Travel

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Charms of Brittany in the rain

Published 10/03/2013|04:00

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Rennes, Medieval Architecture

My memory of Brittany is long, hot, languid days at a campsite near the beautiful village of Dol de Bretagne.

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Like one's memories of childhood, the days were long and sunny, the villages were pretty, decked out in flowers and the shops full of fresh produce. I do remember cooking what I thought was breast of chicken only to discover later that it was rabbit, which didn't bother me but reduced my then four-year-old to tears when I stupidly told her she had been eating bunny all along.

This visit was different, maybe because it was much later in the year – October – and the harvest was over. Both the weather and the lush Brittany I remembered were now quite Irish in attitude, damp in appearance with frequent downpours. Not the sort of weather you want on a short holiday break.

On this trip with the Brittany division of the France Tourism Development Agency 'Atout France', we were covering a lot of ground. Flying into Nantes, taking in the town of Vannes, a boat trip in the gulf of Morbihan and then making our way at a fairly smart pace along the coast before heading for Rennes, the one-time capital of Brittany.

Brittany can have a very French climate, but arrive at the wrong time and you can see why it has more than just a cultural affinity with Ireland; its weather can be similar, too.

Another thing you have to factor in about the French is that they are a loquacious lot. Which is fine, especially when you are looking at a beautifully preserved walled town like Vannes or the leaning half timber-framed houses of Rennes. They go back to medieval times and most of them have been wonderfully preserved, which is a great tribute to the French and their love of their country and their culture.

Ryanair dropped us at Nantes airport and we proceeded at a fair clip to the walled city of Vannes, where it was lashing rain. We had dinner at le Roof, a restaurant on the coast where a group of sailors beside us were tackling a massive urn piled high with all sorts of shellfish, crabs, lobsters, oysters and more exotic stuff, washed down with bottles of white wine. This was a world away from fussy French cuisine; they just lay it out in its natural state and let the food speak for itself.

The following morning we were up and out to meet Bruno Bodard from the Vannes tourist office down on the yacht-lined quays. He took us through the ancient Porte St Vincent gate into the walled city. The winding streets of the old town are beautifully preserved, with merchants' houses now converted into shops and boutiques, bars and restaurants. There are impressive cathedrals and churches but just don't expect too many of them to be open on Monday morning – the French like a lie-in after an arduous weekend.

We then set off to taste an artisan cider at a small plant deep in the countryside and after a glass made our way towards the seaside village of Baden, which reminded me of west Cork, beautiful but unfortunately soggy, and mostly locked up at that time of the year, when presumably the villa owners retreat back to the city.

The French, as seasoned travellers will know, are usually in bed by 10pm – maybe it's all that cultural talk that wears them out – so it was left to the Irish to keep the bar open long after everybody else had gone to bed.

The following day we got deeper into the French countryside to discover the Celtic twilight of Brittany. On the edge of a forest, we came across a partially ruined but quite exotic chateau that has now become the Centre de l'Imaginaire Arthurien.

Half-interpretative centre, half-ruin we got a guided and very detailed explanation of the legend of King Arthur and its connection to this part of the world where the 'Britons', as they call themselves in English, originated.

The setting was excellent and even if some people might consider it a bit nerdy, there is certainly a great interest in that kind of thing, what with Harry Potter and all that.

Then we were off again passing along roads that seemed straight out of an episode of Asterix, with deep forests on one side and rows of standing stones on the other.

We stayed the night at a hotel that was devoted to games – everywhere you looked there were board games. Only the French could think of it .

The following morning, we arrived in Rennes, where the former parliament of Brittany still stands, dominating the town. It was built in 1554 after King Henry II united Brittany with the rest of France. It's well worth a visit for its royal chambers and beautiful decoration and painting.

The citizens of Rennes are very proud of the building, which was extensively damaged on February 4, 1994 after rioting fishermen clashed with the local police and a fire broke out in the roof of the building.

It has since been meticulously restored and, although the parliament is long gone, it remains a working courthouse.

Rennes also has two 'royal' squares, which give it a sense of the grand, but it is the cobbled streets and the old half-timber-framed houses that give Rennes its character.

Tilting over the narrow streets, they are now coffee houses, bars, boutiques and bookshops and seem to bustle with activity, even during the day. At night, they must be delightful.

Our final destination was a pretty little hillside village called La Gacilly, a little over an hour from Rennes. The village hosts an outdoor photographic exhibition every year and every available space was festooned with photographs from all around the world, covering different facets of photography, portraits, nature and culture. It is something the French do so much better than anybody else.

So this is a very different Brittany to the camping holidays I remember. And it is the short weekend breaks that will bring me back to towns like Nantes, Vannes and Rennes. These are not great capital cities, but provincial towns with attitude.

I'll certainly be going back, but I'm aiming for a good long-range weather forecast for Brittany before I call Ryanair.

GETTING THERE

For further information on Brittany go to www.brittany tourism.com.

For information and bookings on Ryanair flights go to www.ryanair. com

Irish Independent

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