By Jessamy Baldwin
Croissants, delicious red wine, duck and berets – what’s not to like about France? Well, perhaps the berets, but I digress. People from across the globe travel far and wide to experience the lavender fields of Provence, the romance of Paris and the peace of the Dordogne river. In just a couple of hours by boat or plane, you can be right in the thick of things.
With its own language (Breton) and a long history of intriguing traditions, Brittany has always been one of the most distinctive and most loved regions in France. From its rich Celtic heritage and tasty “cidre”, to the striking stone monuments from early human settlement and magical forests of Arthurian legend, the region radiates an ancient, mysterious and relaxing aura.
Spend a day wandering the cobbled streets, stop at a café or street stall for a molten “galette jambon fromage”, watch the sunset from the ramparts and enjoy a crisp glass of rose as you people-watch. The city also enjoys a number of pleasant beaches if you fancy getting sandy-toed and an extremely large selection of restaurants, appropriately focused on seafood.
From St Malo, head to Dinan – a charming riverside town, full of medieval history and topped off with a castle dating back to 1382. Meander through pretty streets and between half-timber houses before climbing the 158 steps of the Tour de l’Horlage clock tower. For the best town view, walk past Dinan’s basilica to St. Catherine’s tower. From here, you enjoy stunning views of the old port and the River Rance. Perfect for Instagram lovers!
Or, walk along the 2.7km long ramparts (oldest in Brittany) to get an unparalleled look at the town below. Check out Crêperie Ahna – an eatery that has been run by the same family for four generations and known as one of the best in town. If you’re in this area of France in late July, you’ll catch the Fête des Remparts. No fewer than 100,000 visitors join Dinannais townsfolk dressed in medieval garb for the two-day festival.
The river, now canalized with locks and a towpath, is great for lazy walks, boat rides and bike rides. I highly recommend renting a small boat for the day and cruising along the river with a picnic. If you’re hungry, set yourself up at one of the restaurants at the port. Les Terrasses is fab, with a riverfront terrace. To go local, sip on a “cidre” — apple cider served in bowls.
If you’re into enchanted lakes, myths and castles, France’s Paimpont is a must-see. Surrounded by an ancient forest, Paimpont is the perfect stepping-off point to explore the 25 square miles of legendary woodland known as Brocéliande – supposedly home to King Arthur and the wizard Merlin. Take a walk along one of the many trails that lead from the town into the forest.
For those more interested in historical sites, the town’s Abbey, dating back to 1199, was built on the sacred site of a seventh-century monastery and sits on a stunning lakeside location. Also visit the turreted Château de Comper near Concoret, which houses the Centre de l’Imaginaire Arthurien where you can discover scenes from Arthurian legends. In summer, there are interesting exhibitions, events and themed walks. Next to the castle is a lake, underneath whose waters apparently lives the fairy Viviane in a crystal palace built by Merlin the magician.
Rochefort en terre
Located in Brittany’s western Morbihan region, Rochefort-en-Terre has been awarded the title of one of France’s most beautiful villages. High above the River Arz, the village grew in fame after an American painter Alfred Klotz bought and renovated the town’s medieval château in 1907. He also encouraged the display of flowers in the town, which is a tradition that continues to this day and enhances the charm of the village’s half-timbered buildings and Renaissance stone. The town’s church, Notre-Dame-de-la-Tronchaye, is located on a hillside and steeped in a long legendary past, dating originally from the 12th century.
As you’d expect from a little town full of character with an arty history, the streets are dotted with artists and craftspeople. Don’t leave town without visiting one of the artisan biscuit makers like Le Rucher Fleuri in Rue du Porche, which is highly regarded throughout the region for its pain d’épices. Whichever shop you visit, look upwards – Rochefort is known for its unusual and colourful signs.
About a mile outside the town is the Moulin Neuf, a lakeside complex where you’ll find a supervised beach in summer as well as activities including tennis, fishing, cycling and paths for walkers.
Utterly charming, with its cobbled streets and historic half-timbered houses, Auray is where you should head next. The 600 year old harbour (Saint Goustan) is particularly picturesque and there’s an abundance of restaurants, cafés and bars where you can sit back and watch the hustle and bustle.
Often there are ancient boats tied up at the quayside adding a dash of nostalgia to any day spent in the area. From June-September visitors can take a boat ride from here around the little islands in the Gulf of Morbihan. If you’re in town on a Monday, you’re in luck! A vibrant, colourful market takes place, spilling out from the town centre and filling the streets with lush produce.
10 miles from Auray is unmissable Carnac (Garnag in Breton), the mysterious megalithic must-see. The sheer number of ancient sites found in the vicinity, make Carnac the world’s greatest concentration of megalithic sites.
Check out the 3000 chunks of granite (menhirs) that were hewn from local rock in 4000 BC and still stand in rows that stretch for miles. The pretty town is divided into Carnac-Ville, an old stone village with a historical seventeenth-century church and the artefact-laden Museum of Prehistory, and Carnac-Plages, an attractive seaside resort on Quiberon Bay, with an enticing 2km long sandy beach.
Îles de Glénan
The Îles de Glénan are an archipelago of beautiful islands about 10 miles off the south coast of Finistère. Only accessible in summer, they are best known for their sailing and diving schools and for having a unique indigenous flower (Glénan Narcissus). The photogenic archipelago is made up of nine main islands and many islets, in the middle of which is a lagoon renowned for the clarity of its water and the whiteness of its sands; in fact, the area has been described as ‘the Breton Tahiti’.
There are daily ferries in season from Loctudy, Bénodet, Concarneau and Beg-Meil. The boats arrive at the main island, Saint Nicolas, where you’ll find a couple of restaurants as well as the international diving school and France’s smallest nature reserve.
(This article appeared in The Guernsey Press on 29th July 2017)