Brittany: A Celtic corner of France

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At first sight, Brittany could pass for Dorset. But look a little harder and you'll soon discover it's quite a unique destination, says Cole Moreton

So you pack everything up, get in the car, spend a day on the ferry, drive for hours, then arrive and think: "Right, what's so special about this place? What makes it worth all the effort?"

And you glance around at low-rise holiday homes, manicured gardens, overstuffed 4x4s and other people's children running wild and think: "Hmm. Looks like Dorset."

Which is a bit of a flaming let-down, when you left England three days ago. And that's why we are now chasing the sound of music through crowds on the medieval streets of Quimper (pronounced Camper) in search of something properly Breton.

"Where's it coming from? Behind the crêpe stall. Quick!"

The high whine and low drone of the veuze is supposedly the music of Brittany's soul, the key to understanding this craggy, belligerent, Celtic corner of France. So they say. And so my reluctant family snakes through the market, past purveyors of pewter triskelions and sellers of cider, until at last the sound grows louder and we finally come upon ... the Inverary Pipe Band.

Bloody Scots! Real ones, with kilts and rain tans and everything, here for a festival of fraternity that features performers from all down the west coast of Europe. With respect to the Highlanders, it's just not good enough. We're going to have to keep chasing culture, looking for the difference. You've got to, haven't you? If only to beat back the guilt of coming so far and just lying down.

The signs are there, literally: dual-language road signs with Breton underneath, which reads like a phonetic translation of the French. And everywhere you look there is the black-and-white-striped flag of Brittany, a striking and marketable symbol of the left-leaning Breton nationalism.

There also seems to be a regional fascination with pirates. Yesterday, we saw a Captain Jack Sparrow lookalike posing for photographs. He raised his tricorn to my trilby and growled, "Nice 'at, Monsieur."

The kids want to be back on the beach, though, and there's little to persuade them otherwise in the cathedral of Saint Corentin, despite twin Gothic spires that are eerily like a pair of stoneworked space rockets. Fascinated by the votive candles, one child lights a couple and then says far too loudly: "A euro to pray? Why is God so expensive?" We're shushed out of there by an attendant, and run straight into an enormous white marquee with an empty concrete dance floor. That, believe it or not, is when things change for the better.

Crêpes are on sale for the price of a prayer, with a glass of the brilliant Breton cider to help them to go down. A bunch of shy-looking sixth-formers shuffle on stage, pick up strange-looking instruments and begin to play. They're called Maneg Tort, apparently, and they're absolutely brilliant. Imagine Joy Division playing a meandering folk tune with a dubby bass, an accordion and the bombard, a double-reed Breton woodwind that looks and sounds like it should be in the lips of a snake charmer.

Suddenly, the floor fills with people, men and women, young and old, all holding hands. On some secret signal they start dancing, but it's not like any folk dance I've seen before. A shuffle to the right, a gentle bounce on the soles of the feet to the rhythm of the music like a geriatric pogo and the hands held high, as if for a skipping rope. This slowed-down hokey cokey is totally straight faced. Old ladies and young beauties, weather-beaten granddads and spotty boys skip and shuffle, and in the middle of the line there's a very cool French man in a black leather box jacket and shades, staring into the middle distance, bobbing up and down.

"What's going on?" asks one of the kids. "How do they know what to do?" There are no callers, but we are at a Fest Noz (the Breton for night festival, and the equivalent to a ceilidh). The story behind the movements is that way back in the past the dances were used to trample down the earthen floor of a barn. But the Fest Noz tradition is more recent than that, having been revived in the Fifties. It's said that dancers can go into a kind of trance because the music and movement are so repetitive and go on for such a long time. As Maneg Tort take the tune round again I find that totally believable. I look along the family line and all six of our heads are bobbing, feet tapping. It's hypnotic.

Maneg Tort are playing as part of the Festival de Cornouaille (the name of the region, which was settled by Cornish princes and has strong cultural links with that place). Youssou N'Dour is also scheduled to appear, which is perhaps stretching the definition of Cornouaille culture a bit far, but I love this. "So now," says a small voice during a lull in the music, "can we go to the beach?"

