Celtic Roots Flourish Along Brittany's Rugged Coastlines

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 Welsh.

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 history.

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 Coast.

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.

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