Josselin, France

Let’s have lunch in Josselin, our host suggested.

Grand, we said, having never heard of the place.

Off we set with zero expectations of the small town on the banks of the River Oust that is also a pass-through point for the Nantes-Brest canal.

I take direction well. When I’m driving. And I was driving.

I doubt anything could have prepared me for the sight of Josselin Castle. Built by the Rohans – who, by the way, are one of the oldest families in Brittany and I believe the lineage is still in residence – this Gothic edifice dates to the eleventh century and has well and truly cemented its place as the town’s marker.  Think chocolate box. Renovated in the seventeenth century, much of the original structure was demolished but still – it’s a magnificent pile of stones.

Eleventh-century gothic castle with three towers and six attic windows. Se on the banks of a river. A ridge adorned with flowers in the foreground

Three of the original nine towers remain (one was a prison tower). We only saw it from the riverside – next time, we must have a look round the front where I’ve read that Gothic morphs into Renaissance.

The grounds, too, are apparently worth a visit with both a French style and an English style garden and a dolls house with more than 3,000 dolls. I’d skip that, given that I’m still prone to the occasional nightmare after visiting the doll museum in Keszthely, Hungary.

A collage of four images of medieval half-timbered houses. Timber beams, weathered by centuries, crisscross the exterior, forming a captivating pattern of horizontal and vertical lines. 1) blue time on white 2) a row of two houses one yellow on whiate, the other blue on white. 3) a corner house - red on beige 4) blue on beige.

Two photos - L - a three story medieval half-timbered house with faded red timbers on a beige background. Timber beams, weathered by centuries, crisscross the exterior, forming a captivating pattern of diamonds. R - Line hunting scene in bas-relief, chimeras and fantastic animals decorate the floor plates and spacers.
House dated 1538. This house is the oldest dated in Josselin. Its strong corbelling and the very narrow plot on which it is built present a fine example of half-timbered construction. Line hunting scene in bas-relief, chimeras and fantastic animals decorate the floor plates and spacers.

The historical centre is a warren of narrow streets with the now familiar half-timbered medieval houses. Street names around one square bear witness to locals who were part of the French Resistance, a movement I’ve bumped into more than once on this trip – and one that warrants further exploration.

Street signs in white on blue. 1. Rue Alphonse Texier, mort en deportation 1908-1944. 2. Rue Lucien Briend, Resistant Fusille 1913-1944. Rue Georges le Berd - Resistant Fusille 1927-1944

The Basilica Notre Dame du Roncier, like the castle, has its origins in the eleventh century. Once a testament to the Romans, the renovations that follow now have it classified as something called Flamboyant Gothic – something to do with the gargoyles perhaps?

Church interior and exterior - four images. 1. Ornate pulpit in gold filegree. 2. Altar in front of a stained glass windown and arched roof. 3. View of the church from the poor - pews on either side of the aisle and altar at the back 4. exterior section with view of tower.

exterior wall of 11th-century gothic basilica showing five gargoyle drain spouts protrunind from the wall. Houses visible on the left with blue and white bunting strung across the street

Tradition says that a 9th-century farmer found a statue of the Virgin Mary in a coppice, which restored sight to his blind daughter. A sanctuary commemorating the miracle, Notre-Dame-du-Roncier basilica in Josselin, soon became a pilgrimage site for sick people seeking to be cured. The statue was destroyed during the Revolution and replaced with a modern piece of work.

Intricately carved altar with a statue of a lady in white clothes at the center.

Beautiful and all as the basilica is, it wasn’t the architecture or the sanctity that caught my attention. It was a shine to Blessed Carlo Acutis, a young Italian boy, who’s on his way to becoming a saint. This Catholic teenager, who died in 2006, was a gamer and a computer programmer. His story is fascinating.

[…] the man nicknamed the “cyber-apostle”, […] his two weapons were his computer and his rosary, and the Eucharist was his highway to heaven.

