Josselin, France – The Medieval French Village with a fairytale castle

I arrived about 10:30 on the morning of March 17th. A Thursday. In my humble opinion the best day of the week to take a day trip such as this. Most everything is open that will be open that week. You avoid the bustle of the weekend days as well. The bus dropped me off at the Place des Cars. About a half a mile uphill from the Oust River/Nantes-to-Brest Canal as the pigeon flies.

I felt a little weird walking down the Rue Saint-Jacques as I usually do at times like this – arriving in a new town, unfamiliar and slightly uncomfortable with my new surroundings. I imagine myself appearing so obviously a tourist as I’m visually inspecting every new building and street I see. Until I’m noticed doing so, then I try to walk “normally” in a vain attempt to avoid the attention. I’m often unsure whether or not to say a friendly “bonjour” or not to the people I pass close by. In the smaller towns and villages of France, oftentimes I do.

Unsurprisingly one of the first things I pass is a church on my right. The brick streetside wall has a cut-out in the middle more than halfway up in order to make a home for an almost opalescent statue of someone I don’t recognize. Saint Jacques, apparently!

A kebab shop follows along with residences and other businesses. Eateries are what grab my attention. I’d already scouted them all out via Google Maps so anything unfamiliar will surprise me. In a town of just 2,500 people, there are only so many places to eat. Even in France. And of all of them, I’ve selected two to choose from for my lunch. Eating out is a rare treat when you’re trying to stick to a budget as strict as mine. And it’s one of my favorite things to do. This will be my first meal out in three weeks so I’m doing everything I can to make sure it’s a really good one.

I especially enjoy lunches in France because you can get excellent food – frequently just as good as you would at dinner time – for a reduced price. And about the only thing I like more than having a good meal – is getting a good deal.

I pass the Boulangerie Briend – a bakery I’ve planned to stop at on my way back to the bus – and I walk down the road that bends to the right. Then more downhill past the cinema, another restaurant and a bank. As the road again curves to the right it gives me Main Street vibes as it continues downhill. More restaurants and now boutiques are mixed in with the apartments and businesses. And as in every French town, multiple hair salons.

I stop to quickly inspect the menu at Crêperie La Sarrazine as it is just steps away from the first of my two choices. Across the street is La Terrasse. A baby blue sandwich board outside matches the awnings and window frames of the latter as well as informs me that this is indeed a place for some serious bon marché (good value). The price for an all-inclusive lunch is beyond reasonable – and includes a glass of wine which is a major bonus – but the plat du jour (main course of the day) doesn’t quite make my heart beat fast with anticipation. I can always come back and eat here if I choose so I walk down the Rue du Canal towards the river and off to my left I get my first glimpse of the Château de Josselin.

A French castle with conical roofs on top of it's four towers on a river with a bridge.
The Château de Josselin on the Oust River/Nantes-to-Brest Canal.

Holy shit. It’s gorgeous. Just like I knew it would be. I take a few photos from my vantage point and head towards it. Moments like these are heaven for me. To actually be walking along the sidewalk I’d walked down virtually via Google Maps so many times while sitting in a dreamy, hazy trance at my desk in the master bedroom of my old apartment in Portland. To actually be in a town I’d dreamed of visiting for years. To actually be seeing something in person with my own eyes that I’d only seen on a screen or in a magazine. It’s an incredible, wonderful feeling that no person should ever die without having.

The castle becomes more majestic the closer I get to it. My mood is light and cheerful and a “bonjour” comes out of me like a song. The way it should sound.

The ladies in France are an absolute delight at every age. Most of them anyway.

The river on my right is calm and peaceful in a friendly “good morning” kind of way. I pass another crêperie on my left. Across the river is my destination. The Hôtel Restaurant du Château. I cross the bridge and walk past the entrance to peek around the corner and confirm that the Rue du Général de Gaulle does indeed turn mostly residential past the French pub on the opposite corner. I walk back to my destination and scan the menu posted to the right of the double glass doors just past the granite steps. White fish (pollock – or saithe as the Brits would call it) with piperade and one of my very favorite French desserts…Far Breton. SOLD!

