Graduate students Rebecca Bartels, Toby Hrynick, and Thomas Schellhammer and Professor Rosemary Wakeman spent 3 days in June in the French town of Domfront in Lower Normandy. The stay was organized by Mayor Bernard Soul of Domfront and Eric Fauconnier of the Pays du Bocage Region. Domfront is a picturesque medieval town that played an important role in the wars against the English and the French Wars of Religion. Domfront’s well-known chateau was used by Henry, the youngest son of William the Conqueror to rally the local lords. He eventually became Duke of Normandy and Henry I of England. Domfront’s “Medieval Fair,” held each August, is among the most well-known in France and attracts thousands.
Rebecca, Toby and Thomas joined city officials and local historians on tours of the town and surrounding region, attended intensive workshops on the renovation of the medieval center, and offered suggestions on ways to fuse the town’s history with their urban projects and tourist plan. The students provided their insights on ways to use new technologies to enliven interest in the city’s history and its built environment, and ways to showcase the ruins of the chateau. In between work was great food and the apple and pear brandy Domfront is known for!
Domfront was a key strategic location in the high middle ages, and still boasts an astonishing density of medieval and early modern structures, along with remarkable examples of more contemporary architecture, including the church of St. Julien, a unique example of early twentieth-century concrete ecclesiastical architecture in a striking neo-Byzantine style. In recent decades, however, the old town center has been struck by some of the problems common to downtowns in Europe and the Americas alike: an increasing abandonment of older down-towns in favor of sub-urban regions, and new centers designed around automobiles rather than foot traffic. Domfront’s relative seclusion during the age of rail and now, in the age of the car have left the old town with a remarkably well preserved medieval town center, which the city now hopes to leverage against the problems caused by that same isolation.
Rebecca gave her thoughts on the entire experience working with the group as they planned new ways to help the town. She said they worked with a
…remarkable team of tourist experts and civil servants to come up with possible solutions to their problem of being an unknown town and tourist attraction. We came up with technical ideas such as a new app or website featuring the activities in the town as well as a virtual reality tour of the castle as it would have been during the medieval period and afterwards. The town is also ideal for artisans to live and produce their products and would give the town a new age vibe while being able to preserve the small streets and medieval layout. Also, we suggested logistic solutions such as more traffic signs pointing towards the town on highways and parkways just to get the name in people’s heads as well as a valet service to bring more safety to the town as cars have trouble parking and driving on such thin streets. This would make the town safer for children as well as help preserve its medieval essence while encouraging walking among the shops and restaurants.
Other than the work element of the experience, those people we worked with were enthusiastic to share their culture and heritage with us. They not only spoke to us about what made the town special but they shared elements of French culture that I had not known about before. They brought us nourishing meals with foods produced by local farm owners and growers. They shared with us the qualities of their dialect of French and how it differed from other dialects of French such as Parisian French and Belgian French. They also wanted to know about us Americans and by the end of the trip, I can say with conviction and pride that I made very good friends in Domfront whom I will never forget.
She also said,
…the town offers people, whether scholars or not, an authentic medieval town preserved through the centuries with good food and hospitality. It is such an old town that many of the buildings are falling apart and need renovation. Once these renovations are done, the beauty and culture of the town will have such great potential to offer a wonderfully educational, fun, and safe vacation for families and artists. It was an honor and a privilege to work with such a distinguished group. I sincerely hope to return one day and find the town more popular within the world of tourism.
Thanks to Professor Wakeman, Toby, and Becca for the postcard of their summer travels!