France is a country made up of many regions – each claiming its history and culture to be so significantly distinct that visitors are promised a unique experience everywhere. Whatever the truth may be about all such claims, it is indeed true for the region of Brittany. Brittany retains so many of its own traditions – not the least of which is its Celtic language – that visitors encounter a world unto itself. When visitors do come upon something vaguely familiar, it is just as likely to evoke Great Britain, as it is France. For example, the ancient stone megalithic monuments will instantly evoke Stonehenge, while the Breton language still spoken by many elderly, is closely related to the Celtic languages of Great Britain. The fact is that the region’s very name in French, Bretagne, links it directly to Grand Bretagne, French for Great Britain. A visit to Brittany is not just about its cultural history, but also about the many picturesque villages, lively fishing ports, many special holiday events, traditional clothing, folk music, and local foods – all of which draw and reward its visitors.
Occupying the peninsula that effectively separates the English Channel to the north from the Bay of Biscay to the south, Brittany has an area of 13,136 sq. miles/34,023 sq. kms. Its rocky coast is so heavily indented that its length, 1,790 miles/2,860 kms makes up one-third of France’s total coastline. Meanwhile, there are some 800 small islands lying off its coast. It is a relatively hilly region and its highest point is 1,263 feet (385 meters) above sea level and known by its Breton name Roc’h Ruz. The Loire estuary forms its southern border while its border with Normandy to the north is the Couesnon River. Lying within the North Temperate Zone, Brittany experiences something of a rainy maritime climate, although there are many clear and sunny days in the summer, while the coast experiences relatively more moderate weather. This same ocean supports a variety of fish and other marine life, including mussels and crayfish, and also attracts many species of seabirds. Sizeable fishing fleets still operate out of ports such as Saint-Malo, Saint-Brieuc, and Quimperlé, while shipbuilding and naval installations also employ many people. Its farmers grow a variety of crops from apples to potatoes, making them a major producer of vegetables for France; hogs, cattle and poultry are also raised in considerable numbers. Telecommunication and electronics industries now employ increasing numbers, and tourism remains a major contributor to Brittany’s economy.
Much of the pleasure in visiting Brittany comes from driving through the countryside exploring picturesque villages and being surprised by unusual architecture in a variety of styles. Most interesting would be to arrive on the “saint’s day” of a village’s church and to witness what is known as a Pardon, a colorful penitential procession. That of Saint Yves in the port town Tréguier on Brittany’s north coast honors the legal professions and now draws thousands from around the world. If you are unable to schedule a trip for such a procession, on any day throughout much of Brittany, in the churchyards in many villages, you will be able to see the so-called cavalries – medieval sculptures, with a crucifix surrounded by figures depicting Mary and the apostles and possibly saints or symbolic figures. The most famous of these is in the village of Saint-Jean-Trolimon, on the south coast of Brittany. It should also be said that the long coast of Brittany is dotted with fine beach resorts.
Whenever and wherever you visit in Brittany, you will want to sample the specialties of Breton food and drink. Bretons are especially famed for their crepes but also for galettes, a sort of bread served with cheese, bacon, sausage, mushrooms or eggs. They also serve something called Kig ha farz in Celtic, a stew of pork or beef with buckwheat dumplings. Bretons make all kinds of biscuits and pastries, and of course Brittany prides itself on its fresh seafood, especially its mussels and oysters. All these foods may be enjoyed together with anything from Breton buttermilk to Breton cider, beer or chouchen, a honey-based drink like mead.
One need not be a serious student of Neolithic culture to visit Stonehenge when in England and the same holds true for visiting at least two of the major megalithic sites in Brittany. The first is Carnac and it consists of over 10,000 large upright stones known as menhirs, arranged in long rows. The other site is the megalithic complex at Locmariaquer. It includes the Er-Grah tumulus passage grave, the Table des Marchands, a large covered chamber, and what is known as “The Broken Menhir of Er Grah,” the largest single bloc of stone cut, transported and erected by Neolithic people. Dating back to somewhere between 4700-2000 BC, these stones, like those at Stonehenge and Avebury in England, leave even the experts somewhat uncertain as to their exact function, but everyone is free to speculate.
