Reed Travel Features
RENNES, France -- As the name suggests, the original inhabitants
of Brittany came from the British Isles, so right from the
beginning, this westernmost province was in many ways a part of
France like no other.
It is a wild place, marked by rocky coasts and pocket harbors,
full of small towns and simple villages, peopled by fishermen and
farmers who often speak Breton, a Celtic tongue that resembles
It is a place to hang your chapeau and enjoy nature on a grand
scale of flowering landscapes and dramatic seascapes. Clients also
will be attracted to the beauty of Brittany's old towns, chateaux,
cathedrals and parish closes, with their grandly carved granite
calvaries, which are Crucifixion scenes, sometimes surrounded by
attendant stone saints, apostles and Roman soldiers.
Among the most elaborate closes are those at St.-Thegonnec and
Guimiliau in northwestern Brittany. Vitre and Dinan are notable for
their half-timbered houses, unchanged from the Middle Ages.
Trequier, St.-Pol-de-Leon and Quimper have cathedrals, and the
chateaux Fougeres, Josselin and Combourg are imposing.
Brittany is also rich in prehistoric monuments: Menhirs
(monoliths, some of them 30 feet high) and dolmens (horizontal
slabs set over upright stones) dominate many a lonely landscape. In
Carnac, these monuments stand in clusters and attract endless
summer visitors, as do the picturesque southwest fishing ports of
Douar-nenez and fortified Concarneau, where wharves are crowded
with brightly painted fishing vessels.
In 10 days' time, clients can visit most of the province, and
the optimal way to go is to take the TGV Atlantique train from the
Montparnasse station in Paris to Rennes, pick up a rental car at
the station and make a wide circle around the coast and through the
interior. Clients can drive to St.-Malo on the north coast, follow
the rugged shore bordering the English Channel some 300 miles west
and then travel south along the Atlantic to Nantes, leaving the car
at the rail station before boarding the TGV back to Paris.
Of course, Brittany has certain must-see destinations, although
I find that the "essentials" list changes after every visit. For a
dramatic introduction to Brittany, clients can begin by visiting
the medieval quarter on arrival at Rennes and then drive directly
north to stay in St.-Malo, which is walled on three sides, faces
the sea and was all but destroyed during World War II. It has been
rebuilt, and clients can walk its grand ramparts, which date to the
13th century, and visit its stone citadel and fine museum.
For the first of many fine seafood feasts, take the road east
toward Mont-St.-Michel and the coastal village of Cancale, famous
for its oysters. Directly south and inland from St.-Malo is Dinan,
a market town overlooking the Rance estuary. Its medieval streets
are remarkably well preserved. Dinan's Basilica of St.- Sauveur is
a wonderful scramble of some six centuries' worth of architectural
The English Channel coast west from St.-Malo -- an endless
panorama of sea and sky, gulls and cormorants that will remind
Americans of the coast of Maine -- includes Dinard, a smart resort
of beautiful gardens and parks on what here is called the Emerald
That coast becomes the pink granite coast and runs to the Bay of
St.-Brieuc, where many Bretons say the true Brittany begins. Along
the way, one of the most dramatic sights is Ploumanach,
distinguished by smooth, gigantic boulders, often 60 feet high and
fantastically shaped by millennia of wind and tides.
In this corner of Brittany is Treguier, whose Gothic St.-
Tugdual Cathedral, gracefully fashioned from local granite, is
among the finest in the province. In western Brittany, all roads
lead to Quimper, a serene old trading city and producer of the
hand-painted Quimper pottery, or faience, since 1690.
Beneath the towering twin spires of the Gothic cathedral,
half-timbered houses lean together in the old quarter. Inland from
Quimper is Locronan, a remarkable little medieval town and a busy
center of leather workers, woodcarvers and weavers clustered in
workshops around the village square.
Attractive towns are scattered along the southwestern coast,
such as Vannes, whose charming old quarter is grouped around the
cathedral and partly enclosed by ramparts. The rugged Quiberon
Penin-sula juts out from this shore, the departure point for scenic
Belle-Ile, the largest of the Breton islands.
If your clients' trip ends in Nantes, tell them not to board the
TGV back to Paris before visiting the Chateau des Duc du Bretagne,
a fortress with bristling towers and surrounded by a moat. Also,
there is the Gothic cathedral of St.-Pierre, whose nave soars 120
feet above the stone floor. Francois II is buried here.
The best part of my last trip to Brittany was the company of my
daughter Abigail, who speaks excellent French and who reads maps
like a cartographer. She brought along a guidebook called
"Brittany," published by Nelles Guides in 1993 and still in print.
In it she found La Latte Fort, new to me and on the coast west of
St.-Malo, on La Frenaye Bay.
It is a spectacular stronghold, built in the 14th century, with
two pale-pink towers, perched high above the sea and accessible by
two drawbridges that cross the surrounding moats. The keep, the
ramparts and the watchtower all are worth a visit. In the best of
months -- May and June, September and October -- visitors to
Brittany enjoy uncrowded beaches and portside cafes where everyday
fare includes the freshest scallops, lobsters, clams, mussels and
the famous Belon oysters.
Festivals, whose traditions are centuries old, are part of the
Breton scene. Summer is the time for two of the best: The Fete de
Cornouaille, Brittany's biggest folk festival, devoted to popular
arts and traditions, is held in Quimper in mid-July, and the
colorful Inter-Celtic Festival in Lorient, an ingathering of Celtic
artists from Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Galicia, Ireland and
Brittany staging continuous performances of pipe bands, choirs,
dances and harp music, is held the first two weeks of August. More
information is available from the French Government Tourist Office
travel agent line at (202) 293-6173.