Brittany’s Natural Beauty and Culture Beckon

By David Funkhouser

The Hartford Courant

BRITTANY, France ~ If only we had narrower roads – you know, the kind that used to serve people on foot, horseback and oxcart.

Then perhaps we would drive smaller cars more slowly over shorter distances and get out of them more often to walk – say, to explore a 14th-century fort on a promontory overlooking the sea. Or to wander along a cobblestone lane lined with 600-year-old wood-frame houses that lean so close together, you could reach out of a lace-curtained window and share a cup of coffee (good coffee) with your neighbor across the street.

Or to linger with friends at a seaside cafe over a lunch of moules marinieres and a crisp muscadet, followed by a leisurely stroll with the kids along the beach. That would be life – or at least vacation – in Brittany, the western shoulder of France that pokes out into the Atlantic Ocean just below Normandy and the English Channel.

Far from the crowded and better-known Mediterranean coast, Brittany offers a cooler, less glittery getaway. We spent a week along the north coast, mostly in the Cote d’Armor region, and barely began to penetrate the sights of this 13,000-square-mile region.

With hints of Cape Cod, Maine and Prince Edward Island, Brittany offers stunning beaches, rocky headlands, rolling farmland and cool forest. It is a land of prehistoric mysteries, a rowdy seafaring past and an independent Celtic heritage.

But, of course, this is France: The food and wine are generally superb, the roads well marked, the residents friendly and helpful, and, as my sister put it, “Even people who look like they are just back from camping are dressed better than we are.”

From Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris, the high-speed train – the TGV – zips through the countryside in about three hours to Rennes, which has been Brittany’s capital since the region became part of France in 1532.

The city is a good spot to begin exploring: a lively university town filled with outdoor cafes, pubs and restaurants serving everything from the region’s ubiquitous crepes to Moroccan and Afghan fare. Rennes boasts an excellent metro and several centuries’ worth of historical and cultural sights.

A walk around the old city center’s cobblestone streets pulls you back to the Middle Ages. The Cathedral of St. Pierre, built on the site of an ancient shrine, has a dim interior lighted by large stained-glass windows and memorial candles. The building dates from the 15th century, although much of the structure was completed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Behind the cathedral, you enter the narrow, curved Rue de la Psallette, and the illusion is nearly complete: You are surrounded by oddly canted, half-timbered houses, the oldest built in the 1400s. A window upstairs in one, decorated with fine lace curtains, is ajar, and you expect a character out of Shakespeare to appear.

Wandering down another lane, past a creperie, we stumbled into the Porte Mordelaise, the ancient gate kings used to enter the city, and where the dukes and counts of the region swore in 1440 to respect the rights and freedoms of Bretagne, as the region is known in French.

Bretons took to the sea early, sending fishermen to Georges Bank for cod, and explorers, traders and corsairs in search of treasure and adventure.

A couple hours north of Rennes by car, just over the border in Normandy, lies the familiar abbey of Mont-St.-Michel, a stunning lesson in architecture dating from the 10th century that rises like a mirage from a broad, shallow bay. Majestic from a distance, it invites crowds of tourists in summer who hike across the causeway, wind uphill through its medieval streets and pay 8 euros to meander through the abbey. The graceful cloisters and dark stone interiors inspire a whispered awe.

Heading west, the coast meanders to Cancale, a pretty fishing town curved around a bay dotted with flat-bottomed oyster boats. The day’s catch is heaped in bins at restaurants along the quay.

Further on, the walled city of St. Malo juts into the sea at the mouth of the Rance River. Eighty percent of the city was destroyed in fighting during World War II; but much of its historic splendor has been restored, in some cases using original stone.

A castle with four stout towers looms over the northeast corner, at the Porte St. Vincent, where pedestrians enter the old city through 23-foot-thick walls. A walk around the surrounding ramparts offers views of the sea and coastline, and intriguing glimpses through the city. The streets are lined with cafes, restaurants and shops showing the work of trendy designers and local artists and artisans. In the middle of a small park built onto the old battlements stands a statue of explorer Jacques Cartier, who opened Canada to the French.

