Traveller's guide: Brittany
In the last of our six-part series produced in association with Footprint Travel Guides, Wendy Mewes reveals the highlights of the wild north-west of France
Saturday 19 June 2010
Will I love Brittany?
Brittany has a distinctive identity, symbolised by vibrant Celtic culture and the Breton language, but you'll be right at home with the croissants, coffee, unspoilt countryside and relaxed pace of life. A stunning coastline provides all the beaches, boats and water-sports anyone could desire, as well as menus of fresh fish and shellfish in most restaurants. The interior of diverse landscapes offers megaliths and rich religious architecture round every corner. Another advantage is that Brittany is only a short hop away by sea or air.
Once part of the Roman territory Armorica, Brittany ("little Britain") came into being in the 6th century. Immigrants from south-west England and Wales, escaping population pressures and incursions by the Irish and Anglo-Saxons, settled in the north and west of the peninsula. Contact had been close since the Neolithic period when trade routes were well established. The blend of in-comers' speech and existing local language formed Breton, which has many similarities with Cornish and Welsh. By contrast, the eastern part of Brittany developed under stronger Roman, and then Frankish, influences, with its own Latin-derived language Gallo. Loire-Atlantique – a department on the west coast of France – and the city of Nantes were part of historic Brittany up until the Second World War.
Finistère – "the end of the earth" – remains the most traditionally Breton département, markedly different from the more commercially developed east of the region.
In the beginning
Brittany has the largest collection of Neolithic remains in Europe. Highlights include the Menhir de Kerloas, the tallest standing stone in France (at nearly 10 metres), north-west of Brest, and the great Cairn of Barnenez (c4800BC) near Morlaix, one of the earliest European structures.
Menhir ("long stone") and dolmen ("stone table") were 19th-century names given to New Stone Age standing stones and burial places. Before scientific dating techniques, it was wrongly believed these monuments were a product of Celtic civilisation. Theories of usage abounded – Druid sacrifices, snake cults and astrological temples being the most popular. Flaubert wryly asserted he had studied all the arguments and had come to an irrefutable conclusion: they were very large stones.
These monuments are evidence of the huge advances in social cohesion, skills and practical techniques from 5,000BC. Houses were built of wood and clay, pottery and weaving developed, and high-quality decorative objects like polished axes were crafted.
Carnac has been awarded World Heritage status for its spectacular alignments of standing stones stretching over three kilometres. Don't miss ducking into the passage of the atmospheric Tumulus de Kercado or the alignment of Petit Mené, left untouched in its woodland setting.
Artefacts at the superbly presented museum in the town of Carnac (00 33 297 52 22 04; museedecarnac.com) give a true sense of this progress. The museum is open all year; April to June, plus September, 10am-12.30pm and 2-6pm (longer in July and August), and is closed on Tuesdays.
Saint-Just is a less well-known but equally compelling site with open access on a high plateau near Redon. As well as alignments and unusual burial sites, there is a unique structure called the Tribunal. This may well be a Neolithic calendar, with a single marker facing a semi-circle of stones. If you are interested in how menhirs were raised and Neolithic houses built, visit the restored alignments of Monteneuf, north of Redon, where there is an outdoor educational section demonstrating these and other processes.
Water, water everywhere
Nearly 2,800km of sensational coastline draw visitors to Brittany's beaches and bays. Islands, lighthouses and boats provide constant reminders of the region's traditional maritime skills.
You won't be short of sheltered bays for safe swimming, especially on the Channel and southern coasts. A notable haven for family holidays is the Côte de Goëlo, shaped by its strong fishing history, north of Saint-Brieuc.
If you prefer powerful rolling breakers and high cliffs, make for the Atlantic littoral around the Crozon peninsula or Cap Sizun. Surfing, wind- and kite- surfing and sand-yachting are popular sports around the Pointe de la Torche in the vast Bay of Audierne. It attracts exponents from all over the world. For a less hectic adventure by water, sea canoeing is a good way to explore the marine grottos of Morgat.
Sea on three sides is a joy for sailors, while those seeking calm waters can enjoy the semi-inland Rade de Brest or the Gulf of Morbihan. On an even more placid note, Lac de Guerlédan in the heart of Brittany has sailing facilities and a water-ski school. Alternatively, drop into the centre nautique at Jugon-les-Lacs near Lamballe – also a prime location for anglers (00 33 2 96 50 60 04; maisondelapeche22.com).
You can find a comprehensive introduction to water-based activities in Brittany at nautismebretagne.fr.
