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).

Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders