Travel: Ancient riddle written in stone: Good food and savage scenery brought Angela Lambert to Brittany. But who brought all those rocks, and why?

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
I wake up in heaven. The sky is blue, ballooning white clouds moving slowly across it. The air is full of birdsong. In front of me lies an estuary upon whose calm water yachts and rowing boats bob. From the boats comes the sound of cheerful voices, and from the yachts the tinny slap of rope against mast. The tide ripples gently. This glorious picture is framed by yellow-flowering broom, tough and brilliant, while in the foreground slanting pines punctuate the view. I am in Brittany (broom is its floral emblem): in the Gulf of Morbihan, to be precise, sitting on the balcony of my hotel room overlooking the estuary of Conleau. I am drinking coffee into which I dip fresh croissants. God's in his heaven, and I'm in mine.

Brittany is Cornwall's French twin. It has similar, curious tongue-twisting names - Plougoumelen, Kergouric Locquenin; it also breeds similarly stubborn, superstitious, black-browed and blue- eyed people. Handsome people; fisherfolk and fairytale tellers.

It has very similar scenery too, except that everything is on a bigger scale. It also has gourmet food and wonderfully bracing white wine (Muscadet from the neighbouring departement of Sevre-et- Marne). Here in Brittany the fish soups are better, the crabs fresher, the oysters more luscious than anywhere else in France.

Most people approach Brittany by sea, through St Malo or Cherbourg, and that is the best way. But we were taking a few days' relaxation after a working break in the Dordogne. We drove in from the south, therefore, approaching it along the new road from Nantes, and found ourselves suddenly in the centre of the old town of Vannes. The first thing we saw was a 15th- century castle and city wall, surrounded by a marvellous, formal parterre of hedges and flowerbeds: the Tour de Connetable.

Vannes was a Gallo-Roman capital, and later still the home of the Dukes of Brittany. It boasts wonderful, ancient buildings; crusted and crenellated, half-timbered, statued and ornate. The Bretons are deeply religious, and many houses have a niche for a statue of the Virgin, often with a respectful drainpipe making an E-turn round it.

The town is still a sizeable port, although many of the fishing and oyster boats have now been replaced by pleasure craft. A canal leads from the estuary into the heart of old Vannes, where fishing boats used to sell fish so alive that they were flapping. Nowadays it is lined with gleaming yachts.

In the centre of town, another market brims with fruit and flowers; geraniums and strawberries in colour harmony. Old ladies in black lean close to exchange gossip, their shopping bags laden with fresh produce. Beyond them are the tourist shops, selling hand-painted Breton pottery at vertiginous prices. A mug is 310 francs ( pounds 37); a jug 390 ( pounds 47) - more than we paid for our five-course dinner.

The town makes a marvellous centre from which to enjoy the Gulf of Morbihan, with its mild climate and wide vistas of sea and estuary, rock and pine. Here the huge lines of standing stones, alignements, provide the biggest surprise. Dating from neolithic times, they march like petrified armies across the heathery plains, down to, and sometimes straight into, the sea.

At Carnac, a 4,000-year-old site less than half an hour's drive south- west from Vannes, there are 3,000 such stones. Field after field is dominated by rows of ancient menhirs, some several metres high, others mere bumpy snouts barely poking above the ground. Chattering crossly, a small, indignant bird flies up from under my feet and perches nearby, flicking its tail irritably. I must be almost on top of its nest.

The stones are just as astonishing in close-up as from a distance. They have Henry Moore shapes but their surfaces are a marvel of detail, gnarled and pitted with moss, lichen, folds and clefts. They cover a colour spectrum from black to white through every imaginable shade of grey, yellow and olive green; a jigsaw puzzle of colour and texture, wind and weather. They have all been lugged here, pulled by God knows what force of religion or astronomy.

A good museum just beyond the site explains the funerary chambers and tries to account for the mystery of the stones. At the spring solstice the sun penetrates to the interior of a certain cairn - just as it does at Newgrange, north of Dublin: yet what, in the end, does that prove? It is all guesswork, but some awesome power must be behind this vast communal effort.

We drive on towards Quiberon, at the end of a long spit of land, breaking for lunch at a restaurant overlooking the estuary at Plouharnel. The tide is out and long mud- flats glitter like beaten pewter. We eat at the Auberge du Kerank: salon rustique, promises the Michelin, and rustic it is, but charming. We are served by two shy young waitresses in Breton costume, who blush at each request. The food they bring is delicious: straight from the sea, subtle and full of distinct local flavours.

The peninsula of Quiberon is called a presqu'le, 'almost-island'. A pine forest suddenly opens on to a long, perfect beach of pure white sand: ideal for children and sand castles and ecstatic galloping dogs. The beach is littered with shells. I fill my pockets with gnarled oyster shells, saucer-shaped half-shells in mother of pearl, and mussel shells, black and blue like bruises. There are no ice-cream sellers, no frites vans, just families playing, blissful and absorbed.

We drive along the isthmus, wild sea to the right crashing in from the Atlantic, calm sea to the left, tamed by this narrow line of land. The villages here are whitewashed and low-lying, with strong shutters to resist the battering winds.

Here, too, the neolithic stones crop up. One great horseshoe sweep of stone, the Cromlech de St Pierre, encircles a tennis court. Another village arranges itself placidly between the ancient outcrops: 20 or 30 huge stones, with garden paths threading past them along which a pair of blonde boys in navy sweaters amble home from school.

At the very tip of the Quiberon peninsula, along a picturesque road (the D186), the sea hurls itself against the cliffs. Fierce notices advise tourists not to swim here even when it looks calm. 'Many die here every year]' they warn. Areas of dark turquoise are tipped with deceptively fragile white foam. We park the car and look at it, buffeted by the wind. The area is called the cote sauvage, with good reason.

Returning to the mainland, the visitor is spoilt for choice. There are old churches, chateaux and museums to visit; or you might prefer to bird-watch, sail, play tennis, golf, fish, walk, or sit on the beach and watch the tide come in. And there are the stones.

We choose to visit the Alignements of Kerzerho, more than 1,100 standing stones in an area of some two kilometres. One group is truly gigantic, with stones more than six metres high. Small children climb happily across a fallen monster; cows graze peacefully around others. Broom and cow parsley intertwine in a glorious flare of sunlit colour. Hedgerows brim with butterflies and wild flowers.

No wonder Gauguin, the Pont- Aven School and the Nabis were drawn to this region. It has savagery on a huge scale in contrast to its village domesticity, and around its beaches glorious, balmy weather is interrupted by pyrotechnical storms. In high summer it is crowded - such a perfect place could not fail to be. But in the autumn, spring or early summer it remains half empty.

And whatever the season, its real magnet is the eerie strangeness of the stones, standing for thousands of years - but sentinels to what, and why?

(Photograph omitted)

Hotel Le Roof, Presqu'ile de Conleau, 56000 Vannes (010 33 97 63 47 47). Double room with bathroom, and breakfast, 586 francs ( pounds 72).

Auberge de Kerank, route de Quiberon, Plouharnel (010 33 97 52 35 36). Lunch for two, about 250 francs ( pounds 30).

Comments