Fougères, a town of “art and history” at the confines of Brittany and Normandy, has been reinventing itself for over a thousand years. From Celtic settlement to medieval stronghold, from artisanal marketplace to industrial powerhouse, imprints from the past – along with signs of its current revival – are visible throughout this lovely little Gallo-Breton city.
An exceptional geographical location – nestled near the borders of both Normandy and the Anjou, not far from the English Channel – inspired the founding of “Felger” more than a thousand years ago. The original wooden château built on the Nançon River to guard Brittany’s eastern border evolved over the centuries into the largest medieval fortress in Europe and a model of military architecture through the ages. The novel parcours scénographique makes for a fascinating visit.
Fougères is 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 walkways: the circuit découverte departs in front of the château and traverses the Val Nançon park, the Rue de la Pinterie climbs along the vestiges of the ramparts to the heart of the upper town, and a lovely paved path winds its way from the medieval quarter up through manicured woodlands into the panoramic Jardin Public, offering fabulous views of the castle and the half-timbered houses below.
Both sections of town boast impressive churches, the intricately-decorated Saint-Sulpice for the medieval quarter and the grandiose Saint-Léonard for the upper town. The bell tower of the latter is open to visitors on certain occasions (Journées du Patrimoine, for example), providing a sweeping view of Fougères and the surrounding countryside. The two churches regularly serve as concert venues, to exquisite acoustic effect.
The upper “Romantic” quarter (referring to the influx of famous Romantic-era authors inspired by the town, including Chateaubriand, Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo) radiates around the Place Aristide Briand, with its sidewalk cafés, gurgling water fountains and 19th-century architecture. Two charming museums in the Rue Nationale display impressionist paintings and watch-making techniques. Not to be missed, the Saturday morning market, with its abundance of locally-grown fruits and vegetables, fresh seafood from the nearby coast, and the irresistible smell of galettes-saucisses smoking on the grill. The town also offers many enticing eateries, be it the traditional crêperie, the Michelin-recommended Le Haute-Sève, or any number of intimate little bistros.
A delightful meal calls for a pleasant promenade. A sign of Fougères’ evolution from production site to leisure destination is the recent footpath around the Rocher Coupé, the turquoise- colored quarry lake across the boulevard from the castle, where schist was mined until the late twentieth century. Another option is the voie verte that departs from the Jardin des Fêtes and merges with the GR34 hiking trail, heading northwest in the direction of the Mont St. Michel. Not to mention the legendary Forêt de Fougères with its swimming lake, beach, horseback riding, and walking paths, among which the Cordon des Druides dotted with megaliths.
Fougères also offers an intense cultural life: theater, art exhibitions, a multiplex cinema (with at least one film in VO), concerts, festivals – notably the annual Voix des Pays music festival on the Château grounds in early July and the Scènes Déménagent street-theater festival in late August. The Tourist Office** provides an overview of activities and events, along with other useful information. Guided walking tours of the town are proposed throughout the summer season. In more leisurely fashion, the little tourist train cheerily chugs visitors through both the medieval quarter and the upper town.
Fans of industrial history will want to stroll through the Bonabry section of town for a glimpse of the shoe-manufacturing heyday and insight into the local integration of social classes, with the elaborate granite houses of management juxtaposing the simpler abodes of the ouvriers. Even the factories in Fougères were works of art. Le must is the former Morel & Gâté facility in the Rue des Près, sporting its famous Odorico mosaic of the coq gaulois. The site is now a retirement home.
Last but not least of the evidence of Fougères’ latest revival as an up-and-coming leisure center are the brand new Médiathèque and Aquatis, the state-of-the-art waterpark complete with indoor/outdoor pools, river current, massage benches, toboggans, scuba-diving tank, sauna, hammam, jacuzzi and fitness center.
Like a cat that always manages to land on its feet, Fougères has crossed the centuries with grace.
Getting to Fougères: TGV to Laval, then connecting SNCF coach (2 hours 35 minutes total travel time). By car, take the A11 to Laval, exit 4, then follow the signs to Fougères (326 kms).