Lost Girl’s Guide to Brittany, France

Cultural Travel, France — By on November 17, 2011 at 7:53 pm
By Cathy Martin
Special to Lost Girls

Breton Brittany Picture rocky seashores and lush rolling hills, a countryside dotted with dilapidated stone cottages with bright yellow flowers peeking from their windowsills. The faint sound of bagpipes floats through the cloudy skies. Now add to the scene French people zipping through streets on their Vespas, baguettes in the rear basket. You’re in Brittany. The region of Brittany in northwest France has a culture as unique, as its independent streak is fierce. While only a two-hour train ride from Paris, Brittany (or “Bretagne” in French) manifests a mix of Celtic, English and French heritage, and its native language of Breton survives among members of the older generation. Exploring the rich history, cuisine and personality of this region is a fascinating experience.

Rennes

This political capital is also the capital of Breton culture, boasting museums, festivals, and a lively downtown.

Opera de Rennes

With 60,000 university students, the medium-size city is known for its nightlife and youthful energy. A medieval neighborhood and city gate survived a fire that destroyed most of the original town in 1720. Its architecture is as varied as its inhabitants, the side streets of Rennes are lined with tilting timber-framed houses, while solid 18th-century architecture surrounds the imposing Opera House, Parliament building and Hôtel de Ville (town hall). On Saturday morning, visit France’s second largest market at Place des Halles, and then wander the cobblestone streets to discover myriad churches, squares and parks. If you’re seeking Breton traditions, ask the tourism office about “Fest Noz,” soirées of jig-like music and line dancing.

Brittany France Le Mont-St. Michel

If you only have time for one excursion outside Rennes, this medieval abbey should be your destination. Perched atop a rocky outcropping in the English Channel, the church’s spire reaches 400 feet above sea level and is awe-inspiring. Unfortunately its breathtaking beauty attracts swarms of siteseers, making it a bit cramped during the summer months. But the views of the surrounding landscape—miles and miles of smooth quicksand during low tide and encroaching ocean that can transform the town into an island during high-tide—make the crowds worth it. Climb to the summit and explore the same cloister that medieval pilgrims frequented. If you’re feeling courageous, take a walking tour of the sands. Make sure to stick with your guide; the sands take the lives of several stray sheep every year.

Nantes

Nantes is a vibrant city featuring modern shopping and restaurant districts as well as historical monuments. The elegant architecture is reminiscent of Paris, and yet the centre-ville has a more provincial feel. Officially part of the neighboring Loire region, the former home of Brittany’s ruling nobility maintains a strong Breton identity. The Château des Ducs de Bretagne is a must-see; with its moat, towering turrets and expansive courtyard, it’s everything Americans imagine in a fairytale castle. The château now houses a museum exploring the city’s central role in the 18th century slave trade and transcontinental exchange. Stop by Nantes’ gothic cathedral—it’s one of the best in France.

St. Malo

Saint Malo France

Standing on the austere, seemingly-impenetrable walls of St.Malo overlooking the English Channel, it’s hard to imagine the original fortifications were destroyed during World War II. While the present-day ramparts are replicas, many authentic canons, anchors and ships can be seen around the city, which was once a haven for pirates who intercepted English merchant ships. St. Malo is the birthplace of famous poets and explorers alike, including the founder of French Canada, Jacques Cartier. Spend the afternoon strolling along the harbor or relaxing on the beach.

Finistère

The district’s name derives from the French “finis terre” or “land’s end.” As the name suggests, Finistère juts into the Atlantic Ocean and includes the western-most point of France. Its often-rocky coastline is dotted with quaint fishing towns and hundreds of lighthouses. Make sure to fit Concarneau and Locronan into your busy itinerary.

carnac stones

Carnac

If you’re fascinated by Stonehenge in Great Britain, you’ll enjoy visiting the equally intriguing prehistoric monoliths of Carnac. A day-trip away from both Rennes and Nantes, Carnac’s mysterious rows of evenly-spaced boulders stretch for miles. While historians are unclear as to whether ancient man used the site for religious or scientific purposes, one thing is certain: it will whet your curiosity.

Where to Eat

Bretagne is a land of the ocean, so expect to find and enjoy many varieties of fresh oysters, mussels, and other shellfish in restaurants and markets. Instead of ordering wine to accompany the seafood, try the traditional “cidre,” sparkling alcoholic cider made from locally grown apples (which, by the way, are mysteriously superior to all other apples I have ever tasted). Also, be sure to dine at a Crêperie where menus offer meals of one galette and one crêpe for dessert. The galette differs from its sugared cousin due to its heartier grain, saltiness, and savory fillings of meats, eggs and cheeses. While crêpes are common throughout France and well known to foreigners, galettes are particular to Brittany. Suggestion: a galette complète and a crêpe poire-chocolat, of course topped off with an after-dinner espresso.

Getting Around

Take the TGV (direct, super-fast train) from Paris to Rennes. Coach buses run daily between Rennes and St. Malo, Le Mont-St. Michel and Carnac (combination train and bus route). Regional trains are the best option for visiting Nantes. But for the bravest explorer, renting a car would allow one to take on country roads and provide more freedom to see the towns of Finistère.

 

 

Tags: , ,