it not for this kind of assistance.

Flooding Update and Advice from the Mairie

As the days progressed, so did the flood waters. Soon, the river had breached its banks at the back of our garden and began to slowly creep toward the rear of our house. Neither of us had ever experienced a flood before, so we were a bit stressed out. It was like watching an incoming tide slowly moving up the beach. Except in this case, the tide just kept coming closer. Never receding.

The Waters Approach our Back Door

And it just kept raining. Finally, the river had reached the edge of the terrace in front of our back door. We were convinced that we would soon have water covering our ground floor. But at least the rain had stopped. The next morning we woke up to find that the river had retreated back down to the bottom of our garden. Saved! We were so relieved. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a miracle. But it was remarkable how far the waters had receded overnight.

So now, in the aftermath of the flood, as the morning light is finally beginning to edge out the gloom, I can again see the songbirds skipping about the full length of the back garden – all of the way to the river’s natural banks. The background roar of the floodwaters as they tumbled through the town has now gone. The normal sounds of life in Malestroit have returned: an occasional car trundling down the street; the metallic rattle of madame’s La Poste delivery bike and the attendant slap of mail being thrust through our neighbors’ post boxes; the periodic bouts of animated chatter in whirlwind French outside our door as acquaintances come across each other in the street (here, everybody knows absolutely everyone else); the quiet creaks and bangs of window and door shutters up and down the street as they are opened in the morning and closed again in the evenings in an almost ritualistic expression of French-ness.

Back to Normal – A Hedgehog Resting in the Back Garden

It’s funny how quickly we’ve grown accustomed to the daily rhythm of life here in France. That became acutely apparent when the floodwaters began to disrupt the normal flow of the sights and sounds which have so indelibly become a part of our daily lives. It made us realize how integral the river is to that life here in Malestroit. When the Oust is out of sorts, so is the entire town. For our part, we’re just happy and grateful that the waters never breached the house. With a little luck, we will have moved to higher ground in Fougères long before the next flood. Fingers crossed!

High and Dry in Fougères – Morning at Place AristideBriand

The Two Towers – Elven and the Lords of Largoët

A Walk in the Woods Brings You Hence

As a certified Tolkien geek, I was bemused last year when Cherie and I first came across a road sign announcing that the next exit would lead one to Elven. How cool is that?, I thought. But we were on our way to Vannes down the road at the time so we didn’t stop to investigate. A couple of weeks later we discovered that there is a town called Rohan not too far away. Elves, Rohan. Surely we have discovered Middle Earth!

No elves!

After a few further drive-bys (we always seem to be on our way to Vannes for one thing or another) we finally decided to check out this magical-sounding town of Elven. Would there be houses of sinuous design as at Rivendell? Perhaps timeless glades of statuesque mallorn trees such as would be found in Lothlorien?

Nope. Elven is really just an average French town. We stopped and had a walk around its small center, grabbed a couple of sandwiches and pastries and noted that the town unfortunately appears a bit down on its luck. We discovered a nice little chapel on a knoll and the parish church was undergoing an extensive restoration. But apart from that, we found nothing of particular interest. And definitely no sign of elves. How disappointing.

But. We also saw signs for the Tours d’Elven, or the Forteresse de Largoët. [Tours is French for “towers”] Despite the different names, these appeared to refer to the same site. Intrigued, we attempted to find it. Or them. Or whatever “it” was. Following the signs will get you nowhere. Literally. But with the help of Google Maps we were able to track it down. Finally, we had found it. Unfortunately, we found it out of season. A long rural driveway brought us to a lovely gatehouse with a not-so-lovely paper sign suggesting we try again a few months later, in springtime. This place was proving harder to get into than the Black Gate of Mordor.

One thing led to another and we had many distractions (see previous posts) to keep us away from the mysterious towers in the forest and we had nearly forgotten about them. But last weekend we were wanting to take a walk somewhere new. Suddenly I recalled the mythical Tours d’Elven. Quick, we thought, we had better seek them out before they disappear for yet another off-season hiatus. So we launched the Audi southward from Malestroit, tingling with the anticipation that, at last, we might finally catch a glimpse of this legendary place, shrouded by ancient charms as it was in the misty forest.

Just a Little Gatehouse
Rabbit Sentinel

This time, Fortune favored us. We arrived to find the gates open and welcoming – as long as we plunked down our five euros each, that is. Tickets in hand, we discovered that this is a privately-owned monument. The gatehouse/ticket office was built in the beginning of the 20th century as part of a regeneration of the property. It’s a beautiful stone cottage with classic, stately lines mottled with lichens and well settled into the landscape. One peculiarity of the gatehouse are the several stone hares which decorate the gable ends and entrance stairway. They’re beautifully carved. A bit fanciful and, in one case, energetically straddling the bannister leading up the stairway to the front door in a way for which bunnies are well-known.

