A medieval City
The development of Fougères began in the 12th century. The history of the town is closely linked to that of the castle. In wartime, it risked destruction. But in peacetime, its location at the crossroads of major trade routes brought wealth and progress.
The oldest districts, on the banks of the River Nançon at the foot of the castle, show evidence of intense and lucrative activity. Here, bark and fulling mills were used to make fabric, dye cloth and tan leather.
St. Sulpice church, a gem of Gothic art, benefited from the wealth of the town’s inhabitants: it contains one of the region’s most remarkable examples of a granite altarpiece, the altarpiece of the tanners.
The medieval town also spread over the plateau above the castle. The high ramparts that protected the rich population of burghers and merchants continue to watch over the upper town today. The bell has been rung from the belfry, a watchtower and symbol of the political freedoms acquired by the town’s citizens, every day since 1397.
In the 18th century, the upper town centre, previously filled with timber-framed houses with arcades, was reduced to ashes by serious fires. After this, the mansions on Rue Nationale were built, following recommendations by the Parisian architect Gabriel; the use of stone was compulsory, so only the wealthiest could afford these imposing residences. The arcades on the ground floor housed thriving shops.
Revolutionary upheaval left its mark on the town: the Chouans, rebels from Brittany and Vendée who plotted against the nascent Republic, fought several times in the streets of Fougères. They followed the example of the Marquis de la Rouërie, whose mansion can still be seen: he was the founder of the Association Bretonne, a group of counter-revolutionary nobles. The city’s scenery also inspired Romantic writers such as Châteaubriand, Hugo and Balzac. Balzac, in particular, set the first novel of his Comédie Humaine, “Les Chouans”, in Fougères and gave a description that is still realistic today and can be recognised from the park.
The great revolution
The progress in science and industry that marked Europe in the 19th century particularly affected Fougères. From the 1850s onwards, shoe manufacturing was established in the town and became the major activity. The industrial revolution was underway, and Fougères was its centre in Brittany. The factories were mainly established in the new Bonabry district. They still mark the landscape today with their amazing decorations designed by Odorico, Italian mosaic artists whose workshops were in Rennes. Other public facilities emerged at around the same time. The theatre, entirely faced in white tuffeau stone from Anjou, was built in the town centre. The bright decorations of the Italian-style playhouse attracted an ever-growing audience. A library, large covered markets in glass and steel, the railway station, Bonabry church… Some of these buildings are still standing, while others have suffered the ravages of time.
Fougères was severely damaged by Allied bombing during the Normandy landings in 1944. Entire medieval streets were razed to the ground and then rebuilt with more modern materials. Successive economic crises also deeply affected industry, leading to the closure of factories and loss of jobs in the 1970s. Fougères has nonetheless retained its special character. It remains a pleasant town to explore on foot, with an abundance of fascinating things to see.
New buildings reflect a genuine effort to enrich the heritage with 20th century architecture. Above all, the surrounding natural landscapes provide many superb views and areas conducive to serenity and inspiration.
The public garden is a must for visitors: it opens out onto a breathtaking panoramic view of the castle and the medieval quarter. Other parks, such as the Jardin du Val Nançon and the Carrière du Rocher Coupé, are also perfect for enjoying the natural landscapes that make Fougères so attractive. It has been awarded the French 4-flower “towns and villages in bloom” label since 2010. Fougères is also part of the “Les Plus Beaux Détours de France” network promoting attractive towns off the beaten track.