Travel: France: A history of the Brit pack

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The Independent Culture
THE QUESTION was whether to turn right or left after leaving Roscoff. Turning left would take us to the Cote du Granit Rose, while the right turn led toward Brest and then the inviting sun of the south.

For years we have had a love affair with Britanny: in particular, that stretch of coastline between Morlaix and Perros- Guirec. As you journey east it becomes the Pink Granite Coast, with boulders carved by wind, sea and rain into mysterious shapes around Trebeurden, Tregastel and Ploumanac'h (if these names look Cornish or Welsh it is because of their common Celtic origins). One tricorne-boulder is now part of history. Shortly before D-Day, the BBC warned the local resistance forces to ready themselves with the question "Does Napoleon's hat still rest in Perros- Guirec?"

The best way to see this rugged coastline is to wander along the "Sentiers des Douaniers" - coastal paths beaten by the feet of countless customs officers in their struggle against local smugglers. One of the most delightful tracks winds from the picturesque port of Ploumanac'h along cliffs, through woods, past the island chateau of Costaeres to St Guirec. There, just beyond the sea-facing chapel, set in a small granite oratory built on the beach, stands a statue of St Guirec himself. Local legend has it that any young girl sticking a pin in his nose will be married within the year. Generations of pins have left the unfortunate saint nasally challenged.

There is so much to visit: chateaux; the cathedral of Treguier; pre-historic menhirs; and allees couvertes, the largest being at Barnenez. Small boats will take you around the Sept Iles, noted for their bird colonies and seals. Or sail off to the island of Brehat, where the only car belongs to the local gendarmarie.

The area is steeped in Arthurian legend. Every Roman camp seems to have belonged to the legendary king, like the one at Huelgoat. What is more, Arthur is reputed to be buried on the Ile d'Avat just off the coast close by Trebeurden.

This time, though, the southern sun beckoned. We turned right, and aimed for the small port of Camaret, on the Crozon Peninsula. The fishing boats lazed at anchor, old tall ships were being refurbished, the sun glinted off the chapel at the end of the jetty, and the local pizzas were superb. But we were heading south.

South were some comfortingly familiar places: Concarneau with its old and new ports, beaches, and the fortified island linked to the mainland by two small bridges and defended by massive medieval ramparts. Close by is the photogenic town of Pont-Aven, where Gauguin painted many of his Breton pictures and where he and other artists formed the Pont-Aven school in 1888.

In Breton, morbihan means "little sea". When you see the extraordinary Gulf of Morbihan, you understand why. The rivers of Vannes and Auray empty into a kind of miniature Caribbean, though the 40-odd islands, sea channels, oyster beds and fishing boats make the scene unique. And on the edge stands Carnac. If sitting all day on one of its sandy beaches bores, then there is much to see; it was a great prehistoric centre. Of the ancient megalithic monuments, the most famous are the "Alignments": 11 rows of standing stones, the longest stretching more than a kilometre.

Not far away are dolmens and tumuli, the largest of the latter some 120 metres long and 12 metres high. Excavations have uncovered two burial chambers and 20 stone chests. The artefacts discovered there are now in the Carnac museum.

Vannes, at the head of the gulf, was once the capital of the Breton kingdom. The castle, ramparts, the wash-houses by the river, St Peter's cathedral, the 16th-century gabled houses and the old market square conspire to intoxicate the visitor with history. And if you prefer the real thing, just drink a bottle or two of Breton cider.