BRITTANY

 

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ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:

Brittany is a rugged region of beautiful forests bounded by nearly 1,000 kilometers of coastline. This peninsula, jutting out from the northwest side of France, was for many years isolated from the rest of the country and regarded by Bretons as a separate country. The regional language is Breton and you see signposts in both French and Breton. Most of the houses are fresh white stucco with angled blue-gray roofs. Crêpes filled with butter, sugar, chocolate, or jam, galettes (wheat crêpes) enhanced with cheese, ham, onions, or mushrooms, and cider are Brittany’s culinary specialties. This itinerary begins on Brittany’s border at Mont Saint Michel and explores the coast before it ventures into the forested interior, culminating on the southern coast at Vannes with its charming old walled town.

Recommended Pacing: Select a location in northern Brittany for the northern portion of the itinerary and one on the southwestern coast for the southern portion. Two nights in each spot should give you ample time to explore the peninsula.

While Mont Saint Michel is technically in Normandy, it is geographically in Brittany. Mont Saint Michel is France’s premier tourist attraction, and although it is wonderful, we think it best to warn our readers that in high season, the effort of pushing your way uphill through teeming crowds, past souvenir shops, to reach the abbey at the summit is not enjoyable. The appearance of the town is that of a child’s sand castle, with narrow, cobblestoned streets winding up to the 12th-century abbey and lovely Romanesque church, dedicated to Archangel Michael. Depending on the tide, the mount is either almost surrounded by water or by marshland and quicksand. Drive across the paved causeway that joins the mount to the mainland, park in the car park, and explore on foot.

Leaving Mont Saint Michel, take the D976 to Dol. Follow signposts for Saint Malo across the flat farmland to Cancale whose beachside port is full of lobsters, mussels, oysters, and clams, and whose attractive little town is nestled on the cliffs above. Follow signposts for Saint Malo par la Côte to Pointe du Grouin, a windswept headland and promontory. Rounding the point, you are rewarded by vistas of coastline stretching into the far distance.

Saint Malo corsairs, who menaced British seafarers during the 16th century, were pirates with royal permission to take foreign ships. With its tall 13th- and 14th-century ramparts facing the sea and enormous harbor (the terminal of ferries from Portsmouth and the Channel Islands), the town is almost surrounded by water. Within the walls are narrow streets lined with interesting shops and small restaurants. Much was destroyed in battle between Germans and Americans in 1944 but it has all been magnificently restored. Walk round the walls (stairs by Saint Vincent’s gate), visit the courtyard of the 14th-century castle (now the town hall), and sample crêpes or galettes.

Following the D168, cross the barrière (low pontoon bridge) over the bay to Dinard, a popular beach resort. Once a sleepy fishing village, its confusion of one-way streets and seafront hotels (blocking views) discourage you from leaving the main highway.

Approximately 25 kilometers south of Dinard is the wonderful walled town of Dinan. Embraced by medieval ramparts, it is a charming city with cobbled streets, half-timbered houses, a historic convent, and castle ruins. It is a great place to spend an afternoon exploring the maze of streets, from its picturesque port to the encircling ramparts. Known as “the city of art history,” Dinan has intriguing stores, a multitude of art galleries, and inviting sidewalk cafés.

A 45-kilometer drive through Plancoët brings you to Lamballe. At the heart of Lamballe’s industrial sprawl are some fine old houses on the Place du Martrai, including the executioner’s house, which is now the tourist office. The traffic is congested.

Join the N12 bypassing Saint Brieuc and Guigamp (the town where gingham was first woven) and take the D767 northwest to Lannion. Lannion is an attractive town beside the fast-flowing River Léguer with some fine medieval houses at its center, near the Place Général Leclerc. Follow signposts for Perros Guirec then Trébeurden, an attractive seaside resort with a small sheltered harbor separated from a curve of sandy beach by a wooded peninsula. Make your way back to Lannion along the beautiful stretch of coast and take the D786 towards Morlaix. At Saint Michel the road traces a vast sandy curve of beach and exposes vistas of succeeding headlands. Just as the road leaves the bay, turn right following signposts for Morlaix par la Côte, which gives you the opportunity to sample another small stretch of very attractive coastline. At Locquirec turn inland through Guimaéc and Lanmeur to regain the D786 to Morlaix.

Morlaix is a central market town whose quays shelter boats that travel the passage inland from the sea. You do not have to deal with city traffic as you follow the N12 (signposted Brest) around the town for a short distance to the D785 (signposted Pleyben Christ), which leads you into the Regional Parc d’Amorique. After the very gray little towns of Pleyben Christ and Plounéour Ménez the scenery becomes more interesting as the road leads you up onto moorlands where rock escarpments jut out from the highest hill. A narrow road winds up to the little chapel high atop Mont Saint Michel (an isolated windswept spot very different from its famous namesake). Return to the D785 for a short distance taking the first right turn to Saint Rivoal, which has a Maison Cornic, a small park with an interesting collection of old Breton houses.

