In the distant past, prior to the mass introduction of air travel, Brittany was invariably the ‘first holiday destination abroad’ for many British people.
Furthermore, as its name suggests, it was regarded as ‘Little Britain Abroad’.
And, despite the ease of air travel that now exists that makes ‘far flung destinations’ easily accessible, Brittany continues to be a favourite holiday destination with both British people and people from other countries.
With its 750 miles of coastline that encompasses both the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean, Brittany lays claim to coastal resorts of every description.
And while now officially ‘French Terrain’, Brittany remained independent until the 16th century. And its origins were decidedly ‘Celtic’, and it used to be referred to as ‘Little Britain’, with many of its areas having been founded by the Welsh and the Irish.
Furthermore, the ‘Breton’ language continues to be spoken by a number of people, and Welsh speaking visitors claim to have been amazed by the basic similarity of the words that are used.
In fact, many of my North Welsh compatriots maintain that they have been able to converse in Welsh with some of the Breton people.
Estimated to have a population of about 3,000,000, it’s also believed that there are up to about 800,000 Breton-speakers now living in Brittany.
And, on studying a ‘Breton Glossary’, I was amazed at the similarity of the Breton and Welsh words. In fact, in some instances they were absolutely identical…….
It’s claimed too that Brittany’s first appearance in recorded history is as the possible mythical ‘Little Britain’ of King Arthur legends.
With the exception of the Cote d’Azur, the Breton coast is regarded as the most popular summer resort area in France. Divided into two parts, and referred to as Upper Brittany and Lower Brittany, the latter seems to claim pride of place in the coastal holiday stakes – the resort of La Baule in particular being described as having one of the finest beaches in France – being of white sand and six miles in length.
North West of La Baule lies Vannes, described as Southern Britanny’s major tourist town, which is situated at the head of the Gulf of Morbihan. Vannes is said to be a large and thriving community, with a small, old walled town at its centre.
West of Vannes is Auray, which is considered to be well placed for exploring the Gulf of Morbihan, the nearby town of Carnac and the Quiberon Peninsula.
Carnac itself is said to constitute two sectors, namely Carnac-Ville and Carnac-Plage – the latter being the seaside resort, which is considered to be highly popular and attracts many holidaymakers. The seafront is described as being ‘well wooded, with the tree-lined avenues and gardens being a delight’. And it has five beaches in all, which extend for almost three kilometres in length.
Carnac-Ville is famous for its rows of about 2,000 menhirs or ‘standing stones’, referred to as the alignments, that stretch for about four kilometres to the north of the village, and it is claimed ‘constitute the most important prehistoric site in Europe – even predating Knossos, the Pyramids, Stonehenge, and even the Egyptian temples’
One local legend claims that the alignments are Roman Soldiers ‘turned to stone’ by one Pope Cornelius, while another theory claims that the Carnac stones were ‘an observatory for the motions of the moon’.
The ‘standing stones’ have now been fenced off but they are still clearly visible from the far side of the fence.
From Quiberon it is possible to take a 45 minute ferry trip to the island of Belle-Ile, which is described as being ‘large and scenically impressive, with a wild coastline and numerous grottos’. It’s also described as an island of contrasts since it’s said to have a ‘Cote Sauvage’ on its Atlantic coast, while its landward side represents fertile, cultivated terrain.
And visitors to Bell-Ile are encouraged to view the island’s contrasts by travelling around the area. And this can be done by bringing a car across on the ferry service, or by renting a bicycle on arrival at the island.
The first building one sees when one arrives on the island is the Citadelle, previously a prison, and described as being ‘startling in size’, with cellars, underground passages and numerous rooms, dungeons and deserted cells.
The building is believed to have been visited by numerous painters such as Monet and Matisse, and the writers Flaubert and Proust. Alexander Dumas too is presumed to have visited the premises since the death of one of his characters in The Three Musketeers’ is described as having taken place within the confines of the building.
There is also a museum on the island that gives details of its history.
The island’s main town is Le Palais, where the port is based. It also has a second town known as Sauzon, which lies to the west of Le Palais, and is situated beside an estuary. A coastal footpath runs along the length of the island that’s referred to as Cote Sauvage, and it’s near Sauzon that the ‘Grotte de l’Apothicairerie’ can be located. A slippery flight of steps that have been cut into the rock lead down to this grotto. And explorers are warned to be especially careful in making this descent since many people have been known to fall and drown in the sea beneath.
The two much smaller islands of Houat and Hoedic, which also lie within the Gulf of Morbihan can be visited by ferry boat too, although it is not possible to transport any cars to these islands. The island of Houat, it is said, lays claim to some excellent beaches, and it also has two small hotels, while the island of Hoedic has one hotel and a large municipal campsite.
