All roads in Brittany curl eventually inland to Rennes, the capital. East of Rennes, the fortified citadel of Vitré protected the eastern approaches to medieval Brittany, which vigorously defended its independence against incursors.
Along the north coast, west of Normandy’s Mont St-Michel, stand some of Brittany’s finest old towns. A spectacular introduction to the province greets ferry passengers: the River Rance, guarded by magnificently preserved St-Malo on its estuary, and beautiful medieval Dinan 20km upstream. Further west stretches a varied coastline that culminates in the seductive Île de Bréhat, and the colourful chaos of theCôte de Granit Rose.
The delightful harbour village of Cancale, across the peninsula 15km east of St-Malo, is not so much a one-horse as a one-mollusc town – the whole place is obsessed with the oyster, and with “ostréiculture”. It consists of two distinct halves: the old town up on the hill, and the very pretty and smart port area of La Houle down below. Glass-fronted hotels and restaurants stretch the length of the waterfront, always busy with visitors, while fishing boats bob in the harbour itself. At its northern end, demarcated by a stone jetty, local women sell fresh oysters by the dozen from stalls with bright striped canvas awnings.
The wonderful citadelle of Dinan, sitting 30km south of St-Malo just before the river Rance broadens towards the sea, has preserved almost intact its 3km encirclement of protective masonry, along with street upon colourful street of late medieval houses. However, despite its slightly unreal perfection, it’s seldom overrun with tourists. There are no essential museums, the most memorable architecture is vernacular rather than monumental, and time is most easily spent wandering from crêperie to café and down to the pretty port. During the third weekend of July, every even-numbered year, Dinan celebrates the Fête des Remparts with medieval-style jousting, banquets, fairs and processions, culminating in an immense fireworks display.
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. A pocket version of the same festival is also held in the week between Christmas and New Year.
A busy calendar of rock festivals includes La Route du Rock in mid-February; Youank, in early November, which is geared towards young up-and-coming bands; and the Transmusicales in the first week of December.
Walled with the same grey granite stone as Mont St-Michel, the elegant, ancient, and beautifully positioned city of St-Malo was originally a fortified island at the mouth of the Rance, controlling not only the estuary but also the open sea beyond. Now inseparably attached to the mainland, it’s the most visited place in Brittany, thanks partly to its superb old citadelle and partly to its ferry service to England, and the lively streets that lie within the walls – the area known as intra-muros – are packed with restaurants, bars and shops. Yes, the summer crowds can be oppressive, but even then a stroll atop the walls should restore your equilibrium, while the vast, clean beaches beyond are a huge bonus, especially if you’re travelling with children.
The northernmost stretch of the Breton coast, between Bréhat and Ploumanac’h, is loosely known as the Côte de Granit Rose. Great pink-granite boulders jut from the sea around the island of Bréhat, and are scattered along the headlands to the west. Perhaps the most memorable stretch of coast lies north of Tréguier, where the pink-granite rocks are eroded into fantastic shapes.
One of the best-known photographic images of Brittany is of a small seafront cottage somehow squeezed between two mighty pink-granite boulders. Surprisingly few visitors, however, see the house in real life. It stands just 2km out from the village of Plougrescant in Eastern Brittany, at a spot marked on maps as either Le Gouffre or Le Gouffre du Castel-Meuru. Although you can’t visit the cottage itself – which actually faces inland, across a small sheltered bay, with its back to the open sea – the shoreline nearby offers superb short walks, and a summer-only café sells snacks.
The splendidly attractive Côte d’Émeraude, east of St-Malo, is one of Brittany’s most traditional family resort areas, with old-fashioned holiday towns, and safe sandy beaches. It also offers wonderful camping, at its best around the heather-backed beaches near Cap Fréhel, a high, warm expanse of heath and cliffs where views can extend as far as Jersey and the Île de Bréhat.
Hugely popular with French visitors in summer, the little Île de Bréhat – 2km offshore from Pointe de l’Arcouest, 6km northwest of Paimpol – is one of the most beautiful places in Brittany. Renowned as a sanctuary for rare species of wild flowers, including blue acanthus, it abounds in birds of all kinds.
Consisting, in truth, of two islands, joined by a tiny bridge, Bréhat appears to span great latitudes. On its north side are windswept meadows of hemlock and yarrow, sloping down to chaotic erosions of rock; on the south, you find yourself amid palm trees, mimosa and eucalyptus. All around is a multitude of little islets – some accessible at low tide, others propriété privée, most just pink-orange rocks.