The Red Road to Pirou

The Châtelet in the Marsh: Château de Pirou

The day began with rain. Then wind. Then drizzle. Then more rain. But we had a plan, and we were going to stick to it. As it happened, two-thirds of us didn’t actually crawl out of bed that morning until eleven o’clock. Or so. I guess I hadn’t realized that that was part of the plan. But that’s often how our plans go. So I should have known better. Nevertheless, we managed to get out of the door and on the road by half past noon.

The plan? Oh yes, the plan. We had decided to track down a small moated castle in Normandie. The current Château-fort de Pirou has its origins in the 12th century, but it replaced an 11th century wooden fort which itself was built upon a former viking encampment. So goes the story, anyway. The site sits in a flat, marshy part of the Cotentin peninsula, just a couple of kilometers from the broad, sandy beaches of the seaside town of Pirou and some 18 kilometers northwest of Coutances. For us this was about a one hour and thirty minute drive through pleasant countryside, filled with cows (lots of cows), horses and the occasional human.

Harvesting Shellfish on the Plage de Pirou

After turning west off the A84 autoroute at Villedieu-les-Poêles-Ruffigny, we began to notice that several of the roads were paved with a red surface. It seemed to be a fairly common material in this part of Normandie. Strange. At first, I assumed that this must be the dominent color of the local stone which they use to pave the roads. But none of the structures in the area displayed any red-hued stone; all of them were built in the same gray, black and honey colored stone as we see in Fougères. So, what is the reason? I still don’t know. If any of you know why these Norman roads are red, send us a comment. For now, it will have to remain a mystery.

We Found It! – Cherie and Jessica at the First of Four Existing Gates

Honestly, the tracking down part of our plan was quite simple. Ten seconds on a mapping app did the trick. Sometimes I miss the romance and challenge of spotting a destination on a large, detailed paper map. It’s so much more fun. And exciting when you manage to locate your target and plan your own route of travel to it. But Google was to be our guide on this day, though I often wonder if the route which it (he, she, they?) gives us is really the most direct. After it has directed us down the third goat track, through a farm yard, and over a dodgy narrow bridge, it begins to feel like the artificial intelligence is just messing with us. I suppose robots have to enjoy their work too.

Beauty and the Beast – Jess Tames the Minotaur in His Maze at the Parc Botanique de Haute Bretagne

This outing was extra special because we got to share it with Cherie’s niece, Jessica. She came from the U.S. to visit us for a few weeks. We love having her around. Plus, she is a very fine knitter and she kindly knitted a cardigan for Cherie and a hat for me. So, win/win, I say. Anyway, we have been wandering all over the place, eating and sightseeing our way across eastern Bretagne and southern Normandie. It’s been a great time.

A Serene Walk Towards the Outer Courtyard

Eventually, the sun came out and we fetched up to the castle. A series of humble fortified gateways leads the visitor (or invader) into an outer courtyard. This grassy area is lined with large, mature plane trees through which the dappled sunlight shone pleasantly on this day. The gateways are not grand, but handsome and cozy, and appropriate to the scale of the castle itself. We found them to be very charming and powerfully evocative of what a perilous environment it must have been for the lords of this land – not to mention for the countless others who lived outside these walls.

St. Lawrence’s Chapel

The outer courtyard contains a number of outbuildings, including a bakehouse, a cider house, a chapel, a courthouse and farm buildings. You can visit all of them. Of note is the chapel (rebuilt in the 1640’s) which has been fully restored. It contains several nice religious sculptures ranging from the 14th to the 19th centuries, a baroque painted alter table, and pleasant leaded glass windows with decorated panes.

Longest Comic Strip Ever – The Pirou Tapestry

Pirou is also the proud owner of a 58 meter long linen cloth embroidered in the style of the famous Bayeux Tapestry. [Yes, technically, this is an embroidery, NOT a tapestry.] This one depicts the history of the Normans. It was wonderfully created by a local woman (Thérèse Ozenne) in the 1970’s. In fact, it took her sixteen years. Yet it remains unfinished. It’s a remarkable feat and the entire tapestry is nicely displayed, wrapping around the walls and center of the Salle des Plaids (courthouse).

The Central Fortification (right), Encircled by the Moat and the Outbuildings

The primary enclosure, the castle itself, is entirely encircled by a water moat. When we visited, the surface of the water was a bright, almost fluorescent green from the algae, mirroring the color of the foliage above. Very pretty. A 17th century stone bridge replaced the earlier drawbridge, leading through a narrow covered gateway into the small castle courtyard. The courtyard is fully enclosed by buildings and wall. Many of the older portions of the castle are accessible, having undergone a considerable amount of restoration to their medieval origins. The way through also leads visitors to the wall walk above where one can appreciate the views not only of the château grounds, but of the surrounding countryside as well.


Our visit to Pirou was a completion of a tour, of sorts. You might recall our earlier post regarding Lucerne Abbey [Monastic Intentions: Abbaye de Sainte-Trinité de la Lucerne d’Outremer]. That and Château de Pirou were the two properties purchased and set upon a path to restoration by Abbot Marcel Lelégard. This priest fell in love with these properties and endeavored to save them from almost certain ruin. Both were, in fact, already largely in ruins when he purchased the abbey in 1959 and the castle in 1966. Abbot Lelégard organized volunteers to begin the clearing and reconstruction of these historic properties, eventually establishing a formal foundation for continued administration and ongoing conservation/restoration. My hero!

