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A guide to Ille-et-Vilaine, Brittany

PUBLISHED: 11:22 11 August 2014 | UPDATED: 16:22 15 December 2015

Saint-Malo © CRTB / Yannick Le Gal

Saint-Malo © CRTB / Yannick Le Gal

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With its unspoilt beaches, pretty villages and the vibrant city of Rennes, Ille-et-Vilaine has much to offer, says Patricia Stoughton

Market day in Rennes © CRTB / Simon BourcierMarket day in Rennes © CRTB / Simon Bourcier

As the gateway to Brittany, Ille-et-Vilaine has been a long-time favourite with travellers drawn to its wild northern coastline; its countryside both open and forested; its medieval forts and elegant châteaux; and Rennes, its vibrant capital. Its coast, the shortest of the Breton departments, is only 45 kilometres from Mont Saint-Michel to Saint-Briac-sur-Mer as the crow flies, yet there are four world-famous tourist sites along its shores running from east to west; all of them wonderful places to explore.

Best-known are the picture-postcard views of Mont Saint-Michel from around the western shores of the eponymous bay. Though actually in the department of Manche, its distinctive silhouette is an integral part of Ille-et-Vilaine’s landscape. Further along is Cancale, an attractive fishing port famous for its beaches and its oysters, described in great detail at the Musée de la Ferme Marine de Cancale. For lovers of the great outdoors, a walk along the path from the town to the Pointe de Grouin offers lovely views of the Île des Landes, with its bird reserve, and on a clear day, Mont Saint-Michel itself.

To the west is Saint-Malo, port of arrival for many and renowned for its history and imposing fortifications. Built for another age, they suffered substantial damage in the Second World War, but the city has been scrupulously restored. A must for a first visit is ‘le tour des murs’, a walk around the massive ramparts where sentries were once on the lookout for Dutch and English enemy ships. There are towers, bastions and gateways, and every so often, statues immortalising Saint-Malo’s heroes, including Jacques Cartier, who discovered Canada in 1534, and the fearsome corsair René Duguay-Truin. There is also a plaque dedicated to early Romantic author François-René de Chateaubriand, whose grave is on the small offshore island Le Grand Bé.

Facing Saint-Malo across the Rance estuary is Dinard, dubbed ‘la perle’ of the department’s Emerald Coast. It became a leading resort in the mid-19th century for the well-heeled from Britain, America and Paris, who introduced the new fashions for tennis and sea-bathing. They built splendid villas in a kaleidoscope of architectural styles, of which 407 remain, now carefully preserved. There are lovely views of Saint-Malo from the coastal paths and the town has several sandy beaches, complete with emblematic blue-and-white-striped tents.

Saint-Malo © CRTB / BERTHIER EmmanuelSaint-Malo © CRTB / BERTHIER Emmanuel

Further west are Dol de Bretagne, its cathedral dedicated to Saint Samson, one of the seven founding saints of Brittany; and Bécherel, a pretty hilltop town with more than 20 bookshops – a must for bibliophiles.

Inland to the east are a series of impressive medieval fortress towns: Fougères, its fort a fascinating example of the development of military architecture, and Vitré, its castle dominating the perfectly preserved old town. Both have been well-adapted for visitors of all ages. To the south is La Guerche-de-Bretagne with its Notre-Dame basilica and its annual Trois Angevines fair, which takes place on the first three Tuesdays of September. Redon, where the Nantes à Brest canal intersects with the River Vilaine, is worth visiting for its Abbaye Saint-Sauveur, and its attractive river walks. To the north of Rennes, Bazouges-sous-Hédé with its 11 locks along a 2km stretch of the Ille-et-Rance canal is another fascinating place to explore.

As in the rest of Brittany, the department has megaliths in abundance, some just waiting to be discovered, some well mapped such as the Neolithic-covered alley, La Roche-aux-Fées at Essé, and a spectacular, complex group of megaliths in the open moors surrounding Saint-Just. They guard the mysteries of their rites but along the wild coast from Saint-Malo to Cancale, gnawed by sea and rain, more than 300 sculpted rocks, are easier to decode. Carved in the 19th century by l’Abbé Fouré, they depict an assortment of sea monsters and tell the story of the legendary Rothéneufs, a 16th-century family of bloodthirsty pirates.

If you’re seeking Ille-et-Vilaine’s leafy quietness, then La Forêt de Brocéliande is the place to go. Developed to highlight Arthurian mythology, it’s an enchanting place to visit, even if the 19th-century Celtic groups initially involved with its creation had a more romantic than historical approach. The Château de Trécesson, Tréhorenteuc village, Les Forges de Paimpont, Le Miroir aux Fées and Le Val-sans-Retour are all woven into the story. One of the most unexpected sights is the striking Arbre d’Or at the entrance to the Val-sans-Retour. Conceived by François Davin, it commemorates a fire that destroyed nearly 500 hectares of forest around the valley in 1990. Its bare, gilded branches stand out among a group of charred chestnut trees, as a symbol of the fragility of the woodlands and of hope in nature’s powers of regeneration. But Ille-et-Vilaine is not just about legends – it’s also about 21st-century reality.

