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- St. Malo
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.
village or house
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.
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
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.