Today, a quick post for a quick outing. About 45 minutes to the southeast of us, just inside the Pays de la Loire, sits the old Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Clairmont. It’s not too far from the city of Laval, which we have also visited (see our previous post about Laval here: A Light Late Lunch in Laval). It’s not the easiest place to find. Especially if you are coming from the less well-travelled direction. Google Maps got us lost down an old dirt track. But we were determined to find the abbey so we hit the main road between Laval and Ernée where we had seen a historical marker sign for the site. From there it was fairly simple. There were yet more signs leading us down some pleasant country lanes and, finally, down a graveled drive to the abbey itself. Piece of cake!
We had been under the impression that this was a working abbey. Boy, were we wrong! The only work going on at Clairmont now is the work to save it from crumbling into the ground. And even that seems to be intermittent at best. Still, it is an evocative place and there is much to see. As we exited our car were greeted by a couple of volunteers who were on their way out. They cheerily directed us to the billetterie (ticket office). Much more grand than it sounds – especially in French – the ticket office consisted of a small, room with limewashed walls storing, amongst a seemingly random collection of household items and old furniture, an old gentleman with a table. He greeted us with a reserve customarily extended to invitees of a tax audit. The day was chilly, and so was monsieur.
After taking our payment for the nominal entrance fee, the man launched into a fifteen-minute recitation on the history of the abbey. Despite my instinct to eject myself from this uncomfortable situation, the old man’s well-rehearsed speech was interesting. I held fast. At one point during his spiel, Cherie attempted to improve the connection with monsieur by injecting that we were familiar with a location he had just spoken about. But he was having none of it. Ignoring her attempt at warmth, he simply continued on, displaying admirable breath control for someone of his age. At length, he came to the end of his presentation, handed us an informative pamphlet and directed us out of his room toward the rest of the abbey grounds. We might well have been his only visitors that day. I think he had things to do.
L’Abbaye de Clairmont was founded in 1142. Established by monks of the Cistercian order, the monastery was initiated at the behest of the baron of Laval so that he and other lords of the region might have a sacred place of burial secured by the daily prayers of its inmates. At its height, Clairmont was home to 40 monks and 60 lay brothers, active in their rigorous religious devotions. It was a thriving and wealthy abbey until decline set in toward the end of the 17th century. By 1791, the last few monks had left. The abbey became a working farm, with even the church converted into agricultural use to store hay, grain, carts and tools. It remained a farm until 1952. But by then the buildings had fallen into ruin. Two friends, beguiled by the history and romance of its medieval heritage, purchased the entire site and initiated a program of restoration which continues up to today.
From what we could discern, most of the monastic building are from the 12th century, except for a large dormitory which was added in the 17th century. Much of the complex remains in a partially- or fully-ruined state, though much work has clearly been done to shore up and stabilize the various historic structures. Despite this, there is definitely a rough beauty to this place, highly evocative of its rich and interesting history. The architecture is simple, functional and solid. But it is also, in its own way, graceful, elegant in that early Cistercian style of design which pleasingly weds form and purpose to a sense of the divine.
We spent a good hour wandering around the monastic buildings, letting our imaginations mingle with the tranquil atmosphere, interrupted only by the rustle of wind in the trees and an occasional plea from the small black sheep which meandered furtively within and without the cloister. We truly had the place to ourselves. In spite of its ruinous state, there is much to see. And it is not difficult to gain a picture of how it must have once looked.
On our way back to the car, another volunteer appeared and offered to show us into what we think was the old chapter house. It now serves as a repository for any remaining stone or wood carvings, decorative tiles, and other ephemera from the time of the active monastery. There are just enough items in here to hint at the former glory of the place. It must have been really something. We were also shown an old chapel room. Small, dark, with a vaulted ceiling, it is little more than a cave. But it still, apparently, serves as a place of occasional worship. This volunteer was very warm and inviting and we ended up chatting with her for sometime in the afternoon sun in the carpark. At length, we said our goodbyes and she returned to her work.
Although it wasn’t quite what we thought it would be, we enjoyed our visit to Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Clairmont. It tugs at our souls to see such a once-magnificent monument reduced to a sad ruin. But seeing the continued efforts of volunteers to restore it gives us hope. It’s perhaps impossible to save everything – there is so much around here to save – but it is good to see that people do care. Saving some of this remarkable cultural heritage is surely far better than allowing it all to disappear. What a sad and empty world it would be without these beautiful and important reminders of our past.
