The capital and power centre of Brittany since its 1532 union with France, Rennes is – outwardly at least – uncharacteristic of the region, with its Neoclassical layout and pompous major buildings. Any potential it had as a picturesque tourist spot was destroyed in 1720, when a drunken carpenter managed to set light to virtually the whole city. Only the area known as Les Lices, at the junction of the canalized Ille and the River Vilaine, was undamaged.
Rennes’ subsequent remodelling left the city, north of the river at any rate, as a muddle of grand eighteenth-century public squares interspersed with intimate little alleys of half-timbered houses. It’s a lively enough place though, with around sixty thousand university students to stimulate its cultural life, and a couple of major annual festivals, the Tombées de la Nuit and the Transmusicales, to lure in visitors.
Rennes is at its best in the first week of July, when the Festival des Tombées de la Nuit takes over the whole city to celebrate Breton culture with music, theatre, film, mime and poetry (w lestombeesdelanuit.com). A pocket version of the same festival is also held in the week between Christmas and New Year.
In the first week of December, the Transmusicales rock festival attracts big-name acts from all over the world, though still with a Breton emphasis (w lestrans.com).