So near, so far

Brittany is at Britain's doorstep, yet it is quite unlike anywhere we know, including Cornwall. What secrets do its strange stones keep?

The crocodile-back of Brittany's Roc Trevezel could be a granite tor on Dartmoor's rim. Cap Frehel is like a Cornish cape. The two duchies share Arthurian myths and separatist instincts. Both enjoy cider and sailing. Given how often Brittany is compared to Cornwall, it's a surprise to discover how much they differ. Brittany is nearly eight times bigger than its Celtic cousin, with a population density of 103 per square kilometre compared with Cornwall's 131 (London's is 4,303).

Brittany's poverty shocked early travellers. When Arthur Young rode into the province one year before the outbreak of the French Revolution, he noted in his journal that the town of Combourg was a "hideous heap of wretchedness... one of the most brutal filthy places that can be seen; mud houses, no windows, and a pavement so broken, as to impede all passengers, but ease none...". The Suffolk farmer added: "My entry into Bretagne gives me an idea of its being a miserable province."

A decade later, in Voyage dans le Finistere, the French traveller and writer Cambry described the peasants as dirty and savage, too ignorant, prejudiced and superstitious to work their way out of poverty.

Neither writer had an eye for decorative landscapes. Brittany has 3,500km of coastline, much of it sculptural rock and ivory sand. Elemental beauty is Brittany's birthright. It is there in the startling palettes of stone and petal and in the immensity of untroubled space. The megaliths appear as a human compliment. They stand in circles and avenues, barrows, cairns and solitary menhirs. Most are clustered around Carnac on the south coast.

There is more to please the prehistoric imagination in Brittany than at the ploughed-out sites of Wessex, although signs and printed guides are haphazard and Paris still believes that every foreign visitor reads academic French. At the mathematical alignments of Le Menec, visitors peer bewildered over a wire fence at stones that poke randomly from a tangle of undergrowth.The 5,000-year-old burial chamber on the island of Gavrinis is more accessible.

A century ago, the intrepid Betham-Edwards, author of A Year in Western France, managed to reach Gavrinis by rowing boat. After fighting a tide race and hauling the boat with ropes, he found the tomb an "awful grotto", but marvelled at the grave-builders' "love of tours de force". Now you travel to Gavrinis by motor-boat and inspect the interior of the tomb by solar-powered light bulbs. The chamber's massive granite slabs are entirely covered in vaguely symmetrical wavy lines. They could be giant thumbprints. Some are axes. They reminded Betham-Edwards of Maori tattoos.

It's easy in this era of Mach I vacations to forget that the extraordinary can be found on Britain's doorstep. Driving time from London to Brittany is two hours. Once at Portsmouth, the traveller passes a pampered night on a luxury ferry, waking within range of St Malo's warm boulangeries. Over the bows, Flaubert's "crown of stone" rises from an islet on the ragged coast. Behind Vauban's military bulwarks, the tall stone houses stand shoulder-to-shoulder around St Vincent's spire. St Malo, the Dubrovnik of La Manche, is the most romantic landfall in northern France.

This August, the tall ships were in town. Along the quays of Bassin Vauban and Bassin Duguay-Trouin, the warm air was crosshatched with masts, spars and pyramids of rigging. Knots of sailors from Baltic ports mingled with Ukrainian matelots and Solent yachties. For three days, St Malo basked in nautical deja vu, a paramnesic flashback to the days of corsairs, cod fleets and Jacques Cartier, the St Malo navigator who sailed three times for America on voyages of discovery.

Ten minutes from St Malo's quays, cows browse rollercoaster hills sprinkled with stone villages that blaze with geraniums. Country lanes are parted with grass and fields often have no fences. The impression is of an England lost. Of peace and space.

At the head of the 20km fjord that wriggles inland from St Malo, medieval Dinan peers from its cliff above the placid surface of the Rance. Cobbled streets and alleys twist below half-timbered houses that tilt with the passing of time. The 500-year-old bell known as Anne clangs each quarter- hour from the top of the Tour de l'Horloge, a stone tower capped by a rickety belfry. The view over the surrounding countryside, and the town's intact battlements, are a reminder that Dinan - like St Malo - has a martial past.

The English burned the town in 1344, then returned in 1364, only to withdraw after Sir Thomas of Cantorbery was trounced in a hand-to-hand duel. One version of the fight has Sir Thomas unhorsed and floored with a dagger to the throat. Refusing to apologise to his French adversary, he was smashed in the face with a mailed fist. He was spared by an intervention from the Duke of Lancaster.

