travel guide

The Mystique and beauty of Brittany

Brittany is a region of legend and mystery, quite different from the rest of France. Its people are Celtic, they have their own language and traditions, and for their nearest affinities look to Cornwall or Ireland, rather than, say, to Paris. The coastline, with its rugged rocks and fine sandy beaches and its bathing resorts, is more likely to interest the visitor than the lonely interior. The winter climate is mild but wet, and the bathing season lasts only from May to early September. It is an ideal area for a family holiday. This is a deeply Catholic land, where every village has its calvaries and churches richly decorated with carvings in wood and stone. The chief religious festivals are the local pardons – of which there are still eighty a year, there are also picturesque fetes of many kinds, often associated with the sea. Local culture is strong,

breton women with headdress in brittany named bigoudenne

at festivals, older women still carry the strange tall coifs and the men wear fancy waistcoats. 

They are a people of small farmers and deep-sea fishermen. Though much of Brittany is very poor, parts especially in the North West. are rich with early vegetables, strawberries, cattle, and oyster-beds. But agriculture is not enough: new atomic and electronic centres are springing up, and in contrast with this development the old culture is declining.

The capital is Rennes, in the east, a town now rapidly growing, with a big university and some important factories such as the Citroen car works. On the NE. coast, St Malo has a proud seafortress and some lovely old streets, and Dinard is a major bathing resort. Between them lies the striking new tidal hydro-electric dam across the River Rance. Further West, near Lannion, another sign of modernity is the strange white dome of France’s main space-communications centre. In northern Finistere, Roscoff is the place from which the onion-selling `Johnnies’ go abroad, Morlaix was the scene of the famous `artichoke war’ in 1991, and Landerneau is the home of Edouard Leclerc, the Danilo Dolci of the French retail trade. Brest is a big naval port, Plougastel is where the best strawberries come from. In southern Finistere, Quimper is a lively and graceful city, Pont-Aven is a painters’ village where Gauguin lived, the River Belon produces very good oysters, and Benodet and Beg Meil are delightful little resorts. Breton towns notable for their architecture include Vannes, Locronan, and Vitre. Near Carnac there are prehistoric menhirs, and two Benedictine abbeys where you can hear superb Gregorian plainsong. Nantes, on the estuary of the Loire, is a big seaport and industrial town, nearby St Nazaire depends on shipbuilding. La Baule is a large bathing resort with fine beaches.
Lace, woodwork, and antique Breton furniture can be bought. Fish and shellfish are the food specialities, notably oysters and homard (lobster), the latter is often served in a rich armoricaine sauce. Delicious crepes served in the creperies that can be seen everywhere throughout the region are another speciality. There are some pleasant white wines, the best known of which are Muscadet and Gros Plant. You can drink cider and eat wafer-thin pancakes (crepes) in folksy Breton cafes. The Pardons, religious pilgrimages, run from May to October.

There are tours of Normandy and Brittany from Paris. Where  the enclosed oyster beds can be seen. The tourist centre is Quimper and the market days, Wednesday and Saturday, are most picturesque. The square in front of the Cathedral is crowded with coloured tents in which all sorts of things are sold. Dinard in northern Brittany is the largest seaside resort.  St.-Malo, across the harbour from Dinard, is a walled city full of charm. Finally, there are innumerable little fishing villages along the Brittany coast where local traditions are preserved.