France

Around the region

Brittany’s chequered relationship with France has dominated the history and economy of the region. Until the 20th century Nantes was the major city and present-day Loire-Atlantique was Breton territory. That all changed after the war, although many still regard the ‘historic Brittany’ (five departments) as the real thing. The Breton-speaking area of Basse Bretagne or Lower Brittany extended westwards from St-Brieuc to the whole of Finistère, which remains the most traditional Breton area. In Haute or Upper Brittany French was the dominant language with Gallo, a dialect deriving from Latin, surviving in places to the present day.

Brittany is in many ways quite distinct from the rest of France, with its Celtic culture, particular religious traditions and a peasant cuisine based on pancakes called crêpes or galettes. It's not a wine-producing area, but has excellent local ciders and beer.

Ille-et-Vilaine

The eastern area – modern, prosperous and vibrant Ille-et-Vilaine – was a kind of buffer zone between Brittany and France, controlled by the Franks around AD 800. The ninth century saw an expansion of Breton dominance to include Rennes and Nantes (the latter now being outside Brittany again in Loire-Atlantique). The fine fortresses of Fougères, Combourg and Vitré bear witness to the frontier nature of this area, and the beautiful beech Forêt de Fougères was a regular venue for clashes between salt-smugglers and customs officers.

The chain of castles once served to protect Rennes, now a large university city and the capital of Brittany. It’s also the smallest city in the world to have an underground system. The Parliament building, completed in 1655, was badly damaged by fire during a fishermen’s demonstration in 1994, but is now wonderfully restored. Despite disastrous fires in the 18th century, many medieval houses are preserved in the old town north of the cathedral.

St-Malo, the ferry port with its walled city on the north coast, upholds the maritime heritage of Brittany, which has been home of corsairs, merchants and explorers over the centuries. To the east is the Bay of Mont St-Michel, with its World Heritage Site (technically just over the border). The coast here is renowned for its shellfish, especially the oysters of Cancale.

On the western border with Morbihan, the Forêt de Paimpont is today also known as Brocéliande and has many Arthurian connections. The Château de Comper is now an evocative centre of Arthurian studies. Apart from the romance and magic of the setting, it’s excellent walking and riding territory. The department’s Neolithic treasure is a megalithic feast of menhirs and dolmens on the high plateau at St-Just, not far from Redon, the canal centre of Brittany. 

Côtes d’Armor

This department was called Côtes du Nord until the 1990s when it was deemed necessary to shed a rather wintry image. Armor, the land of the sea, has a stunning northern coastline, with its craggy cliffs – wild around Cap Fréhel, the highest in Brittany near Plouha and the most exotic along the Pink Granite coast around Perros-Guirec, where the fantastically shaped rock formations draw visitors from all over the world. In summer this whole area is packed with people and, inevitably, cars. The Côte de Goëlo offers many sandy beaches and friendly traditional family resorts.

The only large town of Côtes d’Armor is St-Brieuc, buried deep in a double valley below the motorway flyover. It has a small medieval quarter, dominated by the somewhat prison-like Cathedral of St-Etienne. Livelier and more appealing towns are Lannion in the west and Dinan on the eastern border of the Rance. Tréguier, a centre of the Trégor region, is a gem of a place.

Inland, there are no big towns south of Guingamp and it is much less densely populated than the coastal area, with rocky, undulating countryside, granite villages, isolated chapels and many Neolithic standing stones or burial places. Right in the centre of Brittany, the vast Lac de Guerlédan provides a focus for active holidays with its forested surroundings, swimming beaches and sailing opportunities.

Finistère

The westernmost department of Brittany has the best coastal variety of all, with the endless beaches and towering cliffs of the Atlantic shore. The Crozon Peninsula and Cap Sizun provide the finest sea views, walking and water-based activities that anyone could wish for. Northwest of Brest is the westernmost point of France at Pointe de Corsen, and also the tallest standing menhir in France near St-Renan. Brest itself is essentially a modern university city, but there’s plenty of interest with three port areas and the well-preserved château housing a maritime museum.

In the south of the department, Quimper could not be more different – compact and bright, with a really enjoyable medieval centre of ultra-modern shops and a breathtaking cathedral. The town of Pont l’Abbé just to the south is the heart of Pays Bigouden, a distinctive area with a long maritime history and still strong on Breton traditions today.

In the centre of Finistère, the Monts d’Arrée are the highest hills in Brittany. They're hardly mountains, but look impressive in the range of lonely schist peaks and empty moorland, set around the bowl of a reservoir and topped by the tiny chapel of St-Michel. There is plenty of scope for cultural or activity holidays in this extremely quiet area, which deserves to be better known,
not only for its landscape but also as the home of some of the earliest established eco-museums in France. Just to the north is the old town of Morlaix, sacked by the English in 1522, but now more peaceably the first stop for those off the ferry at Roscoff. The ancient centre has some extraordinary old houses that you won’t see elsewhere, and delightful twisting stepped passageways wiggling across the hillsides. Easily accessible
from here are the enclos paroissiaux (parish closes), a phenomenon of religious architecture that draws visitors from afar. St-Thégonnec, Guimiliau and Lampaul-Guimiliau are close enough to visit in succession. Most of central Finistère is part of the regional Parc Naturel d’Armorique.

Morbihan

The Gulf of Morbihan, said to have an island for every day of the year, is almost an inland sea that has emerged since Neolithic times with rising water levels. The New Stone Age remains on the islands of Gavrinis and Er-Lannic were on the mainland when originally erected. Boats go to the Ile-aux-Moines and Ile d’Arz from Arradon and Larmor Baden. Nearby Carnac is a world-famous heritage site known for its astonishing miles of megaliths. Erdeven and Locmariaquer are further exceptional Neolithic sites, on each side of the crooked finger of the Quiberon Peninsula. Here there is a marked contrast between the family beaches on the sheltered east side and the wilder west, a favourite surfing area. From Quiberon itself, at the end of the peninsula, boats run to the island of Belle-Ile. The coast outside the Gulf is not especially memorable, being relatively flat and quite built-up.

Vannes is a beautiful city, with extensive medieval remains, including large sections of the original town fortifications and gates. Sights include the Cathedral of St-Pierre, a fine archaeological museum in the 15th-century Château Gaillard and La Cohue Musée des Beaux-Arts. Inland Morbihan has much rural beauty in the form of river valleys, wooded hills and sleepy villages. Pontivy is the main town of the interior, with its imposing medieval château contrasting with the rather monotonous regularity of the Napoleonic quarter. The canalized Blavet river here goes north to Lac de Guerlédan and south to Hennebont. To the south and west of Pontivy, the areas around Castennec and Le Faouët are especially attractive.

Five special little towns lie almost in a line in the northeast of Morbihan. Each has its own distinct atmosphere and architectural delights – Josselin's Rohan château, Lizio's period houses, Ploërmel's strong ducal legacy, Malestroit's medieval centre and interesting church and, finally, Rochefort-en-Terre, perhaps the prettiest village in Brittany.

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