So, yeah, it’s been quite a while since our last post. I’ve no excuses to offer you. Just laziness. I’ve never been, umnn … what is that word? Disciplined. I have no idea how I made it through graduate school. Sheer luck, I imagine. To those few of you who actually look forward to this blog, I can only offer my apologies for the wide gap between posts. I’ll try to be more disciplined. But, given fifty-seven years of shockingly low creative output, I’d say the odds of that happening are profoundly unfavorable.
On the up side, today I committed myself to updating the blog – to fill in the gap since my last post. Because some things happened; stuff got done; we spent time with people; places were visited. So this one is a somewhat random collection of what we’ve been up to since last September.
You may recall that our recurring cast member – Jessica – had come to visit us again last Autumn. We had a great time hanging out, making gallons of tea and vats of oatmeal (our breakfast go-to), catching up on many of Jess’s TV suggestions we had yet to view, and rambling around to visit wonderful places. Some of those places, such as Dinan, Jublains, St. Malo, I’ve written about in previous posts. But we wanted to show them to Jess. Plus, it’s our policy never to refuse a repeat visit to any of the fantastic sites we have seen before. In addition to some old favorites, we also traveled to a couple of remarkable locations which were new to us:
Everyone should go to Vienna. Seriously. Everyone. At least that’s how I feel about it. I was lucky enough to experience this beautiful city with my parents when I was a young teenager. I loved it. My fond memories of the people, the architecture, the food, and, above all, the casual sophistication permeating the city have stayed with me ever since. Jessica attended university there for a short while a few years ago and she was eager to revisit her old stomping grounds. In my experience, grounds never stay stomped no matter how hard or how often you’ve stomped them. You just have to keep stomping them on a regular basis or they will become decidedly stompless, unstomped, lacking in stomp. And if that happens, all of your previous stomping efforts will have been for nothing. With this profound truism in mind, and concerned that all of her hard-won ground-stomping would eventually go to waste, I encouraged Jess and Cherie to spend a few days’ visit in Vienna.
Saxon is not much of a traveler these days. He just can’t do a full day of walking anymore. And stomping, for him, is right out. So, somebody had to stay home with him. That duty fell to me since I had already been to Vienna. Cherie and Jess flew from Rennes to Vienna via Amsterdam. By all accounts, they had a wonderful visit. Jess’ old haunts were refreshed with some crisp new stomping. They visited that city’s celebrated old coffeehouses, tested a good many pastries, toured old houses – including the massive and opulent summer palace of the Habsburg emperors, Schönbrunn – basked in beautiful art, and even viewed a full recreation of a roman town. Jess had been missing one of her favorite cities in Europe, so it was good for her to return. And Cherie had never been to Austria before, so she was quite happy to see what all the fuss was about. Needless to say, she was not disappointed. We hope to go back together some day and do even more exploring. There is so much to see in this beautiful country.
Eventually, Jessica had to go home. Not really sure why, exactly. Something about a job, family and friends. It was all a bit vague, but Cherie and I nevertheless resigned ourselves to the sad fact of her departure. Springing for one last hurrah, the three of us left early for Jess’ flight in order to spend a couple of days in Paris. It was a bit of a last-minute decision so our lodging options were a bit limited unless we wanted to pay €300+ a night. We didn’t. So we took a holiday rental apartment just east of the périphérique (the ring road around Paris) in the suburb of Bagnolet. Kind of far out from the center for our liking. But the Metro made it easy to get into the city and back, so it was only a minor inconvenience.
While in Paris, we spent one soggy day just wandering around the center. Window shopping, actual shopping, sightseeing and just generally soaking up the very special atmosphere of this beautiful city were our occupations for that day. We enjoyed a brilliant impromptu lunch in the Latin Quarter (the 5th arrondissement, I think) at a nice little restaurant called Le Petit Châtelet. Jessica had wanted to visit the notable English bookstore Shakespeare & Co. (which she did) and this bistro was conveniently right next door to it. Though it was quite late in the lunch hour, they kindly squeezed us in to an outdoor table, nicely situated for people-watching against a backdrop of Notre Dame cathedral. I had a really excellent brochette of lamb. What more could you ask for? It was one of the most enjoyable lunches I have ever had. Man, I love Paris!