Not far to the west, the town of Treguier is also removed from the British urban model. Soaring above a slumbering square that is lined on its sunny side with cafes, is the cathedral that was begun in the same century as Salisbury. "Treguier, my native town," wrote the great 19th-century philologist Ernest Renan, "is a city wholly ecclesiastical, foreign to commerce and industry, one vast

monastery indeed, penetrated by no rumours from the outer world, where what other men pursue is called vanity, and where what laymen call chimeras are held to be the sole realities of existence."

So much of Brittany's cultural fabric has survived that the past is an elastic presence. With a little help from a weathered Calvary or sagging water mill, it's easy to slip back in time. We were taking a walk on Cap Frehel as the tall ships passed, fussed about by flotillas of local yachts that bobbed in the wake of schooners, barquentines and square-riggers. Leading the armada of 396 sails up the Channel was the century-old three- master from Bremen, Alexander von Humboldt.

The fleet was bound for Ile de Brehat, Brittany's best example of a land that time forgot. Ile de Brehat is set in an archipelago of pink rock, a 10-minute boat trip from Pointe de l'Arcouest. The 300 or so Brehatins have no cars. The island's lanes tinkle with bicycle-bells and the conversations of day-trippers who make the pilgrimage to this paradise for auto-phobics.

For a city-dweller seeking solace from fumes, decibels and stress, Ile de Brehat is an instant cure. The colours are not quite believable. Against the glowing Brehat granite, the sea takes on a spectrum from jade through to the cobalts of Quimper's famous faience pottery. Handlebars brush buttery mimosa. Palms lick the wind. The stone walls of cottages, hull down to the westerlies, are colour-splashed with hydrangeas and agapanthus.

Ile de Brehat proves the rule that islands are microcosms of their mainlands. Gavrinis, St Malo and Ile de Brehat are Brittany's distilled spirit. So is Concarneau. Built on a rock, walled by Vauban and - like St Malo - a favourite of Flaubert, Concarneau's Old Town is a car-free haven in an otherwise bustling port. It is also Brittany's tourist honeypot. Rue Vauban is hemmed-in with souvenir shops, ice-cream bars and moules-frites cafes.

Concarneau holds its market on Mondays and Fridays. When Arthur Young complained of the "myriads of triflers, common at a French market", he cannot have imagined that the triflers would become a tourist attraction. Concarneau has plenty: Moroccans selling leather goods, Breton bagpipers and hippy drummers, cider-sellers and crepe-chefs. In Brittany, farming is still twice as important as elsewhere in France and the products of small farms fill the markets with artichokes, cheese, garlic, hams and around 50 kinds of honey.

On the way from the market, past the fish quay, we passed a boat that was about to leave for the Iles de Glenans. I'd never heard of the Iles de Glenans. Ten minutes later, we were out in the Atlantic, heading for a cluster of islets. After an hour or so, we were landed on St-Nicolas, a sand bar with a couple of cafes and a beach that might have been in the Grenadines. Turquoise water lapped idly on a smiling white strand. The penalty for missing the last boat back is to become an overnight Crusoe. There are worse places to be marooned. Traveller's Guide

Getting there:

Brittany Ferries (0990 360360) operates one return sailing daily between Portsmouth and St Malo. Standard fares, for two adults, three children and a car, start from pounds 298. A Minibreak fare for up to five days abroad starts from pounds 170. Complimentary cabins are offered on all morning sailings.

Accommodation: Nicholas Crane stayed at campsites booked through the Carefree Travel Service of the Camping and Caravanning Club (01203 556797). Prices for two adults and two children range from around pounds 12-16 per night.



The Rough Guide to Brittany & Normandy (pounds 9.99), Michelin Tourist Guide to Brittany, (pounds 8.99), Insight Pocket Guide to France (pounds 16.99), Blue Guide to France, (pounds 17.99) and The National Geographic Traveler Guide to France (pounds 14.95)

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Field Based Sales Surveyor - OTE £40,000

    £16000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Field Based Sales Surveyor is...

    Ampersand Consulting LLP: UI Designer/ User Interface Designer (UI, User Flow, Design)

    £6000 - £60000 per annum + Bonus and Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: UI De...

    Investigo: International Finance Analyst

    £270 - £300 per annum: Investigo: An exciting opportunity to join an internati...

    Recruitment Genius: CAD / CAM Ladies Cocktail & Eveningwear Gerber Grader

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?