With its ideal climate, stunning coastline and rich history, this beautiful part of Brittany has been captivating visitors for decades, says Patricia Stoughton
Morbihan has enchanted travellers, writers and artists for years with its ragged shores frayed by millennia of coastal erosion; its bare inland mountains sculpted by the prevailing west wind, its sheltered green countryside and its typically Breton towns and villages.
Among them were Victor Hugo and Guy de Maupassant, and in 2011 the Morbihan archive department put on an exhibition of travel diaries entitled Récits de Voyage: Le Morbihan, Une Destination Exotique which included British writers Thomas Adolphus Trollope, younger brother of Anthony Trollope, and intrepid voyager Fanny Bury Palliser.
The classic itinerary was along the coastline from La Roche Bernard in the east, going westwards towards the departmental capital Vannes, then to Auray, and the major port of Lorient. Today, many visitors head straight for the beaches around the Golfe du Morbihan and Quiberon peninsula, but Morbihan’s towns, both coastal and inland, have much to offer historically and culturally.
Some prefer to explore Morbihan’s wide stretches of quiet and unspoilt countryside around Pontivy, Josselin, Sainte-Anne d’Auray, or Gourin, where there are unexpected discoveries to be made: a glimpse along a river, a luxuriant woodland, or a startling view of a grandiose church half-hidden in a hollow. Perhaps the most surprising sight is the vast army of Neolithic standing stones at Carnac, which has fascinated travellers for years.
Photographs simply do not do them justice. These extraordinary megaliths need to be seen at first hand. Maupassant wrote: “They seem alive these endless lines of stones […]. If you look at them for a while, you can see them stirring and bending.” His is, of course, a romantic literary evocation of this impressive sight. However, there were a great many pseudo-scientific theories around in the 19th century.
Trollope contradicted a suggestion that the site was a Roman camp by pronouncing it ‘absurd’, and Flaubert wrote that: “Carnac has had more rubbish written about it than it has standing stones.” Now though, it is generally believed that the earliest stones probably date from 4500 BC and the majority from 3300 BC.
After the French Revolution, efforts were made to protect ancient sites. Hugo angrily describes how many of the Carnac stones had been pulled to the ground by ‘imbeciles’ and even more carted off for use in buildings – only 4,000 remain of the original eight to 10,000, including those in the neighbouring villages of Plouharnet and Erdeven.
Morbihan’s recorded history is inscribed in its impressive legacy of castles and châteaux. One of the most beautiful – the Château de Suscinio – was classified as a historical monument in 1840 and in 1869, Bury Palliser wrote: “Partly demolished, Sucinio [sic] is little more than a pile of picturesque ruins.” With the sea on both sides it was regarded by the Romantics as, “a beautiful and poetic residence” and it remains so… a picture book delight open all year.
As all Breton castles, Suscinio had a violent history, even occupied at times by the English during the Hundred Years’ War. In 1473, François II, Duke of Brittany, held Henry Tudor (the future Henry VII) and his uncle Jasper Tudor (Earl of Pembroke) as prisoners there after the Lancastrians’ final defeat at Tewkesbury in 1471. But Suscinio had a peaceful history too and was once a favourite residence of the Dukes of Brittany. Now, it is in the process of a long, thorough and sympathetic restoration.
Other Morbihan châteaux include Comper, a centre of Arthurian legend; Largoët, a 15th-century fortress with an octagonal tower; the 18th-century, white stone Palais de Kerlévenan; the impressive ramparts at Vannes; the fort of Port-Louis, with its French East India Company museum; the indestructible submarine pen Keroman at Lorient, built by the Germans in the Second World War; and the stolid, austere Château de Pontivy.
The Château de Josselin, seat of the powerful Rohan family, is definitely worth a detour. Bury Palliser was struck by its “severe military architecture”. Its three imposing medieval towers loom over the Oust valley, but in complete contrast, the inner courtyard is dominated by a flamboyant Gothic sculpted granite façade, which she describes as, “one of the most beautiful Renaissance châteaux preserved in Brittany”. Its richly decorated neo-Gothic interior, fine gardens, and doll museum charm modern-day visitors.
Morbihan has a rich religious heritage too. In Vannes there is the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre and in the countryside, churches, chapels, calvaries, fountains and wayside crosses, most superimposed on ancient Celtic sites. The calvary at Guéhenno, with its granite carvings of the Passion of Christ, is one of the seven great calvaries of Brittany. Many small villages seem to be dominated by a particularly grandiose chapel: the 16th-century Saint-Nicodème at Pluméliau and Notre-Dame at Quelven, the latter built by the Rohan family, are cases in point. The annual pardon (pilgrimage of forgiveness) at Notre-Dame takes place on 15 August, rivalled only by the crowds following the grand Pardon de Sainte-Anne d’Auray on 26 July, described by Bury Palliser as, “Brittany’s Mecca”. It still attracts around 20,000 pilgrims today.
