Archive for France

Le Chêne des Hindrés, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, King Arthur, Legend, Tree, Woods with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2015 by mysearchformagic

The forest of Brocéliande is filled with magical places – standing stones, prehistoric tombs and miraculous fountains, many of them associated with Arthurian legend. It is also home to some natural magic in the form of several ancient trees. A while back I visited the incredible Chêne de Guillotin, and this time round I went to take a look at its younger but no less magical neighbour, the Chêne des Hindrés.

Unlike the Chêne de Guillotin, which sits on the edge of the forest in a pretty meadow, the Chêne des Hindrés lies hidden deep in the forest, around a kilometre from the nearest car park. A “Chêne” is an oak, and apparently “Hindrés” means damp, wet places, although I couldn’t see any signs of swampiness when I visited. The route to the tree is well-signposted and follows a clear path through the historic woodland.

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The ancient Chêne des Hindrés, Brittany

Even in this dense forest, the Chêne des Hindrés itself, with its monumental trunk and huge mass of snaking branches, is hard to miss. Apparently the tree is around five hundred years old, which is not hard to believe – it really is enormous! I particulary liked the fact that other, small plants had made their home on the oak’s massive branches, with small ferns sprouting from its broad boughs.

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The huge snaking boughs of the Chêne des Hindrés, Brittany

The Chêne des Hindrés reminded me of the Ents, those living, breathing and walking trees that feature in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, or even Enid Blyton’s charming Faraway Tree. Given its location, it is hardly suprising that the tree has also been associated with legend, and is sometimes referred to as the Chêne des Druides, or the Druid Oak. Supposedly Druidic ceremonies have been held here over the centuries, which makes sense – I can’t think of a better spot for invoking natural magic than this otherwordly place, the ancient heart of a mystical enchanted forest.

 

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The Chapel of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Church, Saint with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2015 by mysearchformagic

On a recent cycling trip along the Nantes-Brest Canal in Brittany I came across a small village named Saint-Gobrien. Looking at it across the canal, I instinctively sensed that this interesting-looking little place was worth a small detour. I was drawn in particular to the ancient church that stands at its centre, its spire clearly visible above the small clutch of houses. As is often the way, my instinct did not let me down, because I soon discovered that this church, in particular its atmospheric interior, was unmistakeably magical.

The village of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

The village of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

The name of the church, and indeed the whole village, comes from Saint Gobrien of Vannes, a local bishop and holy man who lived in the region and was reputed to perform miracles. After Saint Gobrien died in the early eighth century his body was laid to rest here, and the tomb quickly became a place of pilgramage. It is thanks to this that the village grew up around its increasingly grand church, drawing worshippers for miles around who came in search of miraculous cures for their ailments.

The medieval church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

The medieval church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Old chapels are ten-a-penny in Brittany, but I have never encountered one with such a unique charm as this. Although parts of the building date back to the eleventh century, most of what we see today was built in the five hundred years that followed.The large porch is notable for its beaten earth floor, a rare survival of a once common building technique.

The mud floored nave of the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

The mud floored nave of the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

The church is also filled with wonderful sculptures, ranging from colourful life size figures of saints and monumental carved altars to tiny red angels hovering in the rafters. Even the ends of the rafters themselves are carved into elaborate dragons’ heads.

Hovering angels in the rafters of the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Hovering angels in the rafters of the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Although the church is obviously well cared for, its cobwebby nooks and dusty corners only add to its wonderful aura of age and mystery. I was particularly intrigued by two strange carved faces, which project from the wall just above the elaborately carved gothic gate that decorates the arch between the porch and nave.

Two intriguing carved faces in the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Two intriguing carved faces in the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

Saint Gobrien’s tomb, an unusual carved wooden structure, still survives too, although the bejewelled treasures which once decorated it, including a reliquary and a chalice, are now locked away for safe keeping. Legend tells that if pilgrims left a handfull of metal nails on top of the tomb, by the time the nails had rusted their illness would be cured.

A life size painted sculpture of Saint Etienne in the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

A life size painted sculpture of Saint Etienne in the church of Saint-Gobrien, Brittany

A ‘pardon’ is held here once  a year, but other than that this is now a pretty quiet place. The flocks of pilgrims may have stopped coming, and the saint may be largely forgotten, but the church of Saint-Gobrien thankfully still retains its wondefully magical atmosphere.

