With a stunning landscape, delicious food and its very own language, Brittany has long been a favourite with the British. Vicky Leigh experiences the unique character of this very special part of France
Komz a rit brezhong? Or perhaps parlez-vous Breton? is more helpful. You may be in France but this is not French as you know it. Welcome to Brittany, familiar in many ways and yet in others so foreign. Delightfully distinctive and incredibly proud of its past, it is the region’s unique blend of forthright character and wild beauty that has proved such an irresistible combination for the British over the years.
Travel to the tip of north-west France and you’ll discover that many inhabitants would consider themselves to be Breton first and French second, and there is a strong desire to keep Breton, the only Celtic language spoken on the continent, alive in Brittany today. You’re likely to see the words Be Breizh throughout the region; Breizh being the Breton word for Brittany. The phrase captures the pride the region takes in its heritage; there are almost year-round celebrations of traditional folk art, music and dance among the many towns which proudly celebrate their culture and identity.
Just a hop across the Channel, Brittany and its 2,736-kilometres of coastline has long been popular with the Brits, but perhaps our shared history has as much of a part to play in this as geography does. Following the fall of the Roman Empire the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain, forcing the British who previously inhabited the whole island to retreat to their western strongholds. A considerable number emigrated south across the sea to join their cousins in the north-west part of Gaul, and so it was that Armorica, as the area had been known until then, became the land of the Britons, or as we now know it, Brittany.
To this day Brittany and the Celtic parts of the UK still have much in common; shared myths and legends for example, such as the stories of Merlin, King Arthur and the Holy Grail. There are parallels to be drawn between the Breton language and Welsh too, which can be clearly seen when travelling in the region where the bilingual road signs are reminiscent of driving through Wales.
Within easy distance of Saint-Malo, a popular point of entry to Brittany, the picturesque medieval town of Dinan in the department of C�tes-d’Armor, is set in a captivating location on a hillside overlooking the River Rance. In the words of Victor Hugo, it is ‘ancient and beautiful, stone crafted, cleaving to the rocks as a house martin’s nest above the precipice’.
High above the river stands the impressive stone railway viaduct built by none other than Gustave Eiffel, which is now used for road traffic. Walk along sections of the three-kilometre-long ramparts that still encircle Dinan and the view is really quite magnificent. A major highlight in the local calendar is the bi-annual F�te des Remparts, a medieval extravaganza of costumes, food and drink attracting thousands of visitors, which celebrates the imposing structure.
Until the 18th century, the main route from the river port up to the town was the cobbled Rue du Petit-Four which is still a charming – if steep – walk. Indeed, the best way to explore this pretty town is on foot, with a guided walking tour of the town which reveals numerous sights of interest, such as the statue of Bertrand du Guesclin in the main square, where the popular weekly market is held.
A name familiar to all French school pupils, Bertrand du Guesclin is known in France as the most famous knight of the Middle Ages. His victory in a duel fought with Thomas of Canterbury secured the freedom of Dinan and its people. His heart is buried in a tomb in the local Saint-Sauveur church, symbolising the special connection he had with the town.
Although it has of course been modernised over the years, the Dinan you see today is essentially the Dinan of the Middle Ages. Time appears to have stood still here. Reminiscent of The Rows in Chester, the half-timbered buildings remain, with living accommodation on the upper floors, shops on the ground floor and their covered walkways providing shoppers with shelter from inclement weather. It is a lovely place to wander around and soak up the atmosphere of times gone by. Travelling west from Dinan towards the coast brings you to Saint-Brieuc, the capital of the Brittany department of C�tes-d’Armor. Twinned with Aberystwyth, it is named after the Welsh monk St Briocus, who evangelised the region in the sixth century and established an oratory here. A bustling town in an idyllic location, it is a popular centre for cultural events and festivals, with the festival of Breton music held in late September drawing the crowds.
Before that though the Festival de la Saint-Loup in Guingamp, located further to the west, takes place in mid-August and is a week-long celebration of traditional Breton folk dance and Celtic music. First recorded in 1850, it is one of Brittany’s oldest festivals.
Brittany is certainly bursting with colour. From the C�te d’Emeraude (the Emerald Coast), a section of coast covering the departments of Ille-et-Vilaine and C�tes-d’Armor and which takes its name from the colour of the sea in the region, to La C�te de Granit Rose (the Pink Granite Coast) this colourful character is clear to see.
The Pink Granite Coast stretches for 30 kilometres along the northernmost part of the Breton coast, and this dramatic landscape has inspired many famous artists including Marc Chagall.
The town of Perros-Guirec is an ideal spot in which to get up close and personal with these rare pink rocks, which over time have been eroded by the elements into some spectacular shapes.
Keep your eyes peeled for an elephant, a bell, and even Napoleon’s tricorn hat, as these are just some of the shapes it is said you can make out. In parts it almost feels like someone has gathered up all the rocks and then rearranged them in a particularly artistic fashion. Both the pretty pink granite and the relaxed holiday atmosphere in the town itself make it a lovely destination for holiday-makers.
There are numerous islands lying off the Breton coast and as I made my way back towards Saint-Malo I stopped to explore Ile-de-Br�hat. Six kilometres north-west of Paimpol and two kilometres off the coast at Pointe de l’Arcouest, the island is accessed via the Vedettes de Br�hat ferry service in just 10 minutes.
As I climbed on board and was buffeted by a strong wind, which was bracing to say the least, I did wonder what the weather had in store for me once I arrived. And yet as if by magic, I was greeted by dazzling sunshine burning brightly in a cloudless blue sky. This turned out to be just the start of the magical experience that awaited me.
As well as being inspired by the C�te de Granit Rose, artist Marc Chagall immortalised the island on canvas in his painting La Fen�tre sur l’Ile de Br�hat. It’s not difficult to see why. A popular destination for a day out, it is breathtakingly beautiful, and is renowned as a sanctuary not only for rare species of wild flowers but also for birds of all kinds. It’s a sanctuary for humans too, especially those who are keen to escape the hustle and bustle and enjoy a slower pace of life, if only for a few hours. And the pace of life really is much slower here. The island is entirely car-free and the only way to get around is on foot or by bicycle, which can be hired from €11 per day.
A gentle cycle ride around the island on the criss-crossing paths is an idyllic way to explore, taking you past the Birlot watermill and other must-see landmarks including the St-Michel chapel. Perched on top of a hill it does involve a climb, but trust me, the sight that greets you at the top will more than reward you for your efforts, and the island’s handful of charming little restaurants and bars provide just the place to stop for refreshment afterwards.
Of course, as is usually the case when it comes to visiting France, food plays an integral role in the Breton experience. Brittany’s main industry is fishing and the region is responsible for 80% of France’s total shellfish production, so this is most definitely the place in which to sample all manner of delicious fresh seafood. The seaside resort of Saint Quay-Portrieux is famous for its scallop season and its annual F�te de la Coquille Saint-Jacques regularly attracts up to 80,000 visitors.
Oysters are widely farmed across the region and the town of Cancale, responsible for two-thirds of France’s production, has earned a reputation as the oyster capital. According to those in the know here the best way to eat les hu�tres is to top them with the zest of a lime or grapefruit, and they’re not wrong. They are perhaps an acquired taste but even I, having previously failed to be convinced by the merits of this particular mollusc, was converted.
Other local delicacies include cr�pes and their savoury counterpart galettes, salted butter, sabl� biscuits and the famous Breton cake kouign-aman. Made from butter and sugar this is a must-try for anyone with a (very) sweet tooth, although perhaps not for those watching their waistline. Then again, when in Brittany… Bon app�tit, or as they say in Breton, kalon digor!