Following signposts for Le Faou, you travel up the escarpment to be rewarded by sky-wide views of the distant coast. Travel through Forêt du Cranou with its majestic oak trees to Le Faou where you continue straight (signposted Crozon). The route hugs the Aulne estuary and offers lovely vistas of houses dotting the far shore, then gives way to wooded fjords before crossing a high bridge and turning away from the coast. At Tar-ar-Groas make an almost 180-degree turn in the center of the village and continue the very pleasant drive following signposts for Douarnenez, a large fishing port that you skirt on the D765 following signposts for Audierne. Pont Croix is built on terraces up from the River Goyen. Leading to the bridge, its photogenic narrow streets are lined with old houses. Audierne is a pretty fishing port on the estuary of the Goyen where fishing boats bring in their harvest of lobsters, crayfish, and tunny.

Your destination is Pointe du Raz, the Land’s End of France. Thankfully it is less commercial than England’s, but it is certainly not isolated. Uniformly sized white holiday cottages dot the landscape and a large café and enormous museum lie at road’s end. If you can ignore the commercialism, you will find the views across the windswept headlands spectacular. This journey is not recommended in the height of summer when roads are congested.

An hour’s drive (60 kilometers on the D784) brings you to the large town of Quimper, set where the Odet and Steir rivers meet. Park by the river, wander the town’s pleasant streets and visit the Musée de la Faience with its displays of attractive regional pottery. (Open mid-Apr to end-Oct, closed Sundays, tel: 02.98.90.12.72.) If the name of Quimper pottery is not familiar, it is, however, likely that you will immediately recognize the endearing figures painted in warm washes of predominantly blues and yellows that are now appreciated and recognized worldwide. The paintings on the pottery depict country folk in the old traditional dress and costume of Brittany.

This itinerary now explores Brittany’s southern coast. The individual towns are very attractive but we were disappointed not to find more scenic countryside between them. Your first stop is Pont L’Abbe, set deep in a sheltered estuary. The squat castle contains a museum, Musée Bigoudin, of costume and furniture, with some fine examples of the tall white lace coifs that Breton women wear on their heads for festivals. (Open Mar to end-Sept) A pleasant park borders the river and the town square has a large covered market.

Cross the high bridge that spans the River Odet and catch a panoramic view of Benodet. If you go into its crowded streets, follow signs for the port, which bring you to its yacht harbor-from here the coast road weaves past sandy bays and holiday hotels to the casino. In summer do not tackle the crowded streets; we recommend that you just admire the town from the bridge.

Ten kilometers away lies Fouesnant, a traditional center for cider production. Its pretty port, La Forêt Fouesnant, with its harbor full of yachts and small arc of golden sand, lies just a few kilometers away. Leaving the village, follow signs for Concarneau par la Côte, which quickly takes you on a scenic back road into town.

Ignore Concarneau‘s bustling town and park by the harbor as close as possible to Ville Close, the 14th-century walled town sitting amidst a vast harbor of colorful boats varying from sleek yachts to commercial fishing trawlers. The old town, with its narrow streets and old houses full of crêperies and gift shops, is fun to explore. Visit the interesting Musée de la Peche, which covers all things nautical inside and has three old fishing boats tied up outside of what was once the town’s arsenal. (Open all year, tel: 02.98.97.10.20.) Climbing the walls gives you good views of the inner harbor where fishing boats unload their catch.

From Concarneau the D783 brings you to Pont Aven, a pretty resort by the River Aven made famous by Gauguin and his school of artists who moved here in the 1890s. Gauguin with his bohemian ways was not popular with the locals and he soon moved on. There are a great many galleries and in summer it’s a colorful and crowded spot.

Turning inland, the D783 brings you to Quimperlé(20 kilometers) where the rivers Ellé and Isole converge to form the Lafta. One of the town’s central streets is cobbled and lined with old houses. From here head through the large town of Hennebont for the 27-kilometer (D9 and D781) drive to the rather dull seaside town of Carnac. In the windswept fields on the edge of town are over 2,700 standing stones (menhirs) arranged in lines (alignements). The stones, believed to have been erected between 4,000 and 2,000 B.C., consist of three groups each arranged in patterns of 10 to 13 rows. The area is somewhat divided by country roads but the site is large enough that you can meander around and enjoy the groupings unhindered by the milling crowds and ticket barriers that impede your enjoyment of the British counterpart, Stonehenge. The Musée de la Prehistoire will help you interpret the stones. (Open all year, tel: 02.97.52.22.04.)

Leaving Carnac, follow signposts to Vannes, the region’s largest city, complete with all the traffic and navigation headaches that plague so many downtown areas. The old walled town surrounding Saint Peter’s Cathedral is delightful. The cathedral was built between the 13th and 19th centuries and has a great mixture of styles. The nearby parliament building has been converted to a covered market for artists, leather workers, metalworkers, and crêperies. There is a maze of old streets with beautiful timbered and gabled houses. Market days are Wednesdays and Saturdays on the Place des Lices.

This section of Brittany with its rocky promontories serves as a dramatic and wonderful base from which to explore Brittany’s rugged south coast before leaving the region.

From Vannes the N165 whisks you around Nantes and onto the A11, which brings you to Angers, a convenient point to join our Châteaux Country itinerary.

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