The Gulf of Morbihan also encompasses the southern peninsulas of Presqu’ile de Rhuys and Presqu’ile de Locmariaquer. And the latter lies only a few hundred metres away from both the forme, and Port Navalo. And it’s claimed that this particular peninsula has a ‘micro-climate’ of its own that’s warm enough for the growth of pomegranates, figs and bougainvillea. It also lays claim to Brittany’s only vineyards.
The best beaches, however, are said to be found east of Gildas-de-Rhuys, and these are described as being ‘least crowded, with glittering, gold and silver coloured rocks’.
North of the Gulf of Morbihan one reaches Port-Louis, 12 kilometres east of which a bridge spans the estuary of the River Etel. And from here one can continue until one comes to an islet known as ‘St-Cado’, described as ‘a speck on the water dotted with some white painted houses’.
To reach the island itself one has to cross a narrow little bridge. And the island’s main feature is a 12th century chapel which occupies the site of a previous Romanesque edifice built by St. Cado in the 6th Century. St. Cado himself was Welsh, and he later returned to his native country. He was known as the patron saint of the deaf, and it was believed that anyone with hearing problems could be cured by lying on his stone bed within the chapel. And many Welsh people regularly visit the chapel, which is considered to occupy a particularly pretty spot, and where, it is also said, the sea at low tide forms a fountain behind the chapel building.
Again moving a little way northwards one comes to the harbour-side city of Lorient. Considered to be Brittany’s fourth largest city, Lorient is located just across the estuary from Port-Louis, and it is also situated at the junction of the River Scorff, River Ter, and River Blavet. And opposite its harbour-side lies the island known as Isle de Groix.
While smaller than the island of Belle-Ile, Isle de Groix is said to have some fabulous beaches, and is the ideal day trip destination from Lorient.
It’s claimed the most visitors’ main purpose for coming to Lorient is to attend its ‘Inter-Celtic Festival’ which is a ten day event that’s staged from the first Friday in August to the second Sunday in the same month. Described as the ‘biggest Celtic event in Brittany’, it attracts visitors from all the Celtic countries. And it’s estimated
that more than a quarter of a million people attend the event, which features more than 150 different shows.
Still hugging the coast while northward bound, one comes to Pont-Aven, one of the most southerly resorts of what is known as the South Finistere coast. It was to Pont-Aven that Gaugin came to paint in the 1880s, and it’s claimed that it was here that he produced some of his finest works.
North of Pont-Aven lies Concarneau, which is described as ‘the third most important fishing port in France’. It is also a popular holiday resort. And regarded as one of its greatest assets is a rocky island within its bay known as Ville Close, and which is a well-fortified ‘old city’ that is believed to have been inhabited for about a thousand years. West of Concarneau is Benodet, described as a ‘family resort’. Continuing northwards one comes to Brittany’s oldest city, namely Quimper, which has a medieval quarter, whose most dominant feature is its towering cathedral.
West of Quimper one finally reaches the Pointe du Raz – referred to as the ‘Land’s End of both Finistere and France’. It’s claimed that in the whole of France ‘no creation of nature is more awesome than the Pointe du Raz’.
The 300 foot high Pointe du Raz, with its reefs and cliffs that jut out into the Atlantic Ocean, against which huge waves dash in a constant massive explosion of surf, has been designated a ‘Grande Site Nationale’. Precarious cliff top paths exist that afford sightseers a magnificent view of the dramatic spectacle, but extreme caution is recommended to anyone who undertakes this hazardous walk.
About five miles out at sea from the Pointe du Raz lies the island known as Ile de Sein. Covering less than half a square mile, the island is generally described as being ‘bleak, wind-blown and treeless, and only accessible when the sea is relatively calm’.
While it’s a source of wonder to many that anyone could survive on the island, in actual fact it has been inhabited since prehistoric times.
And in 1940, during World War II, the island earned international fame when its entire male population sailed to England in response to General De Gaulle’s appeal to join the ‘Free French’ there. And when General De Gaulle died in the year 1970 the entire island went into mourning.
More than 300 people continue to live on the island, with sea fishing – primarily for scallops, lobsters and crayfish – being their main source of existence. The island has but one village, but it lays claim to two hotels, which overlook a beach, and both have earned a high reputation for the excellent food that they serve. And ‘bracing walks’ tend to be the major attractions for the tourists who choose to stay on the island.
Back on mainland Brittany, the fishing port of Audierne, which lies southwest of the Pointe du Raz, has a surprisingly sheltered beach known as Ste Evette, and the town is a favourite ‘summer, sun, sand, and beach’ holiday destination.
North east of Audierne one comes to Douarnenez, once a noted fishing port, but with its ‘catch’ having been steadily declining, the town has now ‘redefined itself as a living museum of all matters maritime.’
There are numerous beaches around the town, but while pretty in appearance, swimming here is regarded as dangerous.
