Brittany’s southern coast is best known for mainland Europe’s most famous prehistoric site, the megalithic alignments of Carnac, complemented by other ancient relics scattered around the beautiful, island-studded Golfe de Morbihan. Although the beaches are not as spectacular as in Finistère, there are more safe places to swim and the water is warmer. Of the cities, Lorient has Brittany’s most compelling festival and Vannes is a dynamic medieval centre, while you can also escape to the islands of Belle-Île, Hoëdic and Houat.
For most of the year, it’s hard to get a room in Quiberon. In July and August, the whole peninsula is packed, while in winter it’s so quiet that virtually all its facilities close down. The nicest area to stay is along the seafront in Port-Maria, where several good hotel-restaurants face the Belle-Île ferry terminal.
Considerably larger than the other Breton islands, at 17km from east to west, gorgeous Belle-Île, 15km south of Quiberon, feels significantly less isolated than the rest. However, its towns – fortified Le Palais; Sauzon, arrayed along one side of a long estuary; and Bangor, inland – are consistently lovely, and it offers wonderful opportunities for walking and cycling. At different times in its turbulent history the island belonged to the monks of Redon, the English – who in 1761 swapped it for Menorca – and Lorient’s Companie des Indes.
Belle-Íle is far too large to stroll round, but a coastal footpath runs on bare soil for the length of the exposed Côte Sauvage with its sparse heather-covered cliffs facing out into the sea. To appreciate this and the rich and fertile landward side, some form of transport is advisable – rental bikes are widely available in Le Palais.
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 – join one if this is your first exposure to the subject, or you may feel as though you’re simply staring at rocks in a field. They start from the Maison des Mégalithes, across the road from the Alignements de Menec, which also holds interesting displays, plus a model of the 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 visitors, 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.
Along with Newgrange in Ireland, Stonehenge in England and the Ring of Brodgar in the Orkneys, the tumuli, alignments and single standing stones of Brittany are of pre-eminent status among the megalithic sites of Europe. Dated at 5700 BC, the tumulus of Kercado at Carnac is the earliest known stone construction in Europe. Little is known of the monuments’ creators; the few skeletons unearthed indicate a short, dark, hairy race with a life expectancy of no more than the mid-30s. What is certain is that their civilization was long-lasting; the earliest and the latest constructions at Carnac are more than five thousand years apart.
Each megalithic centre had its own distinct styles and traditions. Brittany has relatively few stone circles, or cromlechs, and a greater proportion of free-standing stones, menhirs; fewer burial chambers, known as dolmens, and more evidence of ritual fires; and different styles of carving. Carnac’s alignments are unique in their sheer complexity. As for their actual purpose, the most fashionable theory sees them as part of a vast astronomical observatory centred on the fallen Grand Menhir of Locmariaquer. However, controversy rages as to whether the Grand Menhir ever stood at all, or, even if it did, whether it fell or was broken up before the surrounding sites came into being. Moreover, sceptics say, these measurements ignore the fact that the sea level in southern Brittany 6600 years ago was 10m lower than it is today. Alternative theories interpret the menhirs as a series of territorial or memorial markers. This annual or occasional setting-up of a new stone is easier to envisage than the vast effort required to erect them all at once – in which case the fact that they were arranged in lines, mounds and circles might have been of peripheral importance.
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.
Dining out in old Vannes can be expensive, whether you eat in the intimate little restaurants along the rue des Halles, or down by the port. Other, cheaper restaurants abound in the St-Patern quarter, outside the walls in the northeast.