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Of Saints, Celts, and Buccaneers

A broad land of low horizons that culminates in France's most westerly shores, Brittany rewards the traveler with exhilarating landscapes: windswept capes and sheltered fishing ports; strange megaliths and forests primeval; unspoiled islands and smart resorts; fortresses, châteaux, and snug granite cottages which inevitably recall that other--bigger--Bretagne across the Channel.

Brittany's ancient Celtic name, Armorica, means “country by the sea,” and indeed all of its five départements--Ille-et-Vilaine, Côtes-d'Armor, Finistère, Morbihan, and Loire-Atlantique--touch the water. The Bretons are justly famed as fearless mariners: fishermen, navigators, explorers (Jacques Cartier, founder of Quebec, sailed from Saint-Malo), and daring corsaires like Dugay-Trouin who plagued English shippers. Inland Brittany, known in the Breton tongue as Argoat or “the wooded land,” is crisscrossed by rivers, dotted with ponds and lakes, and was once thickly covered with forests. Some still survive; the forests of Paimpont and Huelgoat, for example, are vestiges of the legendary Broceliande, the haunt of Galahad, Merlin, Vivien and other Arthurian heroes. But nowadays the interior is a down-to-earth sort of place where farmers raise vegetables and forage crops, dairy cattle, and pigs for the local food-processing industries. Still, travelers who stray away from Brittany's coast will discover such gems as medieval Josselin, Rochefort-en-Terre, or the stately city of Vitré.

Brittany's earliest inhabitants were migrants from the Iberian peninsula, who arrived in successive waves from 4500 to 2000 BC, bringing with them the enigmatic Megalithic civilization. They left behind literally thousands of colossal standing stones or menhirs, and massive stone tables called dolmens. This Bronze Age legacy is a distinctive feature of Brittany's landscape; the most impressive megalithic ensemble is located in and around Carnac. The meaning of these monuments is still a puzzle, though it is believed that some were solar observatories, while others served a religious purpose. That the megaliths should have a supernatural significance would be in keeping with the Bretons' intense, bred-in-the-bone spirituality, a trait inherited from their Celtic ancestors along with a fondness for legends and lore.

A little Britain

The forebears of today's Bretons arrived around 460 AD, driven out of Great Britain by invading Angles and Saxons. Said to have crossed the Channel in “stone troughs,” led by monks and priests, these Celtic colonists flowed into Armorica for two centuries. They revived and Christianized the peninsula, which they renamed Little Britain, later shortened to Brittany. Christianity plunged deep roots into the land: religion plays a vital role in Breton life. Scattered throughout the countryside are countless chapels and calvaires--stone carvings that depict the Crucifixion. And Bretons venerate hundreds of saints--many of them not officially canonized. There are patron saints and saints for animals, saints that heal or protect; some are “all occasion” saints, others are invoked to cure specific ailments. Two of the best-loved are Saint Anne and Saint Yves--the latter a native Breton and the most popular of all.

Religious feast days known as pardons are an age-old, uniquely Breton custom. The women don starched lace headdresses or coiffes, and tie lacy aprons over satin or velvet dresses adorned with ribbons, brocade, and embroidery. Men sport beribboned felt hats and fancy waistcoats. The faithful march in colorful procession, bearing candles, banners, and statues of saints to a chapel or church, where they pray for forgiveness. The pardon concludes with a lively fest noz, a celebration that goes on well into the night, to the music of binious (bagpipes) and bombardes (oboes).
Brittany was annexed to France relatively late in the nation's history, in 1532 after the death of Anne de Bretagne. Last Duchess of Brittany and twice Queen of France, Anne had struggled gallantly to keep her domain separate from the Crown. Today, in western Brittany especially, Bretons passionate about their Celtic identity and traditions, keep the language alive through songs, stories, poems--and comic books!

From Vannes to Bénodet, from Sainte-Anne-la-Palud to Questembert, sea and land--Armor and Argoat--come together deliciously in Brittany's cuisine. Sea salt is a regional staple. Salt gatherers called paludiers work the salt marshes at Le Croisic, raking the crystals into glistening piles. Roadside stands sell the fruits of their labors (including fleur de sel sea salt, favored by the best chefs) alongside locally grown vegetables. Brittany's onions and potatoes, cauliflowers, cabbages, and artichokes are a particular source of native pride. And then there is the astonishing variety of fresh fish and shellfish. Each port village has its specialty: Le Guilvinec is noted for sardines and tuna, Erquy for lobsters; Saint-Brieuc bay is famed for scallops and Cancale for oysters. The vineyards around Nantes produce Muscadet and Gros Plant, bracing white wines that perfectly complement this seafood.

