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
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)