The Château de Fougères is one of France’s largest remaining medieval castles. Built to protect Brittany from both the English and the French, the castle is a fortress and an ode to medieval military architecture. The oldest part of today’s castle dates from 1166 when it was redesigned following a “visit” by England’s King Henry II! Henry’s army destroyed a wooden keep set on a rocky outcrop on the Nançon River. The new castle was built in stone and included all that money could buy–over the next 400 years great curtain-walls, a moat, arrowslits, towers and a keep all added to Fougères’ defenses. Today, the castle conserves its mid-15th century appearance. Attackers faced three different levels of defensive structures to overcome–the outer wall/moat, the inner walled area (also used by the local population as a place of refuge), and finally, the last line of defense, the castle keep itself. Unfortunately for Fougères, none of this kept the castle from being overwhelmed and changing hands several times over the coming years before becoming definitely French with the fall of Brittany.
A lot of work has been done bring the château to life. The first time we visited, back in 2008, we had a small pamphlet explaining the architecture and little else to go on. As a history lover, I was just excited to see something new and put my knowledge of medieval architecture to use. This time, however, we were given new audio guides both for adults and children (I declined the one for the girls–they’re too young) and two circuits which seek to take you back to the Middle Ages. The outdoor circuit lets you explore the outside of the castle, its walls, ruins, moat, etc. The girls appreciated being able to run, make noise (within reason) and explore wherever they wanted after the car ride. As you make your way through the visit, you will come across knight’s helmets. Simply slip the helmet on and step back in time! The helmets give you an illustrated view of the exact spot you’re standing in but in the Middle Ages. Try and ignore your family/friends laughing at you while you’re wearing the helmet! Laura and Elise couldn’t stop laughing when they saw me. I have to admit that the helmets were the best part of the visit as far as Laura was concerned! Elise was not as impressed. I think she found them a bit claustrophobic but she is only a toddler. She preferred running along the wall and looking out wherever she could. As long as you keep an eye on your child (stairs in the towers), the area is perfectly safe even for toddlers. The ground is smooth enough for strollers but, as always, if you have a baby, you will be more at ease with a baby-carrier. The outdoor visit ends in front of the Mélusine Tower. It is here that the indoor visit starts.
This part of the tour shows off three key towers–the Mélusine Tower, the Surienne Tower and the Raoul Tower. Each tower deals with a different moment in Fougères’ history. The circuit takes you forward in time from the oldest tower to the most modern one. The exhibits mimic this chronological march forward starting with the construction of the castle and ending with the fall of the Duchy of Brittany. Video, sound, and light effects all help tell the story. The girls appreciated all the colors and pictures. That said, I felt that the exhibits were geared more towards older children and adults. I enjoyed seeing the rooms “furnished” and all the additional information available to visitors especially as opposed to the bare walls of our original visit. (While I enjoyed our original visit enough to want to come back with the girls, I definitely learned more this time thanks to the improved exhibits.)
On a more literary note, the Château de Fougères inspired any number of French writes including Victor Hugo, Balzac and Chateaubriand. If you like to plan your reading around your vacation, Balzac’s Les Chouans about the failed Chouan rebellion in Brittany which tried to restore the monarchy after the Revolution can give you a taste of Fougères in the 18th century.
Admission for adults is 7.50€ (4.50€ for students and children 6-18). Children under 6 are free. The castle is open every day from 10-19:00 in the summer. Outside of the tourist season, the castle is closed on Mondays as well as for all of January. In addition, the hours are slightly reduced–the site closes during lunch. The layout of the town is a little confusing at first–you would expect the castle to be at the highest part of the town, it’s not! If you’re driving without a GPS, follow the signs for the château and you will be fine. Fougères is approximately 1.5 hours from Saint Malo by car. You can park for free near the château. Buses are available from Rennes (easiest train access) for those using public transportation.