A copy of the "menu of the day" at The Hôtel Restaurant du Château in Josselin, France.
It’s common to be able to choose either an entrée and main dish, main dish and dessert, all three or the main dish alone at restaurants in France – these “fixed price” lunch menus are always a great deal.

Piperade is a thick, stew-like sauce made of sautéed onion, green bell pepper, and tomato with Espelette pepper being a highly prominent flavor. It’s a very traditional Basque Country delight that I fell in love with during my stay there in 2015. You can put it on anything from eggs to pasta to meat or fish and it just makes it come alive with savory, slightly spicy deliciousness!

Far Breton is a thick custard or flan-like dessert made with prunes soaked in and plumped-up with cognac. It’s fantastic. And when topped with salted butter caramel sauce – it’s even more fantastic. Lunch here is about the same price as at La Terrasse but with no free booze. Fine. I’ll pay for the rosé.

I’m seated at the table of my choice as I’m the first one there for lunch. It’s many weeks away from the start of tourist season, but after an hour half the room fills with folks who are at the hotel for a meeting or convention of some kind. I pick a spot at the window on the canal side and acquire an absolutely astounding view of the castle.

The façade of a French castle with it's high walls towers grandly over the Nantes-to-Brest Canal.
The view of The Château de Josselin from the hotel restaurant across the river is simply magnificent.

The wine and bread come quickly and the main course soon follows. The presentation is 5-star. Of course, it is delicious. The fish was perfectly cooked and I’m in a culinary heaven – drowning in “oh my God” and other quiet exclamations. I keep looking to my left at the majestic castle as that is what I really came to Josselin to see. It simply does not disappoint. It is other-worldly – as if it were straight out of a fairy tale. I start to daydream about it being mine. It should be mine. My name means “little king” and I’m certainly eating like a king. “Someday” – I whisper quietly to myself.

A blue dinner plate with fish over potatoes in the middle surrounded by a swirl of yellow sauce.
The presentation of the pollock would have even pleased…Jackson Pollock. It certainly pleased me.

I enjoy my Provincial rosé very much throughout my slow cruise through my plat principal. The dessert is predictably superior and just as elegantly presented. The king is pleased. Would I like “un café?” But of course my dear. A meal this good must have the icing on top. “Un café” is French code for an espresso. A small cup on a saucer, a sugar packet of some kind and a small cookie or chocolate. The ultimate digestif.

A plate with a slice of Far Breton - a flan-like dessert - decorated with salted butter caramel.
The Far Breton was also very fashionably presented with meringue drops, strawberry halves, chocolate nibs and of course – salted butter caramel. I could have eaten three of these.
A red "Cafés Richard" espresso cup on a red saucer with coffee in it and a sugar pouch and cookie.
Always the best part of the meal is relaxing with a delicious cup of espresso afterward.
I’ve already had a sip – I just couldn’t resist.

I did not want to leave my throne, but I forced myself up and away from my table to the hotel front desk to pay.

All of this luxurious, regal divinity had cost me a whopping $20. It would have been about $2 more had I been charged for the espresso. I have no idea if that was an error or a gift on their part, but again – nothing better than getting a good deal. Besides a having good meal. And I had the honor of enjoying both today.

Now it was time to try and walk off some of those heavenly calories. I headed back down the river to a park with a little canal lock engaging a small stretch of waterway and an old 17th-century water mill that some lucky bastard has made into their home. On the way I pass a very nicely-dressed French lady sitting on a bench in front of the river with her legs crossed, subconsciously swinging a shoe on her foot. She was deeply engrossed in a book and the pleasure of a beautiful day.

A lady sits on a park bench reading a book alongside the Nantes-to-Brest Canal in Josselin, France.
It was a simply beautiful day in Josselin.

The park was really nice to walk around – I enjoyed inspecting the lock and I marveled at the water mill and its attached residence. The ground was soggy in just a spot or two – not bad for mid-March in the northwest of France. I had the whole park almost completely to myself which made it all the more enjoyable. I lingered and strolled awhile before heading back down along the river and again past the lady now accompanied by an even older gentleman eagerly chatting to her about the good weather.