After a thoroughly enjoyable visit to this special place, what else can I say but ‘Merci à Saint Gobrien’?

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The Alignements du Petit-Ménec, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Fairy Tales, History, Standing Stones, Woods with tags , , , , , , , on May 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

The huge complex of standing stones at Carnac in Brittany is, quite deservedly, world famous. With row upon row of huge megaliths running for kilometres across the landscape, it is hardly surprising that these stones have fascinated generations of antiquarians and now attract thousands upon thousands of tourists every year. The large numbers of visitors have inevitably had an impact on the fragile environment of Carnac, and as a result the majority of the stones are now kept behind fences, far from the fingers (and feet) of inquisitive day-trippers. So, although they are an amazing sight, the best-known alignments of Carnac can seem rather distant, untouchable, lacking that certain uncanny atmosphere that I love so much.

The impressive standing stones of Carnac, Brittany

The impressive standing stones of Carnac, Brittany

What few of the visitors to Carnac realise is that there is in fact one set of the stones which remains rather overlooked, and still retains a wonderfully air of magic. The stones of the alignements du Petit-Ménec, which sit at north-easterly end of the complex, might be smaller than some of their better-known neighbours, and may be rather hidden in woodland, but the fact that they remain open and unfenced means that visitors can still wander among them and get a real sense of their unique ancient mystery.

Approaching the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Brittany

Approaching the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Brittany

Although they do appear on most of maps of the complex, the alignements du Petit-Ménec are not properly signposted, and lie quite a distance from the other megaliths beyond a busy main road. This is perhaps why they tend to be ignored by most visitors to the Carnac stones. Whatever the reason, I am rather glad that they are overlooked. Hidden in a quiet woodland, far from the crowds and their cars, the alignements du Petit-Ménec are a magic-hunters dream come true!

The magical stones of Petit-Ménec, Carnac

The magical stones of Petit-Ménec, Carnac

There are plenty of fabulous tales associated with the stones, including the (rather anachronistic) story that they were marching Roman centurions turned to stone by the wizard Merlin. Another legend tells that they are in fact a fleeing army of Pagans literally petrified by Pope Cornelius. All in all there are 101 standing stones in the Petit-Ménec group, with seven rows facing east and a further three facing north-east. Wandering amongst the stones in their peaceful forest, its easy to imagine yourself in some enchanted wood. I didn’t see any fairies, goblins or Korrigans on the day of my visit, but if I had, I am not sure I would have been that surprised. After all, I can’t think of a more suitable place for them than the magical alignements du Petit-Ménec.

Some of the larger stones in the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Carnac

Some of the larger stones in the alignements du Petit-Ménec, Carnac

Le Jardin aux Moines, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, History, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 28, 2013 by mysearchformagic

We’re back in the Forest of Broceliande this week, in a spot not far from the Val Sans Retour. In a clearing in the scrubby woodland on the edge of the forest lies the Jardin aux Moines, or Monks’ Garden, an unusual group of low stones with a mysterious history.

The Jardin aux Moins

The Jardin aux Moins

The legend goes that St Méen came to the region and discovered a community of rather debauched monks, who were more intent on having fun than following their holy orders. On one particular day the saint found the monks preparing for an orgy, and when he tried to persuade them to renounce their wicked ways they turned on him with violent intent.

Luckily for St Méen, divine punishment was quickly forthcoming, and the naughty monks were all turned into stones where they stood.

The reality is that the Jardin aux Moins is a neolithic monument, which was later reused during the bronze age, and although its purpose is not exactly clear, it probably had some sort of funerary function. But I much prefer the magical legend, which bears a striking resemblance to the tale of the nearby Demoiselles de Cojoux.

Le Val Sans Retour, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Legend with tags , , , , on March 12, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Do you believe in fairies? Even if you don’t, you’ll still be enchanted by le Val Sans Retour (The Valley of No Return) which lies near the village of Tréhorenteuc, on the edges of the mythical forest of Brocéliande in eastern Brittany. This whole area has long been associated with the stories of King Arthur, and dotted around its delightful and mysterious landscape are many locations and monuments linked to these ancient tales.

The road to the Val Sans Retour

The road to the Val Sans Retour

According to local legend, the Val Sans Retour was the spot where Morgan le Fay trapped unfaithful lovers, hence its modern name. Her spell was finally broken by Lancelot, whose true and faithful love for Guinevere defeated the wicked enchantress.

