Bring on Brittany

France’s Celtic corner offers rugged scenery, fascinating history and more flavours of pancakes than you can possibly get through in one trip. JOHN BURKE shares his tips and tricks for making the most of this unique stretch of coastline.



BRITTANY has France’s longest stretch of coastline, making the grey-green province three times the size of Cornwall, which similarly juts out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Rugged scenery is not the only unique aspect of the large peninsula bounded by the lookalike namesake of Saint Michael’s Mount. Both face the English Channel and St Nazaire, where the Loire flows into the Bay of Biscay. The stubborn, seafaring (and sometimes separatist) Bretons are a race apart from the Franks and Gauls, being cousins to the Cornish with whom they share the legends of King Arthur and almost the same ancient language.

Popping over the Channel

It is easy to relax in this romantic and remote region that, nonetheless, is easily reached from England. One of the finest and cheapest ways is to take the car-ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe (£15 each way for foot passengers), as it allows you to stop over in Normandy and also take a break in the French capital. LD Lines also goes from Portsmouth to westerly Le Havre.

If you go straight on by train, an express (TGV) gets you from Rennes to Paris in 125 minutes, so the whole journey from the time you board the boat is done in 10¾ hours. Rennes replaced southerly Nantes as Brittany’s chief town, and although inland, it is an ideal base for excursions if you do not have time to tour all 2,730 kilometres of coast. Rail Europe does various passes, and the one for all France on any six days (£243 or £160 youth) means you can cover a lot of the peninsula, in addition to the journey out and back.

Exploring the region

You can also take a 90-minute bus trip northwards to Mont Saint-Michel, the mediaeval fortified abbey that becomes an island during one of the highest and fastest tides in the world. Trains, however, take only one hour from Rennes to the walled city of Saint-Malo. The vast yachting harbour is just visible from one of the Channel Islands.

The statue of Jacques Cartier, who discovered Canada, is on the ramparts, from where the sheltered and sandy resort of Dinard can be seen across the choppy Rance estuary. Other trains go westwards, past St Brieuc, the gateway to the Emerald Coast, to Brest where France bases her Atlantic fleet.

The line skirts such ports as Roscoff, where Mary, Queen of Scots, and Bonnie Prince Charlie each landed in bygone days, as well as St Pol de Leon whose cathedral, built in 1250, has one of those distinctive hollow belfries that withstand high winds.

It is only 80 kilometres by bus from Brest to Quimper where the houses are timbered, musicians play bagpipes and fishwives speak Breton. Their tall bonnets of white lace remind one of the three lighthouses on the craggy western tip of Europe.

This is the Cornouaille district that includes the little ports of Douarnenez and Concarneau whence trawlers go out into the Bay of Biscay for tunny and sardines. Beyond them is the Wild Coast where wind and waves hurl themselves against the coloured granite, from which are made the Breton churches and calvaries that get many pilgrimages.

Yet mediaeval Vannes and its yacht-basin are so sheltered by the lakelike Gulf of Morbihan that there is a profusion of sub-tropical flowers and foliage. Halfway along the southern railway between Quimper and Rennes, this resort boasts a chateau too, but even more impressive is the castle at Josselin. Another attraction nearby is Carnac whose rows of 2,792 prehistoric stones are as mysterious as Stonehenge.

Wining and dining

Everywhere, you will see the onetime duchy’s flag with black and white stripes, although it could be confused with that flown by visiting boats from Cornwall. The Breton symbol of three suns spiralling out of three joined rays is very similar to the three legs on the Isle of Man’s flag.

Those of all six Celtic nations, including Wales and Scotland, fly outside a restaurant in Saint-Malo’s rue de Chartres where I had mussels, chips and wine all for £9. Many high-class menus offer the famous oysters from nearby Cancale. Nearby is one of Brittany’s many Irish pubs.

France’s fine wines cost less than in England, but usually I drank rough cider from Bédée ice-cold. This traditionally washes down the regional pancakes. There are 31 different types on offer, including savoury flavours (galettes) such as Breton onions. Another 45 pancakes (crêpes) are sweetened with anything from Chantilly cream to Calvados, an apple spirit from Normandy that is set alight on the plate.

There are a dozen pancake-bars in Rennes, including Les Piplettes which offers a £9 menu with free coffee for diners showing a city-pass. A city-pass costs £11 at the tourist office in the cobbled old town and it will save you money if you use the underground railway, tour the old parliament and visit the Breton Museum. The Museum displays the folk-costumes and folklore in this land of myths, as well as detailing the eventful history of the area after its ruling Duchess Anne married a French king in 1532.

The museum is a short walk from the train station/bus terminal, Maison de Verre (free Internet) and various hotels. Mercure is a good pick for businessmen, starting at £61 single, while the two-star Victoria costs £54 double. Far cheaper are guest-houses as well as rural cottages (£150 upwards per week), camp-sites and even caravans in the hilly countryside around.

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