Crêpes, cider and a touch of Cornish crÿme

Brittany is more like its Celtic cousin across the water than its motherland. Tim Heald finds much to compare

Between the twin towers of Quimper Cathedral sits a squat granite figure on a grey granite horse. This is King Gradlon of Brittany, the sixth-century monarch whose life was overshadowed by his libidinous illegitimate daughter - who consigned the Gomorrah-like town of Ys to a watery grave after bedding the Devil in disguise - and the saintly Bishop Corentin, who sustained himself by eating the same miraculously self-regenerating fish every day for the whole of his life.

Between the twin towers of Quimper Cathedral sits a squat granite figure on a grey granite horse. This is King Gradlon of Brittany, the sixth-century monarch whose life was overshadowed by his libidinous illegitimate daughter - who consigned the Gomorrah-like town of Ys to a watery grave after bedding the Devil in disguise - and the saintly Bishop Corentin, who sustained himself by eating the same miraculously self-regenerating fish every day for the whole of his life.

Today, the two 19th-century spires soar above the huge medieval west front of St Corentin's cathedral. In former times, every 26 July, a nimble citizen with a head for heights would climb on Gradlon's horse and hold a glass of wine to the king's mouth. Then he would drink the wine himself, wipe the king's lips with a napkin and hurl the empty glass at the crowd below. If someone caught it unbroken they received a prize of 100 golden coins. All very mysterious and Breton.

Sipping a kir breton (cassis and local cider) in the cathedral square under Gradlon's gaze, I watched and listened as two girls played the traditional Breton pipes in cacophonous competition with a travelling band of Peruvians and contemplated the mystic, Celtic quality of Quimper and its hinterland. Over my shoulder, the Musée des Beaux-Arts was advertising an exhibition of paintings by members of the Pont-Aven school who lived a few miles away in the fishing village of that name. Paul Gauguin was the most famous member and an extract from a letter in the exhibition to his fellow artist Vincent van Gogh in 1889 seemed particularly apt. "Here in Brittany," he wrote, "the peasants have an air of the Middle Ages and of not for a moment thinking that Paris exists or that one might be in 1889." Plus ça change.

Like Cornwall, its Celtic cousin across the waters, Brittany has pockets of chic and sophistication but its core seems remote, timeless and elusive. It is best-known for a craggy coastline and best-loved for beaches and for sailing. The ancient charms of Breton towns, villages and countryside away from the sea are less familiar, much less crowded and just as appealing. Every village, however tiny, has a vast church with an extravagant belfry, here and there a Calvary or even an ossuary, all carved and be-gargoyled with a grotesquerie worthy of Gormenghast.

Every little shop sells faïence, the distinctive, local pottery decorated with simple flowers or naive depictions of Bretons in traditional dress, featuring ornate lacy headdresses and collars, dark blue skirts and pantaloons with wooden sabots. Every little café serves a bewildering variety of Breton crêpes; every bar offers local cider and the Breton version of calvados or even Breton whisky. Place names on signposts are in French and Breton. So Quimper is also Kemper and Châteauneuf-du-Faou is Kastel-Nevez-Ar-Fou.

I stayed with English friends in their cottage near the last-named village. Their house is on the banks of the River Aulne, which at that point is part of the Nantes-Brest canal, about half an hour's drive from Quimper. It is a somnolent countryside with fields full of newly baled hay and lazily pregnant cattle; green peppers in the garden were slowly turning red; a faint smell of pig came rolling in from a distant farmyard; cyclists and long-distance runners could be seen bobbing along the tow-path.

Just once we spotted a boat on the water. "Cleopatra's Barge," cried Maggie and Michael with delight, and, indeed, the pleasure craft from Châteauneuf-du-Faou, while not quite of burnished gold, did have a voluptuous, billowing-canvas quality which was more regal than one would have expected to find at the bottom of our friends' vegetable garden.

The canal doesn't actually begin in Nantes or end in Brest but it comes quite close and is therefore far too long to even think of boating along. It was a Napoleonic dream but never really fulfilled its original strategic purpose of linking the Loire to the port of Brest by a secure inland route. Construction began in 1811 and continued until 1842 and in all it has 325 locks. However, the bits I saw, especially round Châteauneuf-du-Faou, looked beautifully inviting and serene. The tarmac towpath is just made for cycling and hardly anyone was about.

This part of Brittany remains a place apart, its Celtic people proud and insular with their own flag and language, customs and culture. Proximity to Britain and a similarity of climate mean that it has never apparently matched the Riviera, the Dordogne or Provence for high-profile, expat appeal but now it is finally beginning to catch on with the British. Within a few miles of my friends' cottage, one English couple, experienced field mycologists, were offering weekend mushroom hunts based on their 16th-century farmhouse near Carhaix Plouger. Who next will cross the Channel? What King Gradlon makes of this English invasion as he gazes down from his granite perch is anybody's guess.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Brittany Ferries (0870-366 5333; www.brittany-ferries.co.uk) runs crossings from Plymouth to Roscoff, Portsmouth to St Malo and Plymouth to St Malo. Prices for a five-day return start from £21 per adult and £95 for a car and two passengers. Ryanair (0871-246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from London Stansted to Dinard from £60 return.

Where to stay

Manoir du Stang (00 33 2 0956 9737; www.manoirdustang.com), 14km outside Quimper, offers double rooms from €65 (£46) without breakfast. For mushrooms and funghi tours contact Peter and Clarissa Novak (00 33 2 9893 2436; e-mail novak.prevasy@wanadoo.fr)

Further information

Maison de la France (09068 244123, 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com).

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