Travel Family

Friday 21 July 2017

Brittany: Relax in the shade of standing stones

Grande Metairie, Carnac, France

FAMILY FUN: Louise McBride with her son Kelan and daughter Lara share a picnic near the town of Vannes in Brittany
FAMILY FUN: Louise McBride with her son Kelan and daughter Lara share a picnic near the town of Vannes in Brittany
LIFE’S A BEACH: Lara (aged 4) and Kelan Lawlor (aged 2) on Le Men Du beach, Carnac. Crab catching soon became the new game, along with digging water holes and building sand castles
MEMORIAL: The ‘Monument aux Morts’ in the peaceful village of Sainte-Anne-d’Auray is a monument to the 240,000 Bretons killed during World War 1. The names of 8,000 of these men are engraved on the surrounding walls.
Map of France
Standing stones in Carnac
The medieval village of Auray in Brittany
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

Louise McBride and her family take the ferry to France for a family holiday with a difference.

An American Sherman tank was one of the first things we saw after arriving in the ferry port of Roscoff just after sunrise on a beautiful June morning.

With not a soul around, I could almost sense what it must have felt like to live in Brittany when it was occupied by the Germans during World War II. The roads around the ferry port were hushed and still. Houses with closed wooden shutters looked like they had been long abandoned. Old French farmhouses - similar to those used by the French Resistance as hiding places for British and American airmen during the war - stood guiltily in the surrounding landscape.

Of course, there was no fear of running into a soldier or airman on this sunny morning. We had just begun our summer holidays. The sheer quietness of the place was simply down to our near-dawn arrival.

My two young children - now chattering and arguing in the back of the car - cared nothing for the old American tank. This was their first holiday abroad. They had been looking forward to France and the "big boat" for months. They were still full of excitement after the ferry trip from Cork to Roscoff. Nothing could beat looking out the oval cabin windows. The games room was like Aladdin's cave. Not to mention the lift on the ferry - which my four-year-old daughter insisted on going up and down in over and over again. She still refers to the lift as one of the best parts of the holiday.

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LIFE’S A BEACH: Lara (aged 4) and Kelan Lawlor (aged 2) on Le Men Du beach, Carnac. Crab catching soon became the new game, along with digging water holes and building sand castles

Thankfully, there was a lot more to our vacation than the lift on the ferry. We were on our way to Carnac - a small and quaint village in southern Brittany which is famous for its megalithic standing stones. Not only was this our first family trip abroad, it was our first camping holiday with the kids.

It was a two-and-a-half hour drive from Roscoff to La Grande Metairie - the five-star camping resort where we stayed. This resort is brilliant for children - it has playgrounds, a children's disco every night, bikes for hire, a kids club for those aged four and older, pony trekking, and an animal farm. It also has a fenced-off pool with a small water slide for toddlers and young babies; and larger water slides for older children. For those days when the weather is cool, there is a heated indoor pool. There is a supermarket on the resort which is convenient for picking up fresh French bread and pastries in the morning. The resort itself is only a five minute drive from Carnac's larger (and cheaper) Super U, Casino, and Lidl supermarkets.

Our accommodation was a well-equipped three-bed mobile home - so in truth, this was camping without the pain. Having spent my early 20's backpacking around spider-filled Australia in a tiny tent, I was glad to camp in luxury in France - particularly with two young children. The mobile home came with its own oven, barbecue, pots and pans, crockery, fridge freezer, beds, wardrobe, toilet, bathroom, furniture and decking. It even had two sun loungers - a particular hit with my children who turned them into a race track for the miniature Thomas The Tank Engines they had brought with them from Ireland.

There are wonderful beaches nearby. Le Men Du beach was our favourite. This is a small pretty beach which is situated in a natural cove. Locals busy themselves collecting shellfish there. My two-year-old son, initially fussy about getting his feet 'dirty' on the beach, lost all fear of the sand when we caught and released a crab right in front of him. Crab catching became the new game - along with digging water holes and building sand castles.

The attractive village of Carnac is only a short drive from the resort. The more than 3,000 standing stones in Carnac are also on the doorstep of the camp-ground. There are many interesting legends about these stones - including one which describes them as pagan soldiers turned to stone by Pope Cornelius. The meadows and woods near the stones are ideal for walks and picnics. A tourist train also runs from the Musee des Megaliths (which you can walk to from the resort) to Carnac's village and beaches. My two children loved this train - so much so that my toddler son had to be carried off it kicking and screaming at the end of the trip.

Another advantage of Carnac is that it is only a short drive from some towns and villages which are well worth a visit.

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The medieval village of Auray in Brittany

The nearby town of Auray is a picturesque and quaint town with old cobbled streets, and restored houses from the fifteenth and sixteenth century. As its name suggests, the town is built on the river Auray. There is a sailing harbour near the seventeenth century stone bridge at the bottom of the town. We walked uphill from that bridge towards the beautiful Saint Saveur church. This is a steep walk but well worth it for the views you get at the top. This town has a lovely relaxed feel to it - and is a pleasure to walk around. We enjoyed Auray much more than the walled town of Vannes, which is ironically more popular with tourists.

