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Need a break from the hustle and bustle of Parisian boulevards, of dodging people, umbrellas and dog poop on the sidewalks? Forgotten what the horizon looks like?
Then it’s time to partake of that oh-so-Parisian activity, partir en weekend.
Close your eyes. Imagine rolling countryside in a camaïeu of green, sparkling streams and a medieval castle straight out of a fairytale, complete with water-filled moat.
England’s Cotswolds? Ireland?
Think again. This is Fougères, France, ville d’art et d’histoire, the easternmost town of Brittany, not far from the southwestern corner of Normandy. Never heard of it? Welcome to the best-kept travel secret within weekend range of Paris.
But you needn’t take my word for it. Honoré de Balzac wrote in Les Chouans that “nowhere in France does the traveller come across such grandiose contrasts” and that Fougères is “Brittany at its best.” And then there’s Victor Hugo who, in a letter to his wife while on a trip with his mistress, described Fougères, the latter’s hometown, as an “admirable” place “that should be visited piously by all painters.” Or how about Lawrence of Arabia who, enthralled by the “exquisite spectacle” before his eyes, wrote to his mother that the Fougères castle is “magnificent… possibly the most beautiful of all” and the Saint-Sulpice church in the town’s medieval quarter is “the most elaborate and delicate in all Brittany.”
Fougères is indeed one of those rare places where the work of Nature meets the work of Man to the betterment of both. Schist cliffs hover over the Nançon river valley, setting the town on two levels, with the old medieval quarter built around the castle below and the town center up above, the two being connected by breathtakingly beautiful passageways. One departs just in front of the entrance to the castle and traverses the Val Nançon park, another climbs the Rue de la Pinterie along the vestiges of the ramparts, and still another winds its way from the medieval quarter up through manicured woodlands into the panoramic Jardin Public, offering along the way fabulous views of the castle and the half-timbered houses below.
The upper town, flanked by the impressive Saint-Léonard church, is also full of charm, with its narrow, paved streets, café-filled squares, gurgling water fountains and historical architecture. Not to be missed is the Saturday morning market, with its abundance of locally grown fruits and vegetables and fresh seafood from the nearby coast. And there’s no point even trying to resist the smell of the galettes-saucisses smoking on the grill.
But even the marketplace won’t deter you from sampling some of the enticing eateries the town has to offer, be it the traditional crêperie, the Michelin-recommended Le Haute-Sève, or one of the many restaurants serving locally raised, grass-grazed beef (no mad cows in this cattle country!). Better yet, why not try all of the above?
No worry though if you overindulge, you’ll walk it off. The circuits découvertes to start, then maybe a hike around the Rocher Coupé, the turquoise-colored quarry lake just across the boulevard from the castle that also provides a photo-op for superb views of Fougères. If you’ve seriously overindulged, or have more time than a weekend, you can set out (from the Jardin des Fêtes) on the voie verte in a northerly direction, then veer east into the legendary Forêt de Fougères (3 kilometers away) with its swimming lake, beach and hiking trails, among which you’ll find the Cordon des Druides dotted with menhirs. Fougères also straddles the GR 34 hiking trail that leads south to another charming medieval town, Vitré, or northwest towards the Mont St. Michel. (Which, by the way, is only a half-hour drive from Fougères.) Whichever direction you choose, you might want to avoid crossing the old train-tunnel section of the voie verte late at night, though, as it’s reputed to be the meeting place of sixteen species of bats…
That brings me to another appreciable element of a weekend break in Fougères: the locals don’t drive like bats out of hell. They actually stop to let pedestrians cross the street, unlike the play-chicken confrontation with Parisians-on-wheels. And they even smile at you. City stress hasn’t overcome this peaceful little city.
Peaceful but not boring. There’s always something going on in Fougères: theater, art exhibitions, a multiplex cinema (with at least one film in VO), concerts, festivals – notably the annual Voix des Pays which celebrates music from around the world on the Château grounds in early July. The Tourist Office provides an extensive overview of activities and events, along with other useful information. Guided tours of the town can also be arranged. Or if you prefer to just sit back and relax while sightseeing, you can take the little tourist train that departs from the square in front of the castle entrance and cheerily chugs you through both the medieval quarter and the upper town.
If the meandering little river Nançon, the castle moat, the water fountains, and the quarry lake put you in the mood for swimming, le must in Fougères these days is “Aquatis”, the brand new, state-of-the-art waterpark with four swimming pools (three indoors: baby pool, serious-swimmers’ pool, and fun pool equipped with massage benches and spouts, river current and mini-geysers, plus the outdoor pool with lounge chairs), a separate toboggan area and a special scuba and high-dive tank. Not to mention the hammam, sauna and fitness center.
I could also suggest horseback riding, rafting or canoeing on the Couesnon River, excursions to Rennes and St. Malo, a visit to the gorgeous Parc Floral de Haute Bretagne or the (other) American Cemetery in nearby St. James, but le week-end would be way too short. So, what are you doing for les grandes vacances?
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