Carnac is the most important prehistoric site in Europe – in fact this spot is thought to have been continuously inhabited longer than anywhere else in the world. Its alignments of two thousand or so menhirs stretch over 4km, with great burial tumuli dotted amid them. In use since at least 5700 BC, the site long predates Knossos, the Pyramids, Stonehenge and the great Egyptian temples of the same name at Karnak.
The megaliths form three distinct major alignments, running roughly in the same northeast–southwest direction, but each with a slightly separate orientation. These are the Alignements de Menec, “the place of stones” or “place of remembrance”, with 1169 stones in eleven rows; the Alignements de Kermario, “the place of the dead”, with 1029 stones in ten rows; and the Alignements de Kerlescan, “the place of burning”, with 555 stones in thirteen lines. All three are sited parallel to the sea alongside the Route des Alignements, north of Carnac-Ville.
Visitors can only walk freely around the best-preserved sites in winter. In summer, access is on guided tours only, some of which are in English – it’s worth joining one of these if this is your first exposure to the subject, as otherwise you can feel as though you’re simply staring at rocks in a field. They start from the official visitor centre, the Maison des Mégalithes, across the road from the Alignements de Menec, which also holds some interesting displays, plus a model of the entire site.
Divided between the original Carnac-Ville and the seaside resort of Carnac-Plage, the modern town of Carnac has a special charm, especially in late spring and early autumn. For most, the alignments are, if anything, only a sideshow. The town and seafront remain well wooded, and the tree-lined avenues and gardens are a delight, the climate being mild enough for evergreen oak and Mediterranean mimosa to grow alongside native stone pine and cypress.