Thirty kilometres west of Douarnenez, one comes to ‘The Baie des Trepasses’ – translated as ‘Bay of the Dead’. Its grim name evolves from the shipwrecked bodies that were washed up there in the past. Nevertheless, it’s described as being ‘an attractive spot’, having green meadows and a huge expanse of flat sand, while gigantic waves crash incessantly against the cliffs. And the adjacent rocks, it is claimed, are virtually littered with lighthouses. But it is a favourite venue for windsurfers, and two hotels exist in the vicinity, both of whom lay claim to wonderful views and fabulous seafood.
An isolated coastline road follows a northward route that leads to The Crozon Peninsula – described as ‘a craggy outcrop of land, shaped like a long robed giant with arms outstretched to defend the bay and roadstead’…….
From The Crozon Peninsula one reaches the city of Brest, which is set beside a spectacular harbour known as the ‘Rade de Brest’. Brest has a fifteenth century castle which stands on an impressive looking headland. One of the castle’s towers houses the ‘Musee National de la Marine’, while on the opposite bank the Tour Tanguy is known as the Musee de Vieux. Considered to be Brest’s main attraction, however, is Oceanopolis, which lies east of the city, and is composed of three major aquariums and a 3D Cinema. A tropical Pavilion has also been added to the collection, as well as a Polar Pavilion – featuring polar bears and penguins.
It’s claimed that some tourists spend an entire day on the site, which also includes various restaurants, snack bars and gift stores.
From Brest a road leads to Le Conquet, Brittany’s far western tip, and described as a wonderful place, with a long beach of clean white sand. Le Conquet is a fishing village, and it has a lighthouse known as Porte St. Mathias, which is situated within walking distance of the centre. The lighthouse adjoins the ruins of a Benedictine abbey. And legend has it that the abbey holds the skull of St. Matthew, which was brought there from Ethiopia by local seafarers. And a small exhibition is dedicated to the abbey’s history.
The coast that runs north west from Le Conquet to the resort of Roscoff is considered to be one of the most dramatic sights in the whole of Brittany. Comprising a jagged length of ‘abers’ (namely deep narrow estuaries), the area lays claim to numerous isolated resorts, which include Brignonan-Place, L’Aber-Wrac’h, and L’Aber-Benoit.
The northern resort of Roscoff marks the end of the ‘abers’. Roscoff has a historical past, for it was here that Mary Queen of Scotts landed en route to Paris for her engagement to Francois, son and heir of HenryII of France, and it was here too that Bonnie Prince Charlie landed after being defeated at the Battle of Culloden.
Across the channel from Roscoff lies the Ile De Batz. With no cars being permitted, and with some vast expanses of sandy beaches, the Ile de Batz represents a quiet retreat for family holidays. And the island lays claim to two little hotels and a camping site.
The whole of the northern stretch of the Breton Coast from Tregastel to Brehat has become known as the Cote de Granit Rose, due to the granite boulders that are to be seen in the sea near the Island of Brehat.
And near the resort of Perros-Guirec the pink granite rocks are particularly spectacular. Paimpol on the north coast is considered to be an attractive town and forms part of The Cote de Goelo, where the shoreline becomes wilder and harsher.
The northern resort of St.-Brieuc is the Cote d’Emeraude’s major city, while the next resort of Le Val-Andre, lying to the east, has a vast beach and a huge pedestrian promenade. Then east of Le Val-Andre lies Erquy – which also lays claim to a huge beach.
The north coast’ next resort is the famed Dinard – a former fishing village but now almost a replica of a Cote D’Azur resort with its casino, villas and many social events.
While it draws massive summer crowd, Dinard’s beach itself is said to remain relatively untouched by tourism. East of Dinard one comes to the world famous resort of St. Malo, with its renown citadel. Magnificently preserved, St. Malo is described as being so special that no visit to Brittany would be complete without seeing it. With its massive medieval ramparts overlooking the whole seafront, it is positively unique. The little town itself consists of 65 acres surrounded on four sides by the walls and on three sides by the sea. And it is described as the ‘most visited place in Brittany! Brittany’s capital is Rennes, which lies inland on the northern coast. And it’s claimed that all roads in Brittany eventually lead to Rennes. From Rennes too it is possible to make day-trips to the famous Mont St. Michel. Dinan, with its wonderful citadel, is likewise located inland – between Rennes and St. Malo – and is famous for it many streets of late medieval houses.
Brittany, in fact, would seem to excel in every sphere, be it in the realms of glorious beaches or spectacular cities. And, if one is Welsh speaking, it is fascinating to note the Welsh names that one still sees while touring present day Brittany
Roberta Crookes has worked as a newspaper journalist throughout most of her life, writing news stories, editorial features, advertisement supplements, and reviews. And in the course of her work she has interviewed many famous people from all walks of life. She has also managed to combine parallel careers in both journalism and acting, and, being Welsh speaking from North Wales, her main television featured parts have been Welsh language roles with BBC Wales.