Inside the Fourth Gate

For castle enthusiasts, I couldn’t recommend Pirou more. It’s one of the best little medieval castles I’ve ever visited. Quirky, characterful, and quite old, there is an atmosphere of mellow history about the place which we found to be very entrancing. It’s a place which sits apart from the modern world in the best manner possible, creating – or perhaps, maintaining – a unique historical microclimate. One that should be preserved forever, in my opinion. It’s thanks to the hard work and determination of many dedicated people that Pirou remains. We felt privileged and very fortunate to have experienced it for ourselves.

Gatehouse (Within the First Gate)

Monastic Intentions: Abbaye de Sainte-Trinité de la Lucerne d’Outremer

Praemonstratensian Perfection

We did a fun thing yesterday. We went to Normandie and visited the medieval abbey of Lucerne. This artfully stacked pile of stones is only about an hour’s drive northwest of Fougères. Although it was perhaps a bit warm for Cherie’s taste, the weather was otherwise perfect. Most of the drive is easy, but the last few kilometers takes you though pretty country lanes which wind their way through verdant, hedgerow-enclosed pastures and timeless farmsteads that appear to have stood in place since the last ice age. These narrow country roads, we noted, were very well kept indeed. The verges were mown with immaculate precision. And all of the power and communications lines were neatly strung on regular rows of slim steel posts flanking the way. From what we’ve seen, the vast majority of infrastructure in France is well-maintained and well-presented. But the roads in this area were above and beyond the call. Impressive. And endearing. It was a fine way to approach a medieval abbey.

Approaching the Abbey Gate

Having made our way through the very rural, very farm-y swells of low hills and valleys, lushly festooned with the bounty of the summer season, we abruptly hove into view of the abbey. A nice little parking lot awaits visitors directly across the road from the site’s entrance. But it’s the magnificent gate lodge that immediately caught our attention. It’s rare to see one so largely intact. Big. Stone. Looming. This gate entrance to the monastery says, “All ye who enter here, be thou humble.” And we were humbled. Not only by its age, but also by its gravity and the relative purity of the medieval architecture. Walking though the portal brings you to the welcome/ticket/gift shop packed with a good selection of interesting books, pantry items, toys, and historic reproductions. In fact, we left the abbey with a bagful of jams, honey, a medieval glass and some assorted gifts. The profits from the shop go to the ongoing restoration of the abbey, so it’s all for a good cause. We really love these places: the history, the heritage, the beauty of human endeavor. If only we as a species would turn more toward creating beauty instead of miring ourselves in ugly words and deeds.

Panorama of the Fish Ponds with the “New” (18th c.) Abbot’s Lodge (left), and Farm Outbuildings

I should pause here and impart a little history. L’Abbaye de la Lucerne de Outremer was founded in the 12th century as a Praemonstratensian abbey of canons regular. If you already know about canons regular, you are either: 1. One of them (in which case, your supreme level of self discipline simultaneously shames AND annoys me), or 2. Already a past Jeopardy champion (also shamed and annoyed), or 3. A super nerd like me (and you have my condolences). The Praemonstratensian order of monastic canons began in Prémontré, France just a few years prior to the founding of the abbey at Lucerne. Unlike monks, canons regular are ordained priests. But, in the same way as monks, they choose to live together in a community guided by a monastic rule – in this case, the Rule of St. Augustine. To all intents and purposes, the canons lived lives quite similar to monks – and continue to do so in our own times.


Unfortunately, the French Revolution was a pretty rough time for the Church. Many churches and monasteries were seized, ransacked, and their inhabitants thrown out. Often relegated to use as warehouses, prisons, barns, stables, grain stores, cider houses, smithies, or simply no use at all, countless numbers of these beautiful ecclesiastical buildings in France were left to decay or be stripped of their materials through the 19th century. Such a shame. L’Abbaye de la Lucerne was no exception. It was closed in 1790 and sold off to a local landowner. By the 1840’s the religious buildings of the abbey complex had already suffered extensive damage. As the 20th century rolled on, many of the structures were only visible as piles of stones. It was not until 1959 when a benevolent foundation was formed for the purpose of restoring the church and other monastic buildings, as well as reestablishing the community of canons. Since then, this foundation has completed a remarkable amount of work. Large sections of buildings have been entirely rebuilt, using as much of the remaining materials as possible. I am very much a stickler for the use of proper restoration techniques and and materials. So I was quite pleased to see that the restoration work at Lucerne appears to have been conducted with great care.


This abbey is very much alive. Not only is the abbey church still active with regular masses, but the entire complex serves as host to concerts, lectures, demonstrations, classes and other events. No, you’re not likely to catch the Rolling Stones’ “Yes, Actually, We’re Still Alive” world tour at Lucerne, but you can hear some lovely classical and cultural music. While exploring the abbey church, we happily came upon a small group of musicians rehearsing medieval and later Armenian songs. Beautiful.


As an example of Norman romanesque religious architecture, l’Abbaye Sainte-Trinité de Lucerne d’Outremer is not to be missed. But even if that holds no interest for you, the simple beauty, the serenity, and the deep sense of history of this place should be more than enough reward for a visit. We thoroughly enjoyed our exploration of the abbey and its grounds – from the long meandering aqueduct which fed the monastery’s many needs for fresh water, the remnants of cider presses in the old orchards, the thatch-roofed Swan House, and the tranquil complex of fish ponds, to the towering stone dovecote (with accommodation for up to 3,000 birds), there is so much to feast your eyes upon. If you should ever have a chance to see it yourself, your heart will surely thank you.

Seriously, How Cute is That? – The Swan House
The Woodland Gate
A Bower of Willow in Which to Reflect
View From Within the Cloister

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