The Forest Way

Past the gatehouse a gravel road led us on a tranquil stroll through woodland filled with chatter of songbirds. In the distance, we could hear the baying of hounds on the hunt. Not surprising this time of year. The French are mad about hunting (also fishing). It’s not uncommon to come across an organized hunting party while driving country roads. They usually place a couple of warning signs on the roadside to let people know that there are armed enthusiasts milling about in a nearby wood or field. Proceed at your own risk. The sound of gunshots is fairly common out here in the wilds of Bretagne. It makes hiking the trails a more piquant experience.

A Promise of Majestic Ruins

Suddenly we emerged into a clearing filled with majestic medieval ruins. We assumed there would be a few remnants of broken wall jutting out from a tumble of brambles. We were mistaken. Confronting us at the end of the road was a moat guarding a stone gatehouse, behind which rose two massive towers. “Quelle surprise!

“None Shall Pass!” A Formidable Gate

The Forteresse de Largoët is a compact site, much of it in ruins, but dominated by its two magnificent towers which still reach to their original heights. The castle was primarily built in the 15th century and, at one time, formed a small island surrounded by a water-filled moat on three sides and a small lake on the other. The rear elements of the gate (two flanking towers) date from the 13th century. It’s the only gate complex that I’ve ever seen which has arrow slits opening into the gate passage itself. Ingenious and, I imagine, quite effective if attackers ever managed to batter the gate down and get into the passage.

The Donjon

The main tower (the donjon) is open to the public. It’s also open to the rain, the snow, the wind, and pigeons – sadly, it has no roof. So it is somewhat of a shell. But one can still wander about, investigate its many alcoves. [“You use this word, alcoves?” – that’s for all of you In Bruges fans. If you are not a fan of this movie, well … it beggars belief.] There are also two winding stairways which climb nearly the full height of the tower. At each level you can gaze out over the beautiful forest and lake, or wander into empty spaces still containing fireplaces, window seats, garderobes (medieval toilets), arched ceilings and wonderfully carved doorways. The larger halls and chambers of the two central cores running vertically through the donjon apparently had wooden floors which long ago rotted away, leaving precipitous views of fireplaces and other elements now hanging in mid air.

Fireplaces in the Sky

Despite its partly ruinous nature, the donjon is really impressive. Seven floors. Forty-five meters tall! It’s huge. And it must have been mind-numbingly expensive. Elaborately decorated with gargoyles, stepped machiolations, molded edgings, the entirety of the exterior and interior is faced in fully-dressed stone. None of your cheap rubble construction at Largoët.

La Tour Ronde

The other tower, the Tour Ronde, is less statuesque than the donjon, but it, too, is beautiful and imposing. It was restored in 1905 when the top bits were reconstructed and used as a residence for some time. Unfortunately, this tower is closed to the public so we weren’t able to have a peek inside.

Dog & Castle

It’s easy to imagine how this castle in the woods must once have looked. In spite of the many ruins, the remains are substantial enough to allow one to form a full image of its walled might when the complex was complete and filled with the many inhabitants who must have lived and worked there. For the lords of Largoët it was surely a life lived in the height of fashionable architecture and security. Exciting as it is to explore such amazing sites, I am always left with a bit of sadness that a building of such beauty, so cleverly conceived, and having required such effort to complete, could be left to fall into ruin, largely forgotten or, at the least, discounted. A place no longer valued. To me, it’s a form of disrespect. Not just to the noble elites who conceived and enjoyed the many advantages of such a place, but also to the countless men and women whose names we will never know – those who toiled to build, maintain, and serve the Forteresse de Largoët. We could certainly do them more honor.

The Sun Sets on Largoët

As for the elves? Not a one. Nor dwarves, hobbits, orcs or goblins. Not even an ent in the woods did we see. We certainly found the two towers. But Middle Earth? Well, I guess my search continues. Nonetheless, we had a fine day and we were so happy we persevered in our quest to find this place. Should you ever find yourselves in this magical part of the world, you will not regret a visit to the Elven Towers.

Our Little Corner of France: Malestroit and the Val d’Oust

The River Oust, Malestroit

It was somewhat a random choice for Cherie and I to end up in this part of France. As regions of the country go, Brittany is not as well-known (particularly for geographically-challenged Americans) as, say, Provence or Normandy. The mention of Brittany generally leads to a reaction of embarrassed confusion or a knowing nod of the head in the mistaken belief that I am referring to Great Britain. Being smug, Europe-loving nerds, we both already knew the region’s geographic location. But that was about all we knew.