Er, not quite. Thinking the weather was going to be much worse, we have booked too much to do. First up is horse riding, which at least satisfies the fantasies our two little girls have been having since they started watching a TV show called Saddle Club. Grace wakes up very early the next morning and announces that it is "five hours and eight minutes until we get there".

Rosettes on the stable doors indicate that the Arzano equestrian centre, a ranch on a hill just north of Quimperlé, is a centre for serious riders who win things, not a tired family who are mostly strangers to the saddle. But Gaëlle Mieet, the manager, has seen it all before – even my inability to lift a leg high enough to get on board a horse – and just smiles.

First we have to go into the stables, each of us alone, to brush and stroke. "Le contact," Gaëlle calls it. Louis is 11 years old and a mighty chestnut beast, clearly chosen to bear my weight. He frightens me at first but settles down under the brush, then lifts one hind leg in a peculiar way. Louis is finding the experience immensely pleasant, that much becomes obvious. Hugely so. It's impossible to ignore. But at least I think we've got a chance of getting on.

His pleasure has subsided by the time we get to the parade ring, which is just as well. The Moretons line up like virgin cavalry soldiers. My knuckles are white on the reins. My eldest son has overcome very real fears to take control of his horse. "He's cool," says Gaëlle, and my son blushes.

We trek for an hour through the woods with Gaëlle and by the end everyone is exhausted. The girls fall asleep in the car on the way home, huge smiles on their faces. The thing that pleases me most, though, is that being here – where the Bretons make no concessions – has forced us to risk our French and improve. Which is just as well, given that we're going sailing.

Port Manec'h has been given a lot of attention, so the tiny, sandy beach is quite crowded. Picturesque is an understatement: you drive down a narrow lane, past a home that looks like a fairy-tale castle, to a strip of sand bordered by forest on one side and on the other by the mouth of a river, where sleek white yachts rise and fall on their moorings.

We have signed up in advance with Cardinale Sud, a club that runs sailing classes for children. It is scary to watch your little chicks disappear out to sea on their own while instructors call out from separate boats in a language they don't understand. But we discover – over yet another crêpe – that the instructors are brilliant with children and have decent English, not to mention safety boats cruising the bay. The weather is also astonishingly good, still and calm.

"It is good here," says Danielle Manac'h, the club owner, with a smile. "Once a day." I'm not sure what she means – until the skies suddenly darken and fat raindrops fall. The new sailors emerge from the storm and 10 minutes later they are dry again, because it's sweltering.

We're all more than ready to crash out on the beach, but which one? There are dozens, all along the coast, each with a strip of sand and seaweed, some rocks to climb on, a big wide sky and an inspiring view of the Atlantic horizon. They're perfect for nostalgic re-creations of the sorts of holiday you think you had as a child, carefree on the sand, playing Mum at beach football. Funny how you never remember Dad stubbing his toe on a rock as he goes to score and swearing loudly. (I hope.)

And so, finally, we get to crash out at home. That's no problem when you have rented a house with a barbecue, ping-pong table and loungers under the spreading tree. Both the houses provided by Just France are immaculate, with owners that live nearby. The second one comes with a covered swimming pool for our exclusive use, and a view of the beach. Cue moonlit walks by the shoreline, midnight skinny dips and happy children. They've done culture, they've done daring, and they've spoken more French than any of us thought possible beforehand. There's no need to feel guilty about not getting enough out of this holiday, or engaging enough with the culture. Full of barbecued sardines, they're happy to play, while we lay down to rest. At last. Excellent.

"Dad," says a small, sweet voice. "Why didn't we just stay here in the first place?"

Compact Facts

How to get there

Cole Moreton and family were guests of Just France (020-8246 4102; just france.co.uk). They stayed at Ty Rivier, close to the beach at Pendruc, which costs from £487 for a week's rental (ref FR2931.112.1) and Ty Pouldohan, near Tregunc, which costs from £927 for a week's stay (ref FR2932.351.1).

Further information

Arzano Equitation (arzano-equitation .ffe.com); Port Manec'h (pointplage.fr). Brittany Tourism (brittanytourism .com; finisteretourisme.com).

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