One village which is often overlooked (and wrongly so) is Sainte-Anne-d'Auray. This is a small, relaxed and peaceful village. As its name suggests, the town is named after Saint Anne - the mother of Mary. As well as being famous for its pilgrimages, it has some beautiful buildings including the Basilique Sainte Anne and the 'Monument aux Morts' - a monument to the 240,000 Bretons killed during World War I. The names of 8,000 of these men are engraved on the surrounding walls. The surrounding gardens are colourful and pristine. I'm not a religious person but there was something strangely spiritual about these gardens.

The furthest we ventured for a day trip was Vannes - about a 45-minute drive from Carnac . We found it busy and crowded - and more suited to couples than families with children. Its cobbled streets are narrow and chaotic. It is hard to find the focal point of this town and the medieval buildings which could be so beautiful are eyesores - because of the scaffolding holding them up. We also found Vannes over-priced - a gift we had bought in Sainte-Anne-d'Auray was twice the price here.

There is an aquarium in Vannes which is home to colourful and exotic fish, such as scorpion fish, balloon fish, red piranha, clown fish, damselfish and blacktip reef shark. It also houses a crocodile which was found in the sewers of Paris in 1984. This is a good place to bring children for an hour or so. Although my children were amazed at the fish here, the aquarium is quite small - and in my opinion, slightly overpriced. Still, nothing could beat their reaction to the crocodile. The aquarium also has a climbing wall for children which my two would have spent all day on had we let them.

With everything at your feet in Carnac, there is not much need for more than a couple of day trips - unless the weather is bad. We were incredibly lucky on that score. The sun was shining on the morning we first arrived in France and it was still shining when we left. It was a delight waking up to those sun-filled mornings - with nothing to hear but the birds singing or an occasional early morning cyclist whizzing by.

On the last morning of our holidays, my daughter and I strolled to the supermarket to buy some pains aux chocolat aux amandes (a particular weakness of mine) for breakfast. "This is the best holiday ever," my daughter chirped. "Except... why don't they have swings in the pool?". "Some day maybe," I replied while laughing to myself and remarking on the simplicity and frankness of children.

The ironic thing about this holiday was that my husband and I had decided to go on it because it would be great for our children. This holiday however not only brought out the best in our children - it brought out the best in their parents. This child-centred resort forced my husband and I to slow down and relax - and to look at the world through the eyes of our children. We learned some wonderful lessons in doing so.

My children loved Carnac's standing stones - but they had no interest in how old they were or the history behind them. They enjoyed the simple things in life. Things like racing toy trains up and down sun loungers. Chasing butterflies in meadows. Munching French bread. They simply accepted and enjoyed things as they were. They lived in the moment. That's what Carnac did for us as a family - and I hope we can hold onto it.

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Standing stones in Carnac

GETTING THERE

You can travel on Brittany Ferries (www.brittanyferries.ie, tel: 021 4277801) from Cork to Roscoff in France - which is about a two-and-a-half hour's drive from Carnac.

You can travel on Brittany Ferries (www.brittanyferries.ie, tel: 021 4277801) from Cork to Roscoff in France - which is about a two-and-a-half hour's drive from Carnac.

KelAir Campotel (www.campotel.com, tel: 090 9648750) is an Irish company offering camping holidays in France, Spain and Italy. It offers family packages which include the return ferry trip with Brittany Ferries from Cork to Roscoff in a four-berth cabin, and 12 nights accommodation on a camping site.

KelAir Campotel is offering early booking discounts for those who book their camping holiday for next summer by October 31, 2014. For example, a family of six sailing out to Roscoff on July 11, 2015 will pay €2,698 for the ferry and 12 nights accommodation in a two-bed Mercure mobile home in La Grande Metairie, Carnac, France - down from €2,918.

TAKE THREE

Ferry

Nothing better encapsulates the excitement in the run-up to the holiday than the ferry journey from Ringaskiddy to Roscoff. The ferry was a big adventure for my children. The upper deck was a playground to explore. The cabin - with its bunk beds and oval window - was a magical place. They loved staring out the window at the trawlers and boats going by - and they did their utmost to spot a whale. I felt like a kid myself watching them.

Standing stones

There are more than 3,000 standing stones in Carnac which date from 4,000 BC. The stones are believed to have a religious significance and to have been used as some sort of astronomical observatory. Although the stones are fenced off, it is lovely to walk around them. The surrounding meadows, woods and wheat fields are peaceful and untouched and beautiful in the evening when the sun casts its golden hue over everything.

Auray

The old town of Auray is a pleasure to walk around. Charming restaurants and cafes open out onto the streets. Rue du Petit Port, which is just by the river, is full of restored and pretty medieval houses. The streets leading up to Saint Saveur church, a beautiful church which dates back to the 15th century, are quaint and colourful. You can also walk along Auray's old walls to get spectacular views of the town.

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