For sailors of all levels, the Golfe du Morbihan – ‘little sea’ in Breton and origin of the department’s name – is a favourite holiday destination. Dotted with dozens of pretty islands, visitors can see them on boat trips from Vannes, and visit two of the largest: the Île-aux-Moines and the Île d’Arz. Round-the-world navigators Pascal and Hélène Caroff say: “It’s a paradise for sailing with a special, magical, world-apart feeling. The water is mostly calm but there is usually enough wind and there are lots of open moorings.
“The mouth of the golfe, between the arms of the Quiberon and Rhuys peninsulas, is wide and on the whole not too difficult to navigate, though the currents can be strong.” They warn that to avoid being stranded tide tables are indispensable.
Beyond the golfe is the sheltered Baie de Quiberon, also popular with yachtsmen. And further out are the islands of Houat, Hoëdic, (‘duck’ and ‘duckling’ in Breton) and Belle-Île-en-Mer, the largest of the islands, all of which can be reached by boat from Quiberon or Vannes. Further up the coast the Île de Groix can be reached from Lorient.
Belle-Île’s wild, rocky coast is interspersed with jagged cliffs, secretive coves and sandy beaches. Its capital, Le Palais, is a pretty town with shops and restaurants. But the island’s strategic position ensured a turbulent history, including occupations by the English in the 18th century and the Germans in the 20th century, which can be explored in the museum inside Vauban’s towering citadel.
Actress Sarah Bernhardt, who bought and transformed a small Vauban fort on the Pointe des Poulains at the end of the 19th century, expressed what many visitors have felt, saying that she loved Belle-Île, “for its solitude, its silence, its wildness, its fishermen, for its sea at once transparent and glaucous, and its sky sometimes dark, sometimes blue; for all the splendid spectacles laid on by nature; for all I find in dreams, ideals and beauty”. Belle-Île also fascinated Monet, whose 1886 painting Rain Effect captured the “relentless forces of wind and water”.
Morbihan boasts a wide variety of birds and plants, many of which can be spotted on the signed long-distance walk, la grande randonnée (GR 34) along the coast, and the small marked routes leading from it. For wildlife park and botanical garden enthusiasts, Branféré is worth a detour as it has a fine collection of plants and animals and among others, a delightful half-hour spectacle d’oiseaux, with free-flying parrots, storks, pelicans, and birds of prey, which take place three times a day from the end of March until the 11 November.
During the summer months, as elsewhere in France, Morbihan has its festivals, covering all kinds of music, historical pageants and the arts, the most well-known being Lorient’s Festival Interceltique, which draws Celtic bands and dance groups from all over the world, with Breton instruments the binou (a small bagpipe) and the bombard (a basic oboe) in pride of place. Among the more eclectic ceremonies, is the blessing of the sea during the Pardon de Saint-Cado at Belz and the blessing of horses during the Pardon de Saint-Éloi at Quistinic. However, there are many out-of-season events too, including an annual display of Christmas cribs from all over the world at Guiscriff.
Some travellers are so captivated by all that Morbihan has to offer they buy a holiday house or apartment, but Francophiles Sally Watson and Brett Graffham, went one step further. They wanted a complete change of lifestyle and so bought La Clochette, their bar-restaurant, in the stunning countryside village of Crédin.
“It was a bit dilapidated to say the least,” says Brett, and it took them eight months to restore and redesign, and to cope with the complex bureaucracy. “Now, though work is hard with long hours, it’s rewarding,” he adds.
They have, with great enthusiasm, entered into the spirit of their community, organising concerts, darts evenings and gatherings to watch the football results… and it’s gone down well. Regional dailies Ouest-France and Le Télégramme reported that Sally and Brett have brought back: “Conviviality to their village with their café-bar à l’ambiance cosy.” They do a menu ouvrier at lunchtime and a small menu in the evening. Full of enthusiasm, they are now preparing a chambres d’hôtes and a beer garden.
Most British people who set up home in Morbihan choose to live in the countryside, where property is cheaper, but they need to have retirement funds or work with a secure income to make a go of it. The maritime climate, bringing mild winters and warm summers, not dissimilar to southern England, appeals to many. So does the quality of life, which moves at a slower pace. Local food and drink is much the same as the rest of Brittany, offering delicious fresh fish, crêpes, gâteaux bretons, apple juices and cider.
While admitting that he can hardly have hoped to have given the fullest impression of the area to his readers, Trollope writes: “I hope that some among them may be induced to undertake a trip so easily accomplished. Should any feel inclined to do so, I think I may venture to promise them – always supposing that a little roughing is no insuperable objection – a very pleasant summer’s ramble.” And still today, whether ‘roughing it’ or staying in comfort, Morbihan has something for everyone. LF