Along the rugged shoreline, footpaths invite hikers to do their own exploring, from sheer limestone cliffs to isolated, pebbly coves and expansive tan beaches. East of St. Malo at Cap Frehel, trails meander through broad swaths of purple heather and yellow gorse. Not far away is Fort La Latte, a forbidding outpost built in the 14th century over looking the sea.

Even in July the water is cool, al though not much impediment to youngsters whose families flock to the coast’s inns, campgrounds and summer resorts to enjoy the fresh air and scenery. July is billed as the driest and warmest month in Brittany. The weather this season was typically sunny and warm; but clouds came and went constantly, and it rained almost every day we were there, al though rarely for long. We learned to keep rain jackets handy.

Brittany sits at the same latitude as Newfoundland, but with a milder climate, and summer evenings stay light until 10 or 10:30. All the better to linger over dinner at an outdoor restaurant or take an evening stroll by the sea.

Our stay at Les Bruyeres, a bed-and-breakfast in the fishing village of Erquy, was made all the more pleasant by our hosts, M. et Mme. DuTemple, who tolerated our sketchy French and made us feel at home with breakfasts of strong coffee, yummy crepes and, of course, fresh bread, brioches or croissants.

We could walk to town along side streets lined with stone houses accented by royal blue shutters, bright window boxes of red geraniums and gardens exploding with multicolored hydrangeas. Along the waterfront, huge tides wash in and out of the shallow bay, leaving the fleet of fishing boats seemingly bobbing one minute and stranded on the sand the next.

Scallops are a specialty here, but mussels also are a favorite, served in a variety of sauces with a side of French fries (a meal called “moules frites”) at cafes such as the open-air Le Triton. Brittany also is known for hard cider and those crepes, served as “galettes” as a main course, stuffed with ham or andouille sausage and Emmenthal cheese or other combinations of local meats and produce. Local apples and pears work just fine sliced into a tart or dessert crepe.

Locally produced sea salt makes Brittany butter irresistible, adds flavor to caramels, and gets blended with dried algae for seasoning.

Just out of town, the Cap d’Erquy juts into the sea. Footpaths take you through the heath to the top of craggy headlands with a panoramic view west across the bay toward St.-Brieuc.

Nearby, the family-oriented resort town of Sables-d’Or-les-Pins fronts a soft, two-mile-long beach, one of many along the coast to tempt vacationers.

Inland offers much to explore, from the medieval hill town of Dinan, perched along the meandering Rance, to the Foret de Paimpont, part of the forest that once covered Brittany and home to Arthurian legends and Merlin’s tomb.

The deepest mysteries, perhaps, lie to the south, where the inhabitants mounted thousands of prehistoric megaliths known as menhirs into odd alignments, dating from before 4000 B.C. The purpose of these monuments is unknown, presumed by many to be of some religious significance. Remnants of ancient burial mounds are scattered around the countryside.

Carnac, a resort city near the wide Gulf of Morbihan on the south coast, is home to many of these sites. The Museum of Prehistory, near the town center, is a good place to get some perspective on these fascinating glimpses into the lives of Brittany’s earliest inhabitants.

There is more, much more, to see and do in Brittany: We haven’t even touched on the far west, where Breton culture flourishes the strongest; or the music, with bagpipes, bombarde, accordion and Celtic harp; or the colorful pottery of Quimper, the seabird rookeries, remote islands and sea-battered lighthouses.

From Brest, which shelters France’s navy, to the quaint interior market and mill towns, ornate church compounds known as parish closes, artists’ colonies once populated by the likes of Gaugin, and the massive fortresses in Vitre and Fougeres, there are plenty of sights and sounds and tastes to be discovered. It’s best to go slow; you may want to return for more.

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