Brittany's inland waterways ( canaux-bretons.net) are increasingly popular. You can hire boats on the Nantes-Brest canal, the Rance or the Blavet to enjoy a leisurely look at attractive historic towns such as Pontivy, Josselin and Malestroit.
Boats are rented out for a weekend, week or two weeks in the Redon region of Brittany by Loca-boat (00 33 3 86 91 72 72; locaboat.com/39/bretagne.html).
Can I go island-hopping?
Easily. The Ile de Batz ( iledebatz.com), under 10 minutes by boat from Roscoff, is top of the list. In the church you can see the bishop's stole used by St Pol to subdue a marauding dragon, or visit the Jardin Georges Delaselle with plants from the five continents (00 33 2 98 61 75 65; jardin-georgesdelaselle.fr; Apr-Oct 2-6pm, July/August 1-6:30pm; closed Tuesdays; €4.60).
Another good single-day destination is Molène, where Queen Victoria rewarded islanders for their brave but futile efforts to save lives from the ill-fated Castle Drummond liner, which sank nearby in 1896. Balmy Bréhat and the almost flat Ile de Sein are worth seeing. If you have more time, make for Belle-Ile, with an imposing Vauban fort; this was once home to Sarah Bernhardt.
Most remote and atmospheric is Ouessant, way out in the Atlantic (00 33 2 98 48 85 83; ot-ouessant.fr). You can reach the island by a ferry which leaves from Le Conquet with Penn Ar Bed (00 33 2 98 80 80 80; pennarbed.fr; €30.20 return) or by plane from Brest with Finistair (00 33 2 98 84 64 87; finistair.com; €93 return).
Getting on track
Brittany is excellent walking territory. The GR34 coastal footpath is based on the former coastguards' beat in the 17th and 18th- centuries. Tea, tobacco, wine and spirits were regularly whisked across the Channel by smugglers to avoid England's high import duties. The Sentier des Douaniers near Perros-Guirec is an easy way to view the Pink Granite coast with its impressive and strangely shaped rocks.
The Forêt de Paimpont – sometimes said to be the Arthurian Brocéliande with all its legends – has a wealth of walking paths. Wander past Merlin's tomb (actually a former dolmen) to the Fountain of Eternal Youth or take your chances in the Valley of No Return. Huelgoat's forest has an incredible granite confusion of tumbling boulders, some bigger than houses. It also offers shady paths and a canal walk out to what was once the largest lead and silver mine in France. If you prefer hill walking, the Monts d'Arrée are the highest, with stony trails over open moorland above a vast bowl of peaty marsh, and views over most of Finistère. Brittany Walks offers information and advice ( brittanywalks.com).
On two wheels?
To conserve the coastal path, cycling is not allowed along much of it. But cyclists are well-catered for by the Green Ways – also open to walkers and horse riders – which are based on old railway tracks and canal towpaths. These make long-distance journeys right across Brittany easy going. Details of the routes can be found at randobreizh.com. Brittany's tourist board can also help (00 33 2 99 36 15 15; brittanytourism.com).
What will I eat?
Fish and shellfish are the specialities of Brittany. Coquilles St-Jacques (scallops) and moules frites (mussels with thin chips) are everywhere, but the best bet is a platter of fruits de mer.
For real hands-on eating, try the Crabe et Marteau in Brest (00 33 2 98 33 3857; crabe-marteau.free.fr) where you get what the name promises: a crab and a mallet.
Brittany is pancake country. In the traditionally Breton-speaking west, the term crêpes is used for both sweet and savoury, being the nearest French equivalent to the Breton krampouez. In eastern Brittany, galettes often used for the savoury version.
You can choose your own fillings or go for a composed special: expect peasant staples ham, sausage, egg and cheese as standard, with fishy variations and vegetarian choices. Local honey or salted caramel is good for dessert.
Much of the centre of the regional capital, Rennes ( tourisme-rennes.com), was destroyed by fire in 1720. Today a network of medieval streets to the west has an opulent neo-classical zone alongside. In the splendid Hotel de Ville, go upstairs to peek at the gorgeous marriage room.
The highlight of a visit to Rennes is a tour of the former Parliament building, now the Palais de Justice (00 33 2 23 20 43 28; parlement-bretagne.com; 8.45am-noon and 1.45-5pm Monday-Friday). This 17th-century wonder was intended to impress the Bretons by the sophisticated skills of French craftsmen. Their services were abruptly withdrawn when the Breton parliament was exiled to Vannes in 1676, leaving some decorative work unfinished to this day. Little curtained windows provided the King's Eye, a means of spying on political deliberations.
Lavish restoration followed a devastating fire in 1994, caused by a firework thrown during a fishermen's demonstration.