La Roche aux Fées © CRTB / HAMEL FranckLa Roche aux Fées © CRTB / HAMEL Franck

Rennes, ‘Roazhon’ in Breton, capital of Ille-et-Vilaine, is the seat of Brittany’s regional parliament; Court of Appeal; and educational headquarters, l’Académie de Rennes. Some 20 years ago, the parliament building was ravaged by fire but has now been meticulously restored. Rennes is strategically placed at the crossroads of the main route from Finistère to Paris and the Channel to the Atlantic ports. It grew up around the confluence of the rivers Ille and Vilaine, which have given their name to the department itself.

Long-time resident Jean-Paul Palmarini has witnessed the popularity of the capital first-hand: “Rennes is a young and vibrant city,” he says. “There are 40,000 students at its two universities, and it’s a magnet for all kinds of people including businessmen, politicians, artists and tourists.”

The Rennes Basin has a dynamic business community with particular emphasis on dairy farming, food processing, car manufacture and telecommunications, and is one of the smallest cities in the world to have a metro. It is also the home of Ouest-France, France’s best-selling daily newspaper.

Much of Rennes was destroyed by fire in 1720, when it lost 845 half-timbered houses. Now only a few remain in the Place Saint-Anne and surrounding streets. Jean-Paul adds: “The city is quiet and agreeable, on a human scale, without the problems that afflict larger cities.” He and his wife Joëlle (inset, with their grandchildren) appreciate the buildings steeped in history, “especially the Parliament, the old Saint-Michel prison, the medieval Portes Mordelaises, and the distinctive architecture of the place Champs Jacquet” he enthuses, and they also enjoy strolling in the elegant Jardin du Thabor, a peaceful haven in the city centre. The Saturday morning Place des Lices food and flower market is another favourite for buying the best fresh produce on offer, and is one of Rennes’s many attractions highlighted by the city’s Greeters’ service, where inhabitants are paired with visitors to show them the sights (www.rennes-greeters.com/en).

The château at Fougères © Patricia StoughtonThe château at Fougères © Patricia Stoughton

Writer Wendy Mews, who has lived in Ille-et-Vilaine while researching her books, says: “There is no issue about being a foreigner here. People are quite used to a mixed population.” She suggests contacting the AIKB (Association Intégration Kreiz Breiz), set up to help newcomers settle into Brittany (www.aikb.fr).

Among the many British who have made a life in Ille-et-Vilaine, is Brenda Dean. She bought her house in 2002 after her husband died; having made friends in the area through a local twinning association they knew it well. “I wanted to fulfil a long-held dream of buying a house in France. Within a week I found a 17th-century property in the small town of La Fontenelle. It was a coup de foudre”

Then came a happy discovery for Brenda, an enthusiastic classical musician and singer. Composer Jean Langlais, well-known among UK musicians, was born in La Fontenelle in 1907. Through a series of fortuitous connections, and the desire of the local maire to promote the village, Brenda, together with Colin Spinks, her choir director in England, devised a Langlais festival, involving both British and French players, which first took place in August 2005. A great success, it led to the formation of the association Les Amis de Jean Langlais. And the festival is still flourishing.

Brenda still spends some time in England. “I have the best of both worlds, but they meet in the middle through music.” Her love of France began when she was a student at the University of Glasgow, and her friendships in both countries are strong. She is grateful for the support she was given by her French friends after her husband died and with setting up the festival. “They are always there for me.” And French life? “There is nothing better than gathering round a table for a convivial meal.”

Dinard © CRTB / Jean Patrick GratienDinard © CRTB / Jean Patrick Gratien

As well as culture, the department boasts a number of fine châteaux and gardens including Montmarin (1760) at Pleurtuit; Bonaban at La Gouesnière (1776); Chateaubriand’s family home, Combourg, dating from the 14th century; Le Bourbansais with its zoo, at Pleugueneuc; the fine Gothic Lanrigan; Landal in its wild romantic setting; and the Château des Rochers, Madame de Sévigné’s favourite home, and from where, in the 17th century, she wrote the majority of her celebrated letters to her daughter, Madame de Grignan.

Other writers captivated by this part of the world include Victor Hugo, who wrote of Fougères: “It’s a town that should be reverently visited by painters... I’ve seen it in the sunshine, I’ve seen it at twilight, I’ve seen it in moonlight and I never tire of it, it’s admirable.” And Balzac set his novel, Les Chouans, part of his saga La Comédie Humaine, in the area.

Though Ille-et-Vilaine is arguably the most French of the Breton departments, it still has a strong Breton identity with its links to the ancient past and Celtic tradition. “Some western Bretons argue that Ille-et-Vilaine is scarcely Breton at all,” says Brittany expert Philippe Barbour. It’s true that the Breton language was never really spoken there (the Gallo dialect being the major language east of a line from Saint-Brieuc south to Vannes), but many of the hamlets and country roads have Breton names.

Over the years there have been movements to change some department names in Brittany. ‘Vilaine’, the feminine for ‘ugly’, was supposedly giving a bad impression of Ille-et-Vilaine, but the change failed. Author Dominique Le Brun wrote of the event that “truth and authenticity are worth more than words”. And Ille-et-Vilaine is just that: authentic.

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