The sheltered Golfe du Morbihan – mor bihan means “little sea” in Breton – is one of the loveliest stretches of Brittany’s coast. It is said that the gulf used to hold an island for every day of the year, but rising seas have left fewer than one per week. A boat tour around them, or at least a trip out to Gavrinis near the mouth of the gulf, is a compelling experience, with megalithic ruins and stone circles dotted around the beguiling maze of channels and solitary menhirs gazing down from small hillocks.
At the head of the Golfe de Morbihan, Vannes, southern Brittany’s major tourist town, is such a large and thriving community that the size of the small walled town at its core, Vieux Vannes, may well come as a surprise. Its focal point, the old gateway of the Porte St-Vincent, commands a busy little square at the northern end of a canalized port leading to the gulf itself. Inside the ramparts, the winding car-free streets – crammed around the cathedral, and enclosed by gardens and a tiny stream – make great strolling territory.
Modern Vannes centres on place de la République; the focus was shifted outside the medieval city during the nineteenth-century craze for urbanization. The grandest of the public buildings here, guarded by a pair of sleek bronze lions, is the Hôtel de Ville at the top of rue Thiers. By day, however, the streets of the old city, with their overhanging, witch-hatted houses and busy commercial life, are the chief source of pleasure.