Ignorance has never – ever – stopped Americans from doing a thing that might seem (and probably is) crazy, if not entirely ill-advised. I offer you the deep-fried Hostess Twinkie as just one example. So it has been with great joy that the two of us are discovering the richness of Brittany. At the time of this writing, we have only been here for about nine months. Consequently, there are huge swathes of the region which we have yet to visit. But, the little pocket which we have called home since leaving Seattle is certainly itself worth exploring.

Administrative Regions of Metropolitan France

If you’re still a little fuzzy on the geography, Brittany (Bretagne in French) is the westernmost point in France. On the map above, it is on the far left, with Normandy to the north and the Pays de la Loire to the east and south. Bretagne is one of 13 (including Corsica) régions in mainland France. These are the rough equivalent to states in the U.S. or provinces in Canada.

There are 96 départements (similar to U.S. counties) in France. Bretagne itself is divided into four départements: Finistère in the west, Côtes d’Armor to the north, Ille et Villaine in the east, and Morbihan to the south. Each department is codified by a two-digit number and every postal code in the départements begins with these two digits. Morbihan’s is 56; Ille et Villaine 35.

Since living here, we’ve begun to realize that these two numbers show up on nearly everything even remotely administrative in nature; from your car’s license plate, to your electric bill, to food packaging to demonstrate it is locally produced. I’ve been asked for these numbers by my doctor, by cashiers at the home improvement store, and by random people we meet on walks. At first, we thought it a bit strange. But we’ve come to admire it. These departmental codes are a useful shorthand for quickly identifying any part of France. Moreso than people do with their state in the U.S. (with the possible exception of Texans), Bretons tend to link their identity with the département in which they live. It’s just a feature of the culture here and we find ourselves adopting the practice as well. At this moment we are 56’s, but when we make our final move to Fougères, we will be 35’s. Like all 35’s, we will be secure in the knowledge that ours is the best code in all of France.

Bretagne

Our first home in France has been Malestroit, a lovely town in the department of Morbihan. Malestroit is small enough that it often does not show up on the less-detailed maps of the area. On the map above I have penciled it in and circled its location. [Look for it just below the end of “Bretagne”. While we’re on the topic of geography, I have also circled Fougères, the town where we have purchased our home-to-be to the northeast of Rennes.] A community of some 2,400 souls, Malestroit is, like nearly all French towns we have visited thus far, a compact town with nearly all of its dwellings, shops and services within walking distance.

Cafés, Shops and the City Hall (in the distance) on the Place du Bouffay, Malestroit

We were amazed that such a small town would contain so much. There are three large grocery stores with another medium-sized convenience grocer, two more specialized food shops, a large multi-discipline health center, a hospice hospital, several individual health specialists, at least eleven restaurants and cafes, four bars, two news agent shops, two boucheries (butchers), two pharmacies, a post office, florists, car repair garages, garden centers, a veterinarian center, and more banks and insurance offices than I can count. It is, like most french towns, self-sufficient so that not often does one find it necessary to travel to a regional city for things.

Most important to us is that there are two boulangeries; both are lovely and we make daily pilgrimages to them for our required diet of fresh bread and pastries. Always pragmatic when it comes to their food, these two bakeries have arranged their hours so that one of them is always open when the other is closed for the day. And, apart from the grocery stores and cafes, they are the only shops which do not close for the sacred lunch hour(s). Very convenient, but bad for what has become our regular diet of bread, butter, pastries and tea. I tell you, though, it’s impossible to deny yourself a freshly-baked, warm pain au chocolat in the morning – or for lunch; or tea time; or in the evening. It’s a good thing they’re not open at midnight!

On the Towpath, the Nantes-Brest Canal on the Edge of Malestroit

Malestroit lies at the heart of the Val d’Oust, the Oust river valley. The Oust runs southeasterly for many kilometers through the interior hills and vales of Morbihan until it joins up with the larger Villaine in Redon on the eastern border of Bretagne. This waterway forms part of the canal network which spans 385 kilometers (239 miles) from the city of Nantes in the Pays de la Loire in the south to the city of Brest at the far western tip of Bretagne.

Cherie and Saxon in Lovely Josselin
Renaissance Doorway, Josselin

Along the Oust are several other beautiful towns, each with their unique character. Such a one is Josselin. Only a 25 minute drive to the northeast of Malestroit, this lovely town on the Oust boasts a magnificent castle (pictured above) and a picturesque medieval center connected by cobblestone streets. It’s a joy to visit, as we frequently do to take long walks along the towpath there. They also have a pretty good boulangerie!