The real star of our mini-vacay to Paris was actually not in the city at all, but instead in smaller town to the west: Versailles. You might have heard of it. Assuming you were born on planet Earth. We scheduled an entire day to visit the celebrated palace and its grounds. It turned out that we weren’t the only ones to have the idea to take a look at old King Louis’ place. Even in late October we were but three in a massive, massive horde of tourists. To say the least, the palace is pretty impressive. Not only in sheer scale, but also in its uncompromising and unapologetic opulence. We got lost several times, but eventually wound our way through most of the countless chambers, anterooms, galleries, etc. which are open to visitors. The restoration work lovingly conducted on many portions of the architecture is so magnificent. The french are unequalled masters at supporting and promoting the heritage trades and nowhere are the results of this more prominently in view than at Versailles.
While the architecture of the palace of Versailles gets the most attention, the gardens and landscapes of the grounds are equally impressive. They’re massive. We were all exhausted by the time we had wandered around even a moderate portion of the grounds. It’s no wonder that the palace does a brisk business in renting out bicycles and golf carts. We were also fortunate to have enjoyed really beautiful weather that day so everything – the boiseries, the fountains, the grand canal, the parterres, the bassins – was looking its best.
To get away from the hubbub of the palace, Marie Antoinette had a little place of her own in these grounds. To be more precise, she had an entire fantasy farm village constructed, sort of a theme park, so that she could enjoy a rural idyll whenever the whim took her. This village accompanied her Petit Trianon, a small mansion reserved for her particular use. These smaller sites were, in many respects, more enjoyable to visit than the main attraction. They conveyed a more intimate insight into the lives of french royalty and those who labored around them. Plus, the village had lots of farm animals to see so Cherie was in heaven.
Every day we sit in our house and stare at the many details which we have yet to finish. I have the knack for happily looking past the incomplete parts, or at least ignoring them for a time. Mostly because I have no confidence in my ability to address them. Cherie, not so much. She’s never met a problem that she doesn’t want to correct immediately. And she has enough confidence for the both of us that we are just the right couple to take it on. The galling thing about this is that she is usually right.
The most visible of our architectural defects was the missing baseboard [“skirting board” for our british readers, or “plinthe” for our french readers] and other bits of trim in our hallway. Also a missing bit of flooring. Every time she sat on her preferred end of the couch Cherie was confronted by the sight of ragged plaster and gaps at the bottoms of the walls, and plain, unadorned edges. It was driving her mad. After a few hundred none-too-subtle comments from her side of the couch, it finally occurred to me that I should probably try to do something about this. The thing about trim and moulding is that one bit nearly always depends on the other. It doesn’t do to think about elements of it in isolation. The entire design has to be thought out before you start. After many cups of tea and much hand-wringing, I finally put it all together. Cherie then painted it nicely. In the end, we’re quite satisfied with the result. And Cherie no longer has to stare into an unfinished view.
Still buzzing with the endorphins of triumph from our hallway project, we took the natural step of continuing the beautification process into our petit salon. It, too, was suffering from a lack of baseboards and trim. This room actually had trim when we bought the house, but we weren’t satisfied with it. Moreover, the changes we made to this and the adjoining rooms resulted in enough damage to the trim in here that it just wasn’t worth keeping it anyway. So we ripped the old stuff out. We were, however, able to keep the crown molding [corniche, in French] though we will probably replace some day. The openings/doorways – all five of them – in the petit salon are a bit quirky so it required a bit of creative thinking to manage the trim design. I think we’ve arrived at a reasonable and pleasing solution. Although, I will never shake the feeling that I could have come up with something better. The room is still not complete. The window between the petit salon and the garage will have a renaissance-inspired leaded glass insert – a future project which I hope to complete during the dark days of next winter. Nevertheless, the addition of trim has been a big visual improvement to this space.
Just before we started in on the work on our hallway and petit salon, Cherie embarked on her longest trip yet. Joining up with her mother in Amsterdam, they both continued on to South Africa. Cherie’s sister Kasi and her daughter Finn live in Knysna, a six-hour drive east of Cape Town, and it was time for a visit. As with Vienna, our dog kept me captive in the tower in Fougères. The lovely town of Knysna is nestled in a broad river mouth where it empties into the Southern Ocean. Regular reports from our correspondent there informed me of beautiful ocean views, fine dining, and friendly people. Mom, her granddaughter, and two daughters had a wonderful, long-delayed (because, Covid) visit with each other.