The Champs Libres (00 33 2 23 40 6600; leschampslibres.com; open noon-7pm daily except Mondays; €4) houses the superb modernist Musée de Bretagne and the Espace des Sciences. In the latter, you can carry out experiments in Merlin's laboratory.
Start at the accessible and handsome port of St-Malo (00 33 2 99 56 64 43; saint-malo-tourisme.com). The citadelle (old town) is protected by stout ramparts that provide a splendid high-level walk. The city museum (10am-noon and 2-6pm daily from April to September; €5.40) charts the city's prosperity and champions Jacques Cartier, coloniser of Canada.
Brest has a prime naval site on the inland sea of the rade de Brest. Cardinal Richelieu first designated this as the Atlantic base of France's navy in 1631. In the Second World War the Allies tried to disable the large German submarine base. Success came late when the Tallboy bombs finally made an impact in 1944. Most of the rest of the city was destroyed. What stands today was mostly thrown up quickly to house a displaced population. Amazingly the medieval chateau overlooking the Penfeld river survived and today hosts a maritime museum (Apr-Sep 10am-6.30pm; €5).
Quimper, the small capital of Finistère, hosts one of the best festivals in Brittany, the Festival de Cornouaille ( festival-cornouaille.com). Breton music is performed in the streets, in colourful local costumes. The medieval centre of the town is dominated by the ancient cathedral of St-Corentin. Inside, the nave takes a curious slant, compensated by a half-chapel on the south aisle. This deviation reflects disparate stages of building; money ran out during the traumas of the 14th-century Wars of Succession. By the time work resumed, the Bishops Palace had been built alongside. Now it houses the Departmental Museum; 00 33 2 98 95 21 60; museedepartementalbreton.fr; 9am-6pm daily June-September; €4.
Additional research by Laura Ridgers
Wendy Mewes wrote Footprint's new guide to Brittany, which is out now. To purchase any of the Footprint France series at a special rate of just £10 including P&P, visit www.footprinttravelguides.com and enter Inde01 in the coupon code at checkout.
Medieval splendour: Fortresses
Castles don't come more fabulous than Fougères (00 33 2 99 94 88 67; chateau-fougeres.com), located in the Marches of Brittany – the old frontier territory with France. An early version was demolished by Henry II. What stands today is a lesson in the development of castle architecture. It uses modern technology to provides an insight into medieval warcraft. Open all year except January; €7.50.
Other fine examples in the same area, such as Vitré, Combourg and Châteaubriant attest to the importance of maintaining a dominant hold on this divisive area.
For a sense of medieval splendour, visit the Chateau de Suscinio (open 10am-7pm from April to Sept, otherwise 10am-noon and 2-5 or 6pm; €7), a favourite ducal hunting spot on the Gulf of Morbihan.
Brittany en fête Food and fishing
Brittany has a festival for everything, whether it's chestnuts, Breton dancing, cod-fishing, comic strips or a British Film Festival in Dinard in October. Even the humble onion has its own fête in Roscoff, commemorating the journeys of the men who set sail for England with their bicycles and strings of onions.
Yves, the patron saint of Brittany, has his celebration in May at Tréguier, with lawyers from around the world coming to pay tribute to their professional patron.
Despite August being very wet in recent years, this is the month that brings the largest number of visitors to Brittany's resorts. Whenever you go you'll find something happening, from music and cultural extravaganzas such as the Festival Interceltique ( festival.interceltique.com) at Lorient in August to the characteristic and authentic religious pardons. Here statues of the saints are carried in costumed procession after mass, and priests bless everything – from the sea to horses and tractors.
Travel essentials: Brittany
Getting there and around
*Brittany Ferries (0871 244 0744; brittanyferries.com) sails from Portsmouth to St-Malo (from £109 each way for a car and two adults) and from Plymouth to Roscoff (from £93 for a car and two adults). Alternatively, cross the eastern end of the Channel and then drive. Ferrysavers (0844 371 8021; ferrysavers.co.uk) is worth a consulting for good deals. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) and Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) fly from a range of UK airports to the Breton airports of Dinard, Brest and Rennes.
Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) trains run from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. A slightly awkward cross-Paris transfer takes you to Gare Montparnasse, from where there are high-speed services to the major towns and cities in Brittany: Rennes takes just over 2 hours, Brest and Quimper twice as long.
Where will I stay?
*Brittany has an excellent range of accommodation to suit all budgets. For traditional country homes with local food products, staying on a farm is an option ( bretagnealaferme.com, accueil-paysan-bretagne.com).
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