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We stayed in a really charming gîte (holiday rental) in Upper Brittany.

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These gîtes ruraux are usually in quite remote countryside locations; typically they are former farmhouses that have been renovated and converted for use as comfortable holiday homes. It’s not unusual for the gîte to be located around 4 km from the local village, so a car is really a necessity.

This gîte, however, was particularly remote, set among cornfields at the edge of a vast forest, with the nearest house over 1 km away (straight-line distance) and the nearest shops 8 km away.

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You can imagine how peaceful it is, a beautifully-tended acre surrounded by farmland and wilderness, the only sounds the sounds of nature. And the stars at night, far from streetlights and the lights of habitation, were a breathtaking spectacle. Not twinkling dots, but hard steely brightly-coloured points of light in the deep blackness, on either side of the great overhead sweep of the Milky Way.

The address is “Lieu-dit La Feutelle”. Lieu-dit literally means “place called” or “place known as”, but it has become a common noun in French to refer to these remote rural places. Lieux-dit are somewhat equivalent in concept to “townlands” here in Ireland, in the way they are used for rural addresses.So for example you could say (despite the apparent redundancy) un lieu-dit nommé «La Croix Rompue» — A lieu-dit called “La Croix Rompue”.

The hierarchy of places in rural France goes something like this:

  • lieu-dit: a rural location that may have one or two houses, or may be completely uninhabited;
  • hameau: a hamlet, a cluster of houses with (typically) no shops or services;
  • village: a village with a church, and shops such as a café and a bakery;
  • bourg: a larger village with a market-place and a weekly market, often the administrative centre of the commune.
  • ville: a town big enough to sustain local industry, services and administration and not focused on agriculture.

All of these are faced with a challenging future as young people migrate to cities for educational and employment opportunities, and rural France becomes increasingly empty. Hamlets are deserted, village bakeries close and towns struggle to find a future. Farmhouses become holiday homes for Parisians, permanent homes for retired English people or gîtes ruraux for weekly rental to visitors like us.

After one week in that area, we moved to another gîte in Lower Normandy, in the Val de Saire. One thing that was very striking in that area was the unusual place-names.

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Some of the place-names come from the local Norman dialect. For example, the address of our gîte is Rue du Plat Douet, where douet is a local word for a stream. The sign in the picture above indicates the hamlet of Hamel ès Ronches, which looks exotic but is just a local version of hameau des ronces — the hamlet of the brambles. Placename elements are shared between this part of Normandy and the Channel Islands: for example names ending with -hou such as Tatihou and Quettehou in France and Jethou, Burhou and les Écréhous in the Channel Islands.

But many of the placenames in the Val de Saire turn out not to be Norman French at all, but Danish. After all, the Normans were originally Northmen, Danes, Viking raiders, before they settled, adopted the local language and went on to conquer England and Ireland, as well as more far-flung places in sunnier climes. And they left reminders of their original Germanic culture in the local toponomy.

For example, the nearby beach in Cosqueville was called Plage de Vicq (vík meaning harbour); Clitourps is klíf torp (cliff village) and the tôt in the village name Tôt de Haut is also a variation of the word for village (topt). Even the names that appear French in form are often actually Scandinavian in origin. The fleur in Barfleur is not a flower but a river; the many places with tour are not French towers but Scandinavian villages. L’Anse du Brick is not the cove of the brick but of the brekka (coastline). La Mare and La Houe are not native French (“the pond” and “the hoe”) as they appear but Nordic names in disguise (“the salt-marsh” and “the holt”). And finally, one name of Irish origin: Néville is not “new town” but “Nial’s town”; one of our Viking settlers may have come from Ireland.

Menhir

We’ve been in France for the past two weeks; last week in Upper Brittany and this week in the Val de Saire in Normandy.

The countryside of north-western France is full of standing stones known as menhirs, dating back to the Neolithic period more than 4000 years ago. They carry no markings, nor any clues as to the beliefs or intentions of those who went to tremendous effort to transport them and erect them. One suggestion is that they may have served as grave markers for important people or families.

Near our gîte in Brittany we came across such a standing stone, called the Pierre de Richebourg.

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Like many such standing stones, it is on private property, and in fact this one is behind a chain-link fence.

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It’s a somewhat rough-hewn piece of schist about 2.5 metres high.

Menhirs are popularly associated with Brittany, partly because of the huge concentration of stones at Carnac, and in fact the word menhir itself comes from Breton (Celtic) words meaning “long stone”. But in fact they are to be found all over Europe, especially north-western France, Britain and Ireland, and long predate the Celts. Fans of the Asterix comic books (set in Brittany soon after the Roman invasion of Gaul in 50 BC) will remember the character Obelix carrying a menhir around on his back. This is a humorous anachronism, as the people who raised the menhirs were as distant in time from Asterix and Obelix as the Gallic Wars are from us.

Here in Normandy, there is an impressive menhir in a field just a few hundred metres away from our gîte, known as the Longue-pierre (a French calque of the word menhir). It’s a piece of granite about 6 metres high, of which 4.5 metres are above ground.

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I met the lady who owns the field (and, I suppose, owns the menhir, insofar as that means anything). She told me there is a second, similar stone buried in the field. This standing stone is one of three in the commune of Saint-Pierre-Église, known as the 3 princesses. There is an old belief that they each swivel around during the midnight mass each year on Christmas Eve.

In addition to solitary stones, there are dolmens known as allées couvertes, or covered alleys. A very impressive example near where we stayed in Brittany is called La Roche aux Fées (the fairy rock), in the commune of Essé (Ille-et-Vilaine). Like Newgrange in Ireland, it has a south-westerly orientation, its opening aligned with the first rays of sunrise on the winter solstice. The name comes from a legend that the fairies built the monument in a single night.

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This comprises 42 huge blocks of purple schist arranged to form a covered passage 20 meters long. This structure has survived substantially intact for 5000 years. Just inside the entrance (which features a truly massive lintel) you have to bend low as the passage is quite constricted, but once inside it opens into a long chamber in which it is possible to stand up.

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A similar megalithic structure can be found not far from our current holiday home, in the hamlet of la Forge in the commune of Bretteville (Manche). DSCN5291

This is also an allée couverte about 20 meters in length, but features a side entrance with a portal stone at right-angles to the others.

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Unlike the Roche aux Fées, it is oriented northwest-southeast, and the side-entrance is near the southeast end.

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Some of the capstones (roof-slabs) are missing, but the walls of the passage are intact. Near the side entrance there is an L-shaped slab forming a door that you must squeeze past to reach the main passage.

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A row of smaller rocks or kerb-stones alongside the main monument mark the edge of the tumulus of earth and rocks that once covered the whole structure.

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