We’ve had three gorgeous days in a row now! I feel like I’m alive again! After spending Saturday taking care of our garden, Sunday was for exploring. We headed off to Combourg, about 30 minutes south of Saint Malo by car. Combourg bills itself as the “Berceau de Romantisme” thanks to its link with the writer François-René de Chateaubriand. Chateaubriand is considered by many as the founder of French Romanticism. While the town is perfect for a literary pilgrimage, you don’t have to be a French Lit. major to enjoy an afternoon here. (That said if you’re interested in Chateaubriand, you will be in heaven here.)
The tourist office has created an 11-stop literary walking tour around the town. You don’t have to be interested in Chateaubriand to enjoy the walk. We followed it as a way to see the town. Each stop has its own detailed sign written both in French and (halfway decent) English. I particularly liked the old photos which added a little life to the explanations. Some of the views look like they haven’t changed in over a hundred years! From the lake, it’s an easy walk up to the high street with its little shops and tea rooms. It links the castle with the church at the other end. We visited on a Sunday so most of the stores were closed but that didn’t stop us from window shopping. (We didn’t follow the official order of the walk–there is free parking next to the lake and our visit started there.) Excluding the castle itself, the best part of the walk is around Le Lac Tranquille. The views of the castle up on the hill and the town across the water are lovely! You can stroll along the path, let your children run around or just sit down and count the lily pads! We had our afternoon snack here among the Sunday strollers before heading up to the castle. One of our basic rules is never to try visiting anything with hungry children–you are just setting yourself up for whiny kids and an unpleasant moment.
The castle, still a private property, has belonged to the Chateaubriand family since 1761! Part of me would really like to know how you calculate the taxe foncière (a French property tax) on a small castle as I think ours is already expensive enough–and only Laura would call our house a castle! The current castle was built and then expanded from the 12th-15th century.
You can choose to just visit the castle grounds or to visit the grounds and the castle (different prices). Unless you are a French-speaker (or at least can understand oral French spoken at a “normal” speed) do not take the castle tour, if you have small children do not take the castle tour, if you are not obsessed with Chateaubriand do not take the tour–if you speak French and love Chateaubriand take the tour! I’ll let you guess which option we chose! Up close, the entrance of the castle is far more imposing than what I was expecting. The two towers and the solid mass of rock in between don’t encourage visitors to come in and make themselves at home. While the castle looks lovely from the lake, up close it seems much more austere and imposing. Architecturally, don’t come here expecting one of the frilly Loire Valley châteaux and enjoy Combourg for what it is. Once you get beyond your first impressions, walking around the castle and checking out all the little details close-up is actually fun. (It helps if your 4-year old is giving Cinderella-based running commentary.) If you choose to visit the interior, 45-minute guided tours leave on a regular basis. Photography is not allowed inside the castle, however, interior view postcards are available for sale at the entrance. The castle’s interior is decorated in a 19th century style.
For 3€, free for children under 10, you can explore the park at your leisure. We all enjoyed walking around the grounds. There are easy to explore paths and a variety of loops depending on how far you want to walk. (The park covers 22 hectares.) Another bonus, the trails are well-maintained and perfect for strollers. If you’re traveling with your pet, you can even bring your dog (on a leash). Benches are scattered around the grounds and you can sit down and take in the view. We passed any number of couples just sitting down and enjoying the weather as we walked around. Laura and Elise were impressed by the wildflowers and pine cones. Once you get past the formal area around the castle entrance, much of the park is given over to fields of wildflowers which make for a nice contrast with the severe castle.
From the lake, the castle’s four towers seem like something out of a fairy tale! This actually worked out in our favor. Laura is obsessed with Cinderella and she couldn’t wait to see her “home.” Her biggest questions–which tower does Cinderella live in? And, “Do we get to meet the mice and the birds?” The four round towers each have their own name. The two towers which flank the entrance, the 13th century Tour du Maure (the castle keep) and the 15th century Tour du croisé were Laura’s favorites–she decided that Cinderella lived in one of them. The back towers both date to the 14th century and go by the name of the Cat Tower (Tour du chat) and Tour sybil. According to Laura, the mean step-sisters live in them. I’m not sure what Chateaubriand (or his descendents) would have thought of Laura’s comments but as she was happy, I was happy.
The château’s website alludes to an on-site tea room. I had visions of tea with a view. Unfortunately, the “tea room” is a self-service tea/coffee machine and a few tables. If you’re interested in tea with a view, you’re better off stopping at one of the tea rooms near the château or better still, heading down to the lake and sipping your tea there. We ended up skipping tea and heading home after our visit with visions of Cinderella, and shiny towers dancing in our heads! It was a good afternoon–and the sun is still shining today!