A Sunday Afternoon Jaunt Along the Canal
Cormorants Admiring the Reflection, the River Oust at Saint-Congard

For walkers, runners and bicyclists, the towpath along the tranquil Oust and the canal which intertwines with it is a real godsend. We walk along it every day at one point or another along the many kilometers up and down the valley. Everywhere we have plied it the path is flat, paved and very well maintained by the canal authority. The towpaths are very popular and they see a lot of traffic by locals and visitors of all ages. Sunday afternoons following Holy Lunch Hour(s) seem to be the most busy times, the paths abuzz with men, women, children, dogs, bicycles and horses (sometimes pulling a carriage as shown above). Add to that the many canal boats which ply the waters, bearing their relaxed and content passengers slowly along, and the atmosphere can’t be beat. It’s a beautiful thing.

Gone Fishin’, Montertelot

A little closer to home, between Josselin and Malestroit, are the villages of Le Roc-St.-André and Montertelot. These two smaller towns are a little quieter but no less enjoyable to visit. Le Roc stands on a bluff overlooking the Oust as it wends its way from Montertelot. The stone church there sports an interestingly openwork bell steeple served by a separate stair tower joined to it by flying bridges. Lovely and very cleverly designed.

Montertelot is quite petite, with one bar/cafe, a little church and a few houses. It also sports a lock for the canal and we had the pleasure of getting to know the lock-keeper’s husband, Michael, a musician who plays and sings traditional Breton and British music throughout France. He’s a great guy who helped translate for us when we made our official offer for the house in Fougères. The towpath between these two towns offers a very nice walk through mostly woodland. At the midway point is a surprise view of a large château through the trees. These are the kinds of things we encounter all of the time in France and we love it so much!

A Humble House in Trédion

Honorable mention goes to Trédion. Although I do not believe it is technically in the Val d’Oust, this little town is located just to the west of Malestroit. Even though the town itself is rather unremarkable, it happens to stand adjacent to a lovely château. We just happened to come across this breathtaking house on a random afternoon drive a few months ago. Such a typical structure, it’s often the picture that comes into people’s minds when one mentions “France” and “château”.

Cherie, Her Mother Valerie, and Saxon Amongst the Megaliths of Monteneuf

It’s not only quaint towns, grand châteaux, and serene countryside to be found in the Val d’Oust. There is a great deal of history here as well. Some of it factual, some of it fanciful. Just a short drive to the northeast are the woods near Monteneuf which conceal an impressive group of prehistoric megaliths. These huge stones were erected during Bronze Age by the inhabitants who had switched from hunting and gathering to an agricultural society. This settled existence allowed them the time to develop more sophisticated culture and even erect monumental structures such as these stones. Later, during the Middle Ages, many of the stones were pulled down, being feared as diabolical or beacons of dark magic. Today, this area has been protected as an historical site. Free to the public, it’s a very nice park where much research and experimental archeology occurs.

Cherie, Niece Jessica and, of course, Saxon Viewing the “House of Vivianne”

Further northeast is the forest of Brocéliande, a place filled with the magic of Arthurian legends. Bretagne has its own Arthurian history which is quite ancient. According to these stories, many of the events surrounding Arthur and his knights occurred in this craggy woodland, the only remaining remnant of a once vast forest which stretched across the entire spine of the peninsula. The area is beautiful and very enigmatic with lots of lovely hiking trails. Once such place is the Val Sans Retour, the Valley of No Return. Reputed to have been the magical haunt of Morgan le Fay this valley was enchanted by the sorceress to entrap knights. Cherie and I, along with her niece Jessica, spent an invigorating (if not but a little soggy) afternoon hiking our way through this dread valley of craggy outcrops, oaks and beeches, faerie lakes and and ensorcelled streams. Making our way to the top of a lofty hill we came upon a circle of rocks that is said to have been the house of Vivianne, the Lady of the Lake who, in one telling, bestowed Excalibur upon Arthur. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail she is referred to as a “watery tart” with the acute observation that:

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, no some farcical aquatic ceremony.”

In the current political climate, I’m beginning to wonder if forming a government in a large puddle in a forest in Brittany couldn’t be more ridiculous than what we see in many countries right now. But I digress…

Regardless of how seriously one takes these legends, the journey is worth it and just one more example of how rich and varied Malestroit and its environs is. And the people here are just as lovely. So welcoming and friendly. We’ve made many friendships which we know will endure long after our move to Fougères. We love it here and we’re so glad we have had the good fortune to immerse ourselves in this wonderful, magical place over the past several months. A perfect place to begin our lives in France!

Thursday Market, Malestroit