Long before Brittany became subsumed into France, the inhabitants of this rugged Atlantic promontory were risking their lives fishing and trading on the violent seas, and struggling with the arid soil of the interior. Today this toughness and resilience continues to define the region, which is deeply infused with Celtic culture: mystical, musical, sometimes morbid and defeatist, sometimes vital and inspired. Archeologically, Brittany is among the richest sites in the world – the alignments at Carnac rival Stonehenge. It first appeared in history as the quasi-mythical “Little Britain” of Arthurian legend, and in the days when travel by sea was safer and easier than by land, it was intimately connected with “Great Britain” across the water. Settlements such as St-Malo, St-Pol and Quimper were founded by otherwise unrecorded Welsh and Irish missionary saints.
Brittany remained independent until the sixteenth century; after its last ruler, Duchess Anne, died in 1532, François I took her daughter and lands, and sealed the union with France with an act supposedly enshrining certain privileges. Successive violations of this treaty by Paris, and subsequent revolts, form the core of Breton history since the Middle Ages.
Many Bretons continue to regard France as a separate country. Few, however, actively support Breton nationalism much beyond displaying Breizh (Breton for “Brittany”) stickers on their cars. But the Bretonlanguage remains very much alive, and the economic resurgence since the 1970s, helped partly by summer tourism, has largely been due to local initiatives, like Brittany Ferries re-establishing the old trading links with Britain and Ireland. At the same time a Celtic artistic identity has consciously been revived, and local festivals – above all August’s Inter-Celtic Festival at Lorient – celebrate Breton music, poetry and dance, with fellow Celts treated as comrades.
For most visitors, the Breton coast is the dominant feature. Apart from the Côte d’Azur, this is France’s most popular resort area, for French and foreign tourists alike. Its attractions are obvious: warm white-sand beaches, towering cliffs, rock formations and offshore islands and islets, and everywhere the stone dolmens and menhirs of a prehistoric past. The busiest areas are the Côte d’Émeraude around St-Malo; the Côte de Granit Rose in the north; the Crozon peninsula in far western Finistère; the family resorts such as Bénodetjust to the south; and the Morbihan coast below Vannes. Hotels and campsites here are plentiful, if pushed to their limits from mid-June to the end of August.
Be sure not to leave Brittany without visiting one of its many islands – such as the Île de Bréhat, the Île de Sein, or Belle-Île – or taking in cities like Quimper or Morlaix, testimony to the riches of the medieval duchy. Allow time, too, to explore the much quieter interior, despite its sketchy transport and shortage of accommodation.
If you’re looking for traditional Breton fun, and you can’t make the large-scale summer events in Lorient or Quimper, look out for gatherings organized by Celtic folklore groups – Circles or Bagadou. You may also be interested by the pardons, pilgrimage festivals commemorating local saints. Bear in mind, though, that these are not phoney affairs kept alive for tourists, but deeply serious and rather gloomy religious occasions.
Although estimates of the number of Breton-speakers range from 400,000 to 800,000, you’re unlikely to encounter it spoken as a day-to-day language. Learning Breton is not really a viable prospect for visitors who lack a grounding in Welsh, Gaelic or some other Celtic tongue. However, it’s interesting to note the roots of Breton place names, many of which have a simple meaning. Below are some of the most common:
village or house
Brittany’s proudest contribution to world cuisine has to be the crêpe, and its savoury equivalent the galette; crêperies throughout the region serve them with every imaginable filling. However, gourmets are more likely to be enticed by the magnificent array of seafood. Restaurants in resorts such as St-Malo and Quiberon jostle to attract fish connoisseurs, while some smaller towns – like Cancale, widely regarded as the best place in France for oysters (huîtres), and Erquy, with its scallops (coquilles St-Jacques) – depend on one specific mollusc for their livelihood.
Although they can’t claim to be uniquely Breton, two appetizers feature on every self-respecting menu – moules marinière, giant bowls of succulent orange mussels steamed in white wine, shallots and parsley (and perhaps enriched with cream or crème fraîche to become moules à la crème), and soupe de poissons (fish soup), traditionally served with garlicky rouille mayonnaise (coloured with sweet red pepper), a mound of grated gruyère, and a bowl of croutons. Jars of fresh soupe de poissons, sold in seaside poissonneries, make an ideal way to take a taste of France home with you. Paying a bit more in a restaurant – typically on menus costing €30 or more – brings you into the realm of the assiette de fruits de mer, a mountainous heap of langoustines, crabs, oysters, mussels, clams, whelks and cockles, most raw and all delicious.
Main courses tend to be plainer than in neighbouring Normandy. Fresh fish is prepared with relatively simple sauces. Skate served with capers, or salmon baked with a mustard or cheese sauce, are typical, while even the cotriade, a stew containing sole, turbot or bass, as well as shellfish, is less rich than its Mediterranean equivalent, the bouillabaisse. Brittany is also better than much of France in its respect for fresh vegetables, thanks to local-grown peas, cauliflowers, artichokes and the like. Only with the desserts can things get a little heavy; far Breton, considered a great delicacy, is a baked concoction of sponge and custard dotted with chopped plums, while îles flottantes are soft meringue icebergs adrift in a sea of crème anglaise, a light egg custard.
Strictly speaking, no wine is produced in Brittany; although they’re often regarded as Breton, the dry whites Muscadet and Gros-Plant are produced in the neighbouring département of Loire-Atlantique.
The world’s largest Celtic event, Brittany's Inter-Celtic Festival takes place over ten days from the first Friday to the second Sunday in August in the city of Lorient. Representatives from all the Celtic nations of Europe – Brittany, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Asturias and Galicia – come to celebrate cultural solidarity. Well over half a million people attend more than a hundred different shows, five languages mingle, and Scotch and Guinness flow with French and Spanish wines and ciders.
There’s a certain competitive element, with championships in various categories, but mutual enthusiasm and conviviality is paramount. Various activities – embracing music, dance and literature – take place all over the city, with mass celebrations around both the central place Jules-Ferry and the fishing harbour, and the biggest concerts at the local football stadium, the Parc du Moustoir.
For full schedules, which are not usually finalized until June, see festival-interceltique.com. Reserve tickets for the largest events well in advance.
Top Image: Celtic parade © Jef Wodniack / iStock
Completed in 1836, the meandering chain of waterways collectively known as the Nantes–Brest canal connects Finistère to the Loire. Interweaving rivers with stretches of canal, it was built at Napoleon’s instigation to bypass the belligerent English fleets off the coast. As a focus for exploring inland Brittany, whether by barge, bike, foot, or all three, the canal is ideal. Not every stretch is accessible, but detours can be made away from it, such as into the wild and desolate Monts d’Arrée to the north of the canal in Finistère.
The canal passes through riverside towns, such as Josselin, that long predate its construction; the old port of Redon, a patchwork of water, where the canal crosses the River Vilaine; and a sequence of scenic splendours, including long, narrow Lac de Guerlédan, created by the construction of the Barrage de Guerlédan, near Mur-de-Bretagne.