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Brittany From A to Z

BRETAGNE: Until 1537, the region of Brittany was a nation independent from France. Today, that independence still remains in the unique cultural and religious heritage of this westernmost region. With a unique language, style of dress, and religious practices (including the traditional pardons, or religious festivals), the Breton culture holds fast to tradition, and the region boasts medieval, Catholic, and Celtic influence in everything from architecture to art. Visitors flock to Brittany for its culture as much as for its natural beauty, from its pink granite coast in the north to the lush natural parks inland. And Brittany is not a place where one would go hungry: some of the finest and freshest seafood, ciders, and crêpes are found here.

BELLE ILE: Just a ferry ride away from the mainland towns of Quiberon or Vannes, Brittany’s largest island has a beauty that is hard to comprehend without a visit. It is a place of wild and beautiful landscapes like the Aiguilles de Port Coton, the Port Coton needles that Monet painted. The island’s capital, Le Palais is the hub of activity, and is sheltered by the grand Citadelle Vauban on the coast; at the other end of the island is Sauzon, where the singer Sarah Bernhardt spent her summers.

BRÉHAT: The tiny island of Bréhat is on the northernmost coast of Brittany, only about two miles long and a mile wide. Its pink granite structures and lush environment full of flowers make Bréhat a popular holiday destination; coastal windmills and lighthouses are another tourist delight.

BREST: Brest, the ancient naval town, was devastated by the German forces during the Second World War, but it has transformed into a city of education and culture. In the picturesque Finistère region, the old town area is home to an 11th century castle, the only surviving reminder of Brest’s medieval history.

Boating off of the coast of Brest, France

Boating off of the coast of Brest, France

CANCALE: Oysters have put Cancale on the map as a top destination for fruits de mer. The Port de la Houle is perpetually lively with fishermen reeling in their catch of the day, and up the coast at the Pointe du Hock are magnificent views of the sea that overlook the oyster beds and some of the strongest tides in Europe. Cancale is at the western end of the Baie of Mont St Michel, home to the breathtaking site of the Mont St Michel abbey on the rock.

CARNAC: The prehistoric megaliths of Carnac stand out as majestic reminders of the ancient past. A prehistoric museum explains the regional history with over 6600 stunning artifacts. Carnac is also known for its beaches of fine sand and limpid waters, and is one of the more interesting and relaxing getaways in Brittany.

CONCARNEAU: The very first fishing port in France, Concarneau is one of several remaining villes closes, or walled towns, in Brittany. Its majestic granite ramparts have survived since the 14th century and surround the inner harbor and marina. Concarneau is the regional cultural center, with its multicultural history and the many cultural and artistic events offered throughout the year.

CÔTE DE GRANIT ROSE: Brittany’s pink granite cliffs stretch for several miles along the northern Atlantic coast from St-Brieuc to Perros-Guirec. Centuries of exposure to wind and ocean tides have weathered these remarkable cliffs into interesting shapes; between the inlets are found some of Brittany’s most beautiful beaches. A good way to see the unique coastline is by ferry, but a walk along the “Sentier des Douaniers” path in beautiful Ploumanach is highly recommended as well.

DINAN: Dinan’s medieval heritage is still in the air with its churches and cobbled streets that charm visitors young and old. In the heart of the Rance valley, the town sits on a plateau overlooking the valley and the ocean port below. The 14th century dungeon at the chateau includes a museum and local craftwork. 

DINARD: A vibrant tourist resort frequented by Americans and Britons, Dinard is popular for its sandy beaches and exciting nightlife at the casino or luxury hotels. A stroll down the Promenade du Clair de Lune is a great way to take in a view of the emerald coast before enjoying a meal of the sea’s delicacies at one of the many palatable restaurants. 

ENCLOS PAROISSIAUX: Literally a “parish close,” these are some of the most spectacular and common monuments in Western France, and a trip to Brittany is not complete without visiting one. Parish closes consist of a small monumental park such as a cemetery, around which are grouped a church, calvary, and ossuary. Bretons are known for their deeply religious and traditional culture, and a visit to a parish close helps to understand that culture. One of the most beautiful parish closes is a 16th century churchyard at Lampaul-Guimilau.

FORÊT DE BROCÉLIANDE: The Brocéliande forest in central Brittany has many walking paths and picnic areas. This is the land where the legend of Merlin and King Arthur originated, and Merlin’s tomb, the fountain of youth, and the famed Holy Grail are close by the tourist village of Paimpont at the center of the forest. Nearby, the Josselin castle rises from the center of the 12th century town.

GOLFE DU MORBIHAN: Only 12 miles wide, the Gulf of Morbihan is one of the most unique coastal settings in Brittany. Literally “little sea”, Morbihan is sprinkled with tiny islands, fishing boats, and charming towns like Vannes in the north. The best way to see the ocean from the Gulf is by boat, of which there are no shortage, but the coastline has many nature reserves and numerous walking paths along which to see the ocean.

LORIENT: Lorient is a grand ocean city that is always bustling with commerce and tourist activity at its five ports. From the fisher’s port of Keroman to the submarine base and the dockyards, the rich port history of Lorient comes alive. As with other towns in this region, Breton heritage plays a major role in Lorient: the annual Interceltic festival is held here.

PONT-AVEN: A traditional artists’ haven made famous by Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, and others, Pont-Aven today is home to the famous school of artists founded in 1888 from where one can follow “The Route of the Painters.” The small town sits on the River Aven and is home to many old windmills and the famous Chapel of the Tremolo, the inspiration for Gauguin’s “Yellow Christ.”

QUIMPER: This charming City of Art in southern Brittany is renowned for its tradition of faïence, or pottery art that depicts biblical scenes or Breton people in their traditional dress. Quimper is home to many museums and shops where visitors can purchase the region’s best faïence items, and the regional museum of history is also here. To the west of Quimper, the Pointe du Raz is a protected nature enclave that is one of the most beautiful spots to view the ocean. Plus, the westernmost Pointe is the last stop in France before the United States!

RENNES: Rennes is the regional capital of Brittany with over a quarter-million residents, and its recent restoration project has blended medieval heritage with modern industry. Home to the Brittany Parliament, Rennes is also known for its museums, theaters, and festivals. Its half-timbered houses and old pubs provide an eclectic reminder of the past alongside state-of-the-art telecommunications and information technology research centers. The Place du Palais and Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville form the heart of the city where townspeople meet to shop or enjoy cultural activities; La Place des Lices is a bustling meeting place on market day.

Half-timbered houses in Rennes

Half-timbered houses in Rennes

ROSCOFF: A charming little town on the northern coat of Brittany, Roscoff is a departure point for the Brittany Ferries that sail to the United Kingdom and Ireland. Primarily a fishing village, Roscoff has exquisite beaches, fine seafood restaurants, and centers for thalassotherapy.

ST MALO: In the northernmost region of Brittany lies the Corsair City and popular seaside resort of St Malo. Peeking out from Brittany’s emerald coastline, the town boasts an eclectic downtown area. The bustling port and impressive walls and ramparts that surround the town make St Malo famous for its strong preservation of history, and many French notables have called it home: the North American explorer Jacques Cartier was born in Saint Malo, and the writer Chateaubriand made his home there for eighteen years.

VANNES: On the Gulf of Morbihan sits the historic city of Vannes, surrounded by ramparts that recall Brittany’s medieval and Celtic past. It was at Vannes in 1532 when the province of Brittany formally united with France. The old town and marketplace are easy to explore, and beautiful sites like the Renaissance-style town hall (Hôtel de Ville), the Cathédrale, the Château du Plessis-Josso, and the butterfly garden are not to miss.

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