A lock for the passage of small boats in a park on the Nantes-to-Brest Canal in Josselin, France.
The lock is indeed very much functional today. A watermill sits on the other side of the island where you see the white boat. There is a falls and a bridge there preventing the passage of any boats.
A water mill sits across a river from a grassy park with a low bridge connecting the two.
Must be nice living in a watermill on a river in France. Aside from the walk from the parking lot, through the park and across the bridge and into the house with the groceries. It’s over 1/10th of a mile.

I walked the short path under the bridge next to the castle and spotted a school of very young fish swimming in a fairly orderly line across a small stretch of river – finding food for their own lunch right at the line of shade where the shadow of the bridge met the midday sun on the water.

I continued along a little further to the main lock of Josselin which stretches across the entire river. I then turned back and followed the other side of the château up the hill and into the center of the town. The Château was not yet open for the season so a tour was quite sadly out of the question. I’d discovered this weeks earlier while planning my day here, but it didn’t stop me from standing a moment to look lornfully at the public entrance. It sits just across from the entrance to the Bois d’Amour – a huge park with trails, gardens, an amphitheater and woods…I’d already walked quite a bit and the sun was unobstructed by clouds today and more than warm on my skin. I opted for the shady side of the street and made my way up through the town center, past half-timbered houses as old as the sun and into the Basilique Notre Dame du Roncier.

Two half-timbered houses sit on a medieval village street with a gothic church spire behind them.
The tower of the Notre Dame du Roncier Basilica stands majestically above half-timbered houses in the town center of Josselin, France. The yellow is an interesting color choice!

The gothic exterior with its enormous gargoyles is incredibly cool. As is the stained glass. Its history dates back to the year 808 with the oldest parts of the current building dating back to 1168. There is much to see and read about inside. I spent a good deal of time with the lady of the house. She was lovely to behold and is much admired and loved unwaveringly for many reasons. I begin to think – this is the kind of girl I need in my life. Someone who can heal the sick…give sight back to the blind daughter of a peasant laborer…I decide that these are highly desirable traits well worthy of a king such as myself. I find my royal self leaving with just a little bit of a crush on Notre Dame du Roncier. But she’s got some serious competition in Saint Catherine let me tell you.

A 12th-century gothic basilica with huge stained-glass windows, gargoyle water spouts and spires.
The Basilica Notre Dame du Roncier under the brilliant blue skies of Josselin, France.

I circle around back to view the magnificent bell tower. In season, one can climb stairs up to a viewing platform and amaze at incredible views of the castle, river, town and lands beyond below. A couple of cute French office girls are heading off on errands and we exchange smiles and polite salutations. It’s been a wonderful day but it’s time to make my way back to the bus stop.

Continuing up the hill I pass a half-timbered house built in 1538. The oldest one in Josselin. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in a house that old.

I stop at Boulangerie Briend and labor over the decision between an éclair and a Pain Suisse. A good éclair is easy to find – a good pain Suisse, not so much. Communication with the girl behind the counter is clumsy, but we manage. I find a spot away from the crowd of students waiting for the bus and thoroughly enjoy my Pain Suisse. It’s delicious. Made to a high standard indeed. I don’t like eating while walking or standing around in France. It’s more common than ever, but food is sacred to the French. Traditionalists, whom I admire, frown upon such barbarism. Noteworthy: It’s not just illegal to eat your lunch while driving in France – it’s an abomination. Do NOT get caught doing this. You’ll be shown no mercy whatsoever.

The bus comes and the driver somehow mistakes me for a student and charges me a reduced fare. I delight in that almost as much as getting another opportunity to view the farmlands and woodlands between Josselin and Ploërmel on the ride home.

It’s St. Patrick’s Day so I pour myself a pint of Guinness when I arrive back at my apartment and settle in for an evening of reflecting upon the details of my day and sharing them with friends and family.

Today I created memories that will last a lifetime.

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