When he couldn’t get to visit the places where Eucharistic miracles have occurred – more than 130 – he decided to visit virtually. He was 15 when he died. His heart is in the Basilica in Assisi; in Josselin, there’s a reliquary.

Photo of a black-haired boy of 15 in a red shirt wearing a backpack - underneath is written L'Eucharistie est mon autoroute pour le Ciel. Bienheureux Carlo Acutis.

In Tard, Hungary, a few weeks after our day in Josselin, I spotted a poster on the wall of the Tájház (village museum) with the word Josselin. Not quite believing what I was seeing (Tard is a village of about 1000 people in eastern Hungary and just about as far removed from medieval Josselin as I could imagine) I went for a closer look.

Rectangular poster frame in red - all that is framed in red. All that is legible is JOSSELIN 1979-1944. Zoltan Szabo Écrivan Hongrois a vecu ici de 1979 a 1984.

It turns out that Hungarian writer, sociographer, and journalist  Zoltán Szabó is buried in Josselin of all places. And I missed it.

[…] at the age of twenty-four in 1936, Zoltán Szabó made a splash with an excellent little book Tardi helyzet (The State of Affairs at Tard), in which, employing the tools of modern social anthropology, he thoroughly examined a small village called Tard, and told his (rather shocking) findings about backwardness and poverty in a fine essay, in altogether eminently readable prose. This stylistic novelty became known as sociography, and thanks to Szabó’s book, and also to similar publications in the same vein, suddenly a large strata of young intellectuals became aware of the intolerable conditions still existing in semi-feudal Hungary. The revelations were disliked by the authorities, but made the young author a hero in the eyes of left-wing intellectuals. And Zoltán Szabó did not stop just there. As Hitler’s Nazi ideology began to spread to Hungary, he established the column Szellemi Honvédelem (Intellectual Home-Defence) in the Budapest daily newspaper Magyar Nemzet to oppose its influence.

Szabó wasn’t at all backward about coming forward and one thing begetting another, the powers that be decided he (and they) would be better off were he sent abroad. He was sent to Paris as cultural secretary in the Hungarian embassy. He’d later resign his post in protest of the arrest of Cardinal Mindszenty. He ended up in London in the early 1950s where he was the  London correspondent for the anti-communist broadcasting organisation, Radio Free Europe.

Bronze bust of a man with a receding hairline and strong nose

In 2012, Mátyás Sárközi wrote a piece on him for the Hungarian Review. It sent me on a search for English translations of his work. In his article, Sárközi tells this story:

During the 1960s the British Council invited some Hungarian writers to visit London, and after many years without contact Zoltán had a chance to meet old friends again, among them the novelist Áron Tamási, whom he showed around London. In the essay-like portrait he wrote of him afterwards, their conversations are recalled word by word. Tamási was keen to see the Regent Street Christmas decorations. “They are not very tasteful, just a kind of commercial paraphernalia”, protested Szabó, but found Tamási’s counter argument charmingly quotable: “Yes, my friend. You may be right. However, they have to be looked at differently. Through the eyes of a small child.”

There’s a lesson worth learning there.

Szabó and his third wife moved into the parson’s cottage beside the cemetery in Josselin. He paid 50 francs for the grave in which he was buried. He died in exile, never returning to Hungary.

I wish I’d known.

I’d have popped in to say hello.

Notes for next time
  • Visit the Sainte-Croix district and the charming chapel with the same name.
  • Climb the 100 steps of the Basilica’s bell tower.
  • At the corner of Rue du Val d’Oues and Rue Glatinier, check out the wooden house built in 1602. The whole house is covered in wood and there are only a few houses of this style in the whole of Brittany.

P.S. I finally got to taste a Breton galette – a pancake made with buckwheat flour with a savoury filling. I’d order it again. Here’s a recipe.

French galette -crepe fold in a square with an egg yolk in the centre. On a blue plate on a white wooden table


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