In fact, as the signpost at the bottom of the valley unashamedly states, the Val Sans Retour was historically linked with another valley nearby, but when 19th Century industrialists spoiled it with an ugly factory, it was coincidentally ‘discovered’ that the position of the Val Sans Retour was probably in its current location. Ever since then this spot, originally known as the Rauco Valley after the stream which runs down it, has drawn tourists keen to discover a bit of Arthurian magic.

The still waters of the 'Fairy Mirror'

The still waters of the ‘Fairy Mirror’

In the early 1990s the area was ravaged by fire, an event which has been commemorated by a stunning gilded tree which sits at the foot of the valley next to the lake known as the ‘Fairy Mirror’. The trees have been replanted, and twenty years on the forest is now flourishing again.

The Gilded Tree, Val Sans Retour

The Gilded Tree, Val Sans Retour

There are two routes up the Val Sans Retour; the easier option is along a track through the trees to the right of the stream, the harder (but much more rewarding) route follows the crags on the other side of the water. The vistas over the valley are magnificent, and the journey is littered with bizarre, almost lunar rock formations. The further up you get, the quieter the place becomes. By the time you arrive at its higher reaches, the only sounds you are likely to hear are the rush of the breeze and the impatient clatter of unseen woodpeckers in the distance.

Stunning views across the Val Sans Retour and beyond

Stunning views across the Val Sans Retour and beyond

The Val Sans Retour has a wonderfully remote atmosphere, and if visited off-season is still generally crowd-free. The stories attached to it might not stand up to much historical scrutiny, but even so I can guarantee you will be captivated by its wild, barren beauty.

Medieval Sculptures, Malestroit

Posted in Art, Brittany, History with tags , , , , on December 2, 2012 by mysearchformagic

Sitting on the banks of the river Oust in south east Brittany, Malestroit is a charming little town. Its historic quarter is made up of a maze of narrow streets and alleyways lined with crooked medieval houses, and at its heart sits the imposing church of Saint-Gilles, parts of which date back to the 12th Century. Despite its picture-postcard perfection, Malestroit doesn’t get much of a mention in guide books, and retains the atmosphere of a sleepy French market town. As a result, it is a place still filled with little pockets of magic.

One of the most remarkable features of Malestroit is the strange sculptures that decorate many of its oldest buildings. Depicting biblical figures as well as fantastical creatures, these carvings were intended to be both decorative and informative, designed to amuse but also to remind the locals of the pleasures and pitfalls of sanctity and sin.

The south facade of the church of Saint-Gilles

The south entrance to the church of Saint-Gilles offers its most spectacular aspect, the bright crimson doors surrounded by a mass of beautiful, sometimes bizarre sculptures. On the left side Sampson struggles with a lion, attempting to pour honey into its mouth as an act of charity, on the other a large Ox sits quietly, proudly displaying its impressive horns. Below Sampson, an acrobat tumbles head over heals, a symbol of those who have fallen from the path of goodness.

An acrobat somersaults into sin

Round the back of the church, in a quiet, shadowy alleyway, can be found the Fountain of the Golden Lion. The water that fills its deep basin emerges from a spring which was has been venerated since Celtic times, its importance probably leading to the creation of the town of Malestroit itself. Today it has an air of gloomy neglect, the carved Romanesque head which decorates it covered in moss and mildew.

The Fountain of the Golden Lion

Just a few metres away in the town’s main square stands a tall, oak beamed house known as the Maison des Singes, which is covered with more weird and wonderful sculptures. Carved in wood, these figures are even more bizarre than those on the church. Most famous is the bagpipe-playing hare which looks anxiously over its shoulder, while a nearby pig sports a bulky buckled belt.

The famous bagpipe-playing hare of Maletroit

The pretty Rue des Ponts leads down to the river, an impressive sight with its wide weir gushing noisily alongside a large mill. Next to the site of one of the town’s now demolished gateways stands one of Malestroit’s most historic houses. Along the base of its balcony sits a row of cheeky faces carved into the end of the ancient oak beams. Grinning devils with stubby horns and lolling tongues stare out defiantly at the Oust, an attempt perhaps at holding back the yearly floods which play havoc in this part of France.

Its reassuring to see that our ancestors had a sense of humour just as strong as their belief in the power of magic!

A cheeky devil

Find out more about magical Malestroit at http://www.malestroit-brittany.com