If you had to choose only one major city in Brittany it would probably be Quimper, located inland from the peninsula’s southern coast. More than any other large cities of Brittany, it has managed to retain a large portion of its Breton heritage, in particular the many half-timbered structures, footbridges, and artisanal shops. Its 13th - 16th century Gothic cathedral is especially noted for its stained glass windows. Since the late 17th century, Quimper is world famous for its striking faience pottery. Last, but definitely not least, Quimper is renowned for its fine crepes and tasty cider.
Brittany has had several cities claiming to be its capital across the centuries, but Rennes is now the only one recognized as the official capital. A city with a population of some 210,000, and closer to 850,000 if the metropolitan area is included, Rennes has long hosted the Parliament of Brittany, and the City Hall Plaza is dominated by the Parliament building – originally built in the 17th century, all but completely rebuilt after a major fire in 1994. Likewise, the handsome Cathedral of St. Pierre, although originally erected between the 12th and 15th centuries, had to be largely demolished and rebuilt in the 18th century. Most of the ancient ramparts were long ago destroyed, but the 15th century Mordelles Gate, long the principal entry into the city, remains. Rennes has two museums of interest: the Museum of Brittany, dedicated to the history of the region, while the Museum of Fine Arts has collections dating from ancient Egypt through to 20th century artists. Some may prefer to visit the Lycée Emile Zola, where Alfred Dreyfus was tried in 1894; everyone should take some time to walk along the old narrow streets of Rennes.
An even larger city than Rennes is Nantes. It can claim to have once served as the capital of Brittany and is located on the Loire River, although now no longer officially part of Brittany. It was separated in 1789 during the French Revolution, but its culture remains Breton; Celtic Breton is its second language, and many in Nantes still call for reunification with Brittany. With buildings ranging from the medieval Castle of the Dukes of Brittany to one of France’s tallest skyscrapers, Nantes is regarded as one of France’s most livable and environmentally “green” cities. Close by is the port city of Saint-Nazaire, and like Nantes, full of Breton history and culture, but also no longer officially part of Brittany. Saint-Nazaire is famed for its role in World War II when, after the Germans captured it, a British-American raid destroyed its crucial dry dock. The Allies spent the war trying to wipe out the German submarine base that was located there. All this is long past and Saint-Nazaire today is a modern, vibrant port city.
Of all the many port cities of Brittany, it is Saint-Malo that visitors probably find most interesting. On the northern coast, it faces the English Channel and in past times was notorious for harboring pirates who attacked English ships. Originally an island, it has long been joined to the mainland, but it retains the city walls that once protected it. Its many fine old buildings, aquarium, and nautical museum will reward those interested in such attractions, while the countless restaurants with local seafood will be just as satisfying to others.
Route 1: The Northern Coast
It’s fair to say that few travelers come to Brittany to check out its major cities. Most visitors come to Brittany to explore its small towns and coastal villages, to marvel at the scenery, to discover unexpected sights, and to participate in local cultural events. That said, you have to start somewhere and a good starting point is the province’s capital city of Rennes, even if for no other reason than the fact that it is a transportation hub. Rennes in fact is an interesting old city with several centuries-old buildings, two major museums, and picturesque narrow streets in its old town. Also, be sure to discover the countryside by heading north to the town of Dinan; sitting on a hill and still surrounded by its old walls, much of the medieval old town is still preserved and there are several fine old buildings that are well worth a brief stop.