In addition to a warm reunion with Kasi and Finn, Cherie got to do some amazing things. She had the privilege of walking hand-in-trunk with elephants, as well as seeing an astounding variety of animals such as springboks, impalas, waterbucks zebras, giraffes, rhinoceroses, inyalas, in the wild. Later, at a wildlife sanctuary bed and breakfast she had the privilege of seeing lions, cheetahs, caracals, ocelots, leopards, servals, african wildcats and black-footed cats. Several other locations, including a wildlife rehabilitation center, afforded her visits to see a wide variety of indigenous birds and other mammals, amongst which there were several species of monkeys and primates. You may have caught on by now that Cherie loves animals. So this was a particular treat for her.
Our Christmas holiday in Fougères was brightened this year by a visit with a good friend from Seattle. Before moving to France we lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle for many years and Betsy was our neighbor. We became friends and even worked together on a project to renovate an old disused basement boiler room into a small apartment. So it was very happy news to hear that she was going to join us for a few days at Christmas. Of course we did a lot of catching up but we also took in some sights.
Here, I’ll just mention Mont St. Michel again. Because this time we visited at night and we also thought it would be interesting to see it around the holidays. We were surprised to learn that you can actually get in to the island village at night. Of course it makes perfect sense when you think about it. But Mont St. Michel is such a special jewel-box of a place that it almost feels like an attraction that closes for the evening. But it’s a real village and working abbey, with real people who live there. Duh! Anyway, what’s also nice is that the navettes (shuttle buses) also run between the massive parking lot at the visitor center and the mount late into the night. It is so convenient. Sadly, but understandably, the abbey itself is closed to visitors at night. But the chance to see the exterior of the monastic heights lit up in the dark is well worth the visit.
We nearly had the place to ourselves. Which is a dramatic contrast to a madly crowded visit to this world heritage site on any given day. Absent were the usual hordes of tourists, the frenetic air of visitors on a tight schedule anxious to tick another item off their bucket list. Almost all of the shops were closed and only a couple of restaurants were keeping their doors open to serve hotel guests staying overnight. Above all, it was quiet. Only the sounds of our shoes on the cobblestones reached our ears against a background of the low static of clashing waves as the high tide surged around the base of the mount outside its walls. Magical. If you get a chance to visit this amazing place in the evening, don’t pass it up. It’s a very different and rewarding way to experience Le Mont-Saint-Michel.
Probably the most christmas-y thing we did with Betsy was to visit a nearby château: Rocher Portail. This beautiful renaissance château was constructed from the 1580’s to 1607 and is nearly completely original in its form. The gardens are also being restored their original design. Rocher Portail also has the proud distinction of being the home to several goldfish which we donated from the little pond in our jardin at La Tour Desnos. A good move for them because their new digs are much more grand and spacious. An antique dealer friend of ours from Fougères is well-acquainted with the owner of the château and he arranged the goldfish adoption. As a result, we were a few months ago warmly welcomed by the estate’s owner to transfer the fish and take a short private tour of the main house. Lucky us!
But I digress. This time around we wanted to see this lovely château all festooned in the season’s decorations. At night. So one chilly, slightly damp evening Cherie, Betsy and I took the short drive toward the small town of Maen Roch and arrived at a beautiful sight: Château Rocher Portail all dressed and sparkling with multi-colored lights. We had a wonderful time walking the grounds and touring the house and outbuildings. All of the rooms in the house are excellently dressed with period furnishings, demonstrating how the building would have looked when it was an active residence. It was interesting to see the interior at night in an approximation of candlelight.
We all had a cheery good time visiting this treasure of an estate. I should note that, sadly, Rocher Portail is rumored to be discontinuing its regular openings to visitors, so it may well prove more difficult to get a good look at the Château in the future (unless, perhaps, you have some goldfish to unload). Curiously, they will carry on with their elaborate Harry Potter schools for magic events, so don your sorcerers robes and pack your favorite wands if you want to get a thorough view of this lovely renaissance estate. We felt quite lucky to have had one of the last non-wizardy chances to have a visit.
Well, that should be enough (or likely much more than enough) to catch you up with our lives over the past few months. Cherie and I enjoyed a wonderful Christmas day with Betsy. But she had to return to Seattle the next day so we said our bittersweet goodbyes at the airport in Rennes, hoping that she will return for another visit someday soon. Work on the house remains a preoccupation for us – even more so now that we have recently acquired the small apartment above us. We have some plans for this new space, but that story will have to wait for a future post. As always, we are mindful of how fortunate Cherie and I are, living in France and enjoying everything – including the challenges – this new life has to offer. We hope that you may find your fortune as well! Until next time …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.