A Garden with a View
The Breton frontier town of Fougères may be best known for its extensive medieval castle, but this sprawling, diverse geographic wonderland of rocky crags and outcroppings offers gems in the most unlikely of places. The best way to get such an overview is in the city’s unimposingly beautiful public garden. Located immediately behind (west) of the Eglise Saint-Leonard, the garden is a small but impressive, not to mention calming, place to understand the history of Fougères from a broader perspective. Start out on the upper tree-lined terrace in the “new town.” Here, you are perched nearly forty meters above the iconic Chateau. The perspective from this spot gives one a rare fortress overview, for the 10th century fortress was constructed on the solid rock foundation of the low ground to exclude the common offensive tactic of tunneling under fortified walls. With the chateau firmly in our sights, proceed down the narrow, flowered paths and into the more formal garden. Be sure to slow down, perhaps with a picnic lunch or snack, on one of the garden’s benches. The garden seems to transcend time and space, not quite in the old town and not fully in the new town, its tall hedge-rows enclose the garden in its own world and functionally cut off the view of the chateau yet are topped with their own bushy turrets that give a nod to the town’s most famous landmark. At the opposite end of the garden, continue down the stair and steeps path to the old medieval town, right along the banks of the Nançon and its old stone mills. In all, Fougères’s public garden and its paths are an excellent way to see this medieval town and its diverse history, architecture, and character.
A Saint on the Sarthe
The river Sarthe meanders through the French countryside, forming much of the border between Normandy and the Pays Loire. At one particular U-turn in the river lies the village of Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei. Labeled as a Les Plus Beaux Village de France, Saint-Céneri is indeed beautiful. Originally an outpost fortification, Céneri fell to William the Conqueror and little of the original fortress remain. Nevertheless, the combination of greenery, river, idyllic homes, and picturesque churches make this a place where people have been coming for decades to paint in the serenity of the village. Like Pont-Aven, Saint-Céneri has become an artists’ haven, although much more recently and to a lesser degree. Still, the village is a magical place that is also easily accessible. A manageable two kilometer walk from the village’s artistic Auberge Moisy past the Romanesque Eglise Saint-Céneri and onto the promontory overlooking the sharp curve of the Sarthe where the 14th century Chapelle Saint-Céneri sits in the middle of a green meadow that offers views of the surrounding Normandie-Maine Regional Natural Park. Back in town, end your tour on the stone bridge crossing the Sarthe. Watch kayakers pass beneath while contemplating the beauty of the village and its church – all of which perfectly define the history and cultural appeal of the French countryside.
The ”Acropolis of France”
If Gothic cathedrals are a hallmark of France, Chartres is the center of the universe. With the presence of the sancta camisa, the veil that Mary wore while giving birth to Christ, Chartres and its cathedral have been a pilgrimage destination for well over one thousand years. It is only fitting, then, that the grandest of Gothic cathedrals be built to honor Notre-Dame. Chartres’s cathedral cannot be missed. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and for good reason. While the original 11th century Romanesque cathedral burned in 1194, there are a few noticeably extant portions that remain from that period in the much larger and now Gothic cathedral that resulted. Of the original basilica, the west, or Royal Portal, and the south tower remained. In fact, the northern tower was not constructed until the 15th century to finally provide symmetry, albeit in a different style, to the edifice. My personal favorite are the differences in the figures that adorn the Royal Portal and the south porch. These two features literally stand to personify the difference in architectural and even ecclesiastical style between the Romanesque (c. 1150) and Gothic (1250) periods. On the front portal, the figures stand staring into space without expression and are elongated, evoking a more Byzantine influence. By contrast, the south porch apostles are more realistically human, both in size and expressions of despair on their faces. While a study in contrasts, Chartres is celebrated as one of the original High Gothic period cathedrals that was not touched by the centuries of turmoil that followed, another more violent hallmark of France’s past.