From here, head north to the coast and the port city of Saint-Malo, a storied old city, famed for its sailors, including Jacques Cartier, who set out from here for the New World. Although the city was heavily bombed during the invasion of France in 1944, everything has been restored and there are several impressive old buildings to be seen, not to mention delicious seafood restaurants. At the very least take some time to stroll into the old city known as Intra Muros or “inside the walls”. If you are an oyster lover, before proceeding west along the coast, take a short detour east to Cancale for their world famous oysters. Once you have had your fill, head a few kilometers west to Dinard, well known to Europeans as a beach resort and distinguished by its Belle Époque mansions – here you are traveling along what the Bretons call the Emerald Coast. Proceed some 75 miles/120 kms up and around the coast to Tréguier, a port town famed for its annual procession known as Pardon, which takes place in mid-May, and is a Breton custom that honors patron saints – in Tréguier’s case, Saint-Yves, who is the patron saint of lawyers.
Continue along to what is known as the Pink Granite Coast – given this name because of its rare pink granite and sand – and proceed to Roscoff, a port town once known for harboring pirates, but now known for its 16th century mansions with granite facades. If you have the time and inclination for a 15-minute boat ride, you can visit the offshore Île de Batz, famed for its exotic gardens. Alternatively you may prefer to go south to the National Route 12 and then west to what is known as the Circuit of the Parish Closes. Dating from the 15th – 18th century its entrance has a triumphal arch and its walled enclosure includes a church, subsidiary buildings, a cemetery and ossuary, and a unique Breton structure known as a cavalry – a monument with stone carvings, topped with something resembling a crucifix. There are about twelve in this region, but you can see the best in the three villages of Saint-Thégonnec, Guimiliau and Lampaul-Guimiliau. A lovely locale to end this exploration of the northern coast is at Le Conquet, a lovely seaside village that happens to be the westernmost point of mainland France. It’s a very fitting end to a charming coastal drive.
Route 2: The Southern Coast
Traveling along Brittany’s southern coast and relishing in several of the port towns with their excellent restaurants is something that you’ll definitely enjoy. Assuming that you start out from either Le Conquet or Brest, head south to the Crozon Peninsula, known for its scenic views, walking trails and sandy beaches. Since you are just passing through, head for the village of Landévennec, with its ruined 5th century Benedictine Abbey – the oldest Christian site in Brittany. Depending on the time of day, you might like to treat yourself to a seafood meal at one of the waterfront restaurants at nearby Morgat. Proceeding south, pass through Locronan, a typical Breton village with its 15th century church; then Douarnenez, with its Île Tristan of Wagner’s tragic opera; followed by a slight diversion to Audierne, a fine old port town known for its oysters. Finally, arrive at Quimper, the capital of this part of Brittany. Its cobblestone streets, half-timbered houses, and distinctive Gothic cathedral make it very much worth a small stroll, even if you do not go to its museums. Be sure to enjoy Quimper’s fine crepes and tasty cider as well as admire or buy a piece of its striking faience pottery.
From here proceed to Concarneau, yet another fine old port town, famous for its walled 14th - 16th century quarter and for receiving large quantities of tuna brought to France. Head south again for a few kilometers to the village of Pont-Aven, which is famous as the place where Paul Gauguin and other artists settled in the late 19th century; one of Gauguin’s most striking works, “The Yellow Christ,” depicting the crucified Christ against a Breton landscape, was inspired by a crucifix still seen in the village’s Chapel de Trémalo. Pass through the port of Lorient, long a major French navy port and notorious for having been the location of the Nazi German submarine fleet in World War II; unable to destroy the massive submarine pens, the Allied bombers basically leveled the town itself; it is also known for the German sailors, who refused to surrender here until 48 hours after V-E Day (Victory in Europe).
This route ends with something truly extraordinary – two of the major remains of the so-called Megalithic peoples – the “large stone” culture that left its imprint across much of Europe between 5000-1200 BC. Even if you have never given much thought to this culture or this time period of life on earth, you will definitely appreciate seeing these remains.