Brittany abounds with wonderful places to go, things to do and sites to see. Here we've charted a course from Rennes up to Saint-Malo, then down to Cornouaille (Quimper) and Morbihan Bay (Carnac, Vannes) via Perros-Guirec, finally fetching up in the port city of Nantes.

Rennes, the capital of Brittany, was rebuilt after a fire destroyed the town in 1720; yet some handsome half-timbered houses survived the blaze, located around the (frankly unimpressive) cathedral and the stately Place de la Mairie. Worth taking in, too, are Rue Le Bastard, Rue d'Estrées, and the Marché des Lices, praised as the prettiest market in France (especially good on Saturdays). Rennes's student population, some 60,000 strong, nurtures a lively night life: Rue Saint-Michel (dubbed “Rue de la Soif,” or “Thirsty Street”!), Rue Saint-Georges, and Rue de Montfort overflow with cafés, crêperies, and bistros. In a more cultural vein, the Musée de Bretagne on Quai Émile-Zola offers an instructive overview of Breton history and traditions. It is housed in the same building as the Fine Arts Museum, which displays a superb collection that includes paintings by La Tour and the Pont-Aven School.

Oyster picnic on the beach

Historic Saint-Malo, rebuilt to its former likeness after devastating damage in 1944, was home port for explorers and privateers in days of yore. A walk along the ancient ramparts affords splendid sea views; on a rocky island a short way out is the tomb of the beloved French writer and statesman, Chateau-briand. Some 20 km east, the Pointe du Grouin exhilarates with panoramic vistas that stretch from the Cap Fréhel bird sanctuary to Mont-Saint-Michel bay. Cancale, just a few miles south, is the spot for an oyster fest. Vendors sell the shellfish right on the beach--with a bottle of wine, they make a splendid picnic lunch.

Heading west, travelers should be sure to visit the stretch of Gulf Stream-warmed coast between Perros-Guirec and Trébeurden known as the Côte de Granit Rose. A high copper content tints the granite pink; wind, rain, and time have sculpted it into extraordinary shapes. Beautiful beaches and coves for sailing lure lots of vacationers in the high season.

A special quality of light, which lends striking clarity to greens and blues, attracts artists to Cornouaille on Brittany's southwestern shore. Quimper, the region's major city, is perhaps best known for its colorful ceramics, but it also boasts Brittany's most beautiful Gothic cathedral, a first-class art museum (on Place Saint Corentin) and a vieille ville brimming with charm. Nearby Locronan holds the unofficial title of “prettiest Breton village;” it is surely one of the most popular with tourists! In the high season, crowds figure prominently in Pont-Aven as well, where in 1886 Paul Gauguin and his disciples launched a revolutionary style of painting now known as the Pont-Aven School.

Carnac megaliths loom at the head of Quiberon Bay; visitors immune to the spiritual aura of these prehistoric monuments can give themselves over to the pleasures of beachcombing and boating (to Quiberon, famous for its spas, or the enchanting island haven of Belle-Ile-en-mer). Due east, the Golfe du Morbihan, an inland sea scattered with islands and stirred by complex tides, sustains a unique ecosystem of marine life and birds. The ancient, walled city of Vannes dominates the gulf, and offers a fine base for exploring the region by boat. This corner of Morbihan is also home to a cluster of exceptional restaurants: Régis Mahé in Vannes, the Domaine de Rochevilaine in Billiers, and L'Auberge Bretonne in La Roche-Bernard.

Last stop, the port city of Nantes, where the Erdre River meets the Loire. Long the capital of the Dukes of Brittany, Nantes's official allegiance now belongs to the Loire region; but history--and tradition--give the lie to this modern development. François II, the last duke of Brittany, is buried in Nantes's late-Gothic cathedral, his tomb marked by a fine Renaissance sculptural group. François began the construction of the city's most imposing monument, the Château des Ducs, where his daughter, the patriotic Anne de Bretagne, made her home. Today the Château also holds museums devoted to popular and decorative arts. The Musée des Beaux-Arts (behind the cathedral on Rue Clémenceau) is nothing short of superb, with works by La Tour, Watteau, Ingres, Courbet, Sisley, Monet, Kandinsky... Visitors who explore Nantes on foot reap the richest rewards as they wander through the old quarter around the Sainte Croix church, among the handsome town houses of the Ile Feydeau district (the--private--courtyards on Rue Kervégan afford fascinating glimpses of these eighteenth-century homes), and west to the aristocratic Place Royale and Place Graslin. Between those two squares, off Rue Crébillon, rises the graceful, glass-roofed Passage Pommeraye. Wine buffs should remember that a Route des Vins through the vineyards of Muscadet begins just outside the Nantes city limits. And indeed, what better way to conclude a tour of this welcoming province than by raising a glass in a toast with a hearty Breizh o veva--long live Brittany!

Images in the top banner are from: Brittany

(Updated: 01/07/13 CT)

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