Late spring is lovely in Bretagne. June has seen our little jardin leap into exuberant life. The bushes have been humming with several varieties of bees (bumble and honey) as well as hover flies and lots of songbirds. Martins are screaming overhead in daredevil acrobatics; we never cease to wonder at their flying skills. And the flowers are ornamenting the landscape, subtly perfuming the cool mornings with their calming scents, painting in broad strokes of reds, whites, yellows, purples and oranges. The sun is putting in extra hours now, rising early in the mornings and glowing long into the evenings when the long shadows trail away from the many trees that ring our tower. It’s my favorite time of year.
Puttering around in the jardin is my way of doing work around the house that I enjoy, while simultaneously avoiding the more pressing work that I should actually be doing instead. It’s easy to get sidetracked down there. Especially in the spring when it’s so lovely and there is so much to do. Today, I was surprised to find that the red current bush we inherited had produced quite a good crop of berries. Long strings of red pearls hung like Christmas ornaments within the green leafy covering which hides them from view. I picked them all and collected them in the straw hat I was wearing. Later on, I made a cake with them and it was delicious. But more than that, it was satisfying. For we had grown them ourselves. It’s a minor achievement, we know. But we find more and more that it’s the little things which give us so much joy. I would bet that it’s much the same for you.
As is often the case, the house projects were getting to be a bit of a chore. And we said to each other, “Hey, we live in France. There’s some pretty nice things to see here. Why don’t we go see some more of it?” Congratulating ourselves on some first-class reasoning, we hopped into the car (freshly topped up with electricity) and headed east over the border into the wilds of Mayenne.
This time, our target was the town of Sainte-Suzanne. About 60 kilometers west of Le Mans and 40 kilometers east of Laval, Sainte-Suzanne is in the region of Pays de la Loire. By car the trip takes around an hour and 20 minutes of pleasant driving. It’s another one of those many fortified hill-towns born in times long ago when living on a more easily defensible high point allowing you to see your enemies coming from miles away was an idea well worth considering. The small but energetic river Erve courses around the western side of the rise, through a steep-sided and green-wooded cleft in the rocky terrain where it once powered several mills.
This is a place of ancient history, going back to at least the pre-roman period. There is a small part of the town’s rampart walls which is thought to be of celtic origin. But the greater bits of visible architecture in Sainte-Suzanne range from the 11th through the 19th centuries. It’s a lovely little town, rightfully earning its place amongst the ranks of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. It’s a compact place. The cobbled streets wind through handsome and well-kept stone buildings. A few nice shops line the central area and a lovely square. Several cafés and bistros offer a satisfying selection of food and drink, all of them with pleasant outdoor seating. Sainte-Suzanne welcomes a fair amount of tourists, but it’s, thankfully, not touristy. You won’t find much in the way of kitschy souvenirs there. The town is clearly aware that it is a destination spot, but there is little in the way of overt exploitation of the fact. Instead, there is a quiet feeling of welcome and self-assurance. Nice.
As soon as we parked the car, we wandered toward a chemin (a pathway) which follows the line of defensive walls encircling part of the town. Not only are the walls and houses which have been built into it over the centuries interesting to view from the outside, but walking the path also offers lovely views of the surrounding countryside laid out below. It’s quite a pretty landscape: verdant valleys and rolling hills with patchworks of grasses, wildflowers and deciduous trees through which run vigorous, sparkling streams. We found a strategically placed bench to eat some sandwiches we had brought with us and enjoyed the pastoral view.
The locals maintain a medieval garden on a terraced bit of land below the ramparts. There they cultivate an admirable number of plants: herbs (medicinal and culinary), flowers, vegetables, berries and nut and fruit trees. We were particularly impressed with the sheer variety of fruit trees which included apples, pears, apricots, cherries – they even had quince and medlar trees. I had never seen a medlar tree before, so I was especially glad to have checked out this garden. A special shout out to our friend Adam from Idaho who recommended an app (Seek) that was of tremendous help in identifying some of the more rare varieties to be found there.
Integral to the town is the château. Begun in the first half of the eleventh century as a donjon (a single large square tower), it was expanded in the 12th, 13th and 15th centuries to form a stone fortified enclosure. It is now a ruin, but substantial parts of the castle remain standing. They have cleverly built a set of metal walkways and stairways within the shell of the donjon which allow visitors to climb up the several levels of the Norman-period building. Just think, this structure was here when William (Guillaume) duke of Normandy and king of England (i.e., The Conqueror) laid siege to Sainte-Suzanne. He tried for three years (1083-1086) to take the town, but never succeeded. It was the only time he had ever failed in such an endeavor. There is still a place outside of town which is called Le Camp des Anglais, recalling the memory of the site where William’s forces established their base. The château should not be missed. Particularly because entry is free!
Touristing is thirsty work! So we stopped in at a nice little épicerie which also happened to have table service right on the square. Cherie had tea and I had an excellent local beer. Yes, France is justly famed for its wine. And I take full advantage of that happy circumstance. But I must also observe that they produce some very fine beer as well. We both shared slices of rhubarb tarte. Made in-house, it was a custardy, yummy treat which we enjoyed as the weekday afternoon quietly meandered on. Probably much as it has in Sainte-Suzanne’s square for centuries on end. It was pretty great.
Not more than a couple of kilometers from town is a prehistoric site called Le Dolmen des Erves. Always keen to see a very old pile of rocks, we stopped by on our way out of town. This neolithic stone monument is literally plonked down in the middle of several animal pens. A narrow path between the pens of nonplussed chickens and goats leads you to a tremendous sight: huge slabs of stone laid horizontally on top of equally huge slabs sunk vertically into the ground to form a sort of covered corridor. When built, it would likely have been covered by smaller stones or earth to form a mound with an enclosed chamber inside in order to contain burials. The remains of fourteen individuals (9 adults and 5 children) have been found within. It is amazing to us how many of these prehistoric megalithic monuments are still to be found in This part of France. They are everywhere. And so impressive to see in person. Truly, the photographs do not do them justice.
Sainte-Suzanne is indeed a plus beau village. And we really enjoyed our visit there. Every time we go somewhere like this we learn so much about French history and culture. We can’t get enough of it. And there is so much to see. We’ve barely scratched the surface. Luckily for us, we’ll be living here for a very, very long time. Thanks again, dear reader, for taking time out of your busy lives and allowing us to share our lives and travels in France with you. It’s a real privilege to have you along with us. Talk to you soon!