Continue on to Carnac and nearby Locmariaquer – this is where the major Megalithic remains are located. Carnac is the site of the world’s largest megalithic monuments – most dating from the late 4th century BC, while some are as old as 5000 BC. Although some of these monuments date from much later centuries, for the most part, they are attributed to the Neolithic pre-Celtic people of the region. There are some 3,000 large upright menhir stones including dolmens that are freestanding stone tombs, tumuli that are earthen mounds over dolmens, as well as covered alleys. Most of the menhirs are arranged in long lines known as alignments, and some experts believe these were used for religious and/or astronomical purposes, as was Stonehenge in England. Some few kilometers down at the tip of the nearby peninsula is Locmarquier. Its megalithic complex includes the Er-Grah tumulus passage grave, a large covered chamber called the Table des Marchands, and what is known as “The Broken Menhir of Er-Grah” – the largest single block of stone cut, transported and erected by Neolithic people. Heading to Vannes, some 25 miles/40 kms away, to bring your exploration of the southern coast to an end. Vannes has preserved a large portion of its medieval ramparts, buildings, streets and squares – a fitting place to end your glimpse into historic Brittany.
Brittany was first settled many hundreds of thousands of years ago by Neanderthals, but it is the humans of the Neolithic Age who have left amazing remains that draw visitors from all over the world – the megalithic monuments known as menhirs. Whoever these people were, by about 450 BC they were overrun by various Celtic tribes. Beginning from approximately 1250 BC, Celts had been spreading out from central Europe and had effectively taken over most of France; here they would become known as Gauls and move across to the British Isles and Ireland. The Romans under Julius Caesar conquered the region by 51 BC and incorporated it into the Roman Empire as Armorica, building typical Roman cities and roads. Then, for reasons not entirely clear, in about the year 500 AD, Celts from Wales and Cornwall moved back into Armorica and established a fairly independent Breton state; it is because of this that the Celtic language spoken by some Bretons today is directly related to the Celtic language spoken in those regions. The Gauls also spoke a variety of Celtic, but by the year 500 this language had been fused with the Romans’ Latin to become the origin of today’s French language.
The Romans lost Gaul to the Franks and other Germanic tribes, but the Bretons held on and by 851 they had formed a unified kingdom under a Breton named Nominoe, now regarded as the father of Brittany. During the next 20 years, the Bretons not only defeated the Franks, but also enlarged their territory to include the Channel Islands and parts of Normandy. Early in the 10th century, the Vikings took over parts of Brittany, but were expelled by 937. However, the new leader of Brittany turned it into a duchy of the Kingdom of France and from that time on, Brittany basically became a region of France, even adopting French as its official language in the 13th century. Meanwhile, some Bretons had helped William of Normandy conquer England, and during the Hundred Years War between England and France (1337-1453) Brittany at times sided with the English. After Anne of Brittany, daughter of its ruler, Duke Francis II, married two successive kings of France, Brittany was formally united to France in 1532, although it was allowed to retain its own parliament.
For the next two centuries, due to its location on the English Channel and Atlantic Ocean, Brittany flourished as a maritime-commercial power, profiting from the new transatlantic trade in everything from ship supplies to slaves. When the French Revolution broke out at the end of the 18th century, Brittany sided with the monarchy and ended up losing its special privileges including any real parliamentary powers. Throughout the 19th century, France tried to abolish the Breton language, but at the same time some Bretons identified with the emergent movement known as the Celtic Revival in Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Occupied by the Germans in 1940, Brittany would suffer major damage during the campaign by the Allies to liberate it following the invasion in June 1944; some of the coastal towns in fact remained under German control until May 1945.
In the years since then, Brittany gradually rebuilt its ruined cities and its industrial base, and today it is a prosperous part of France. Recognized since 1956 by the French government as a formal region, although without some of the traditionally Breton territory and cities. Brittany also has seen a revival of its traditional Breton culture and language. There is a minority of Bretons who seek total independence, but most Bretons are comfortable with their present status, which allows them the freedom to embrace their distinctive culture and yet benefit from their economic ties with the rest of France. On special occasions many Bretons dress up in traditional costumes, the women’s distinguished by the high lace headgear; Celtic folk music has been revived; and at a time when many French seem to be turning away from Catholicism, some Bretons continue to observe the